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Forgotten book by George Catlin

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  • Forgotten book by George Catlin

    Catlin's Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of North American Indians is, of course, well known.

    This book, however, is new to me. He wrote one that was apparently in print for many many years called Shut Your Mouth. It's mostly about his belief that much of the difference between the health of the Indians and the health of city-dwellers was down to habits of "mouth breathing". We might wonder what's the cause and what's the effect here - do "mouth breathers" breathe as they do not out of habit, but because their airways and very skulls are underdeveloped, owing to poor diets that lack sufficient quantities of essential minerals and vitamins? However that may be, much of what Catlin writes here is of interest as being from an articulate witness of a now-dead way of life.

    Here are some significant excerpts:

    As to the melancholy proportions of deaths of children in civilized communities already given, there is certainly no parallel to it to be found amongst the North or South American Tribes, where they are living according to their primitive modes; nor do I believe that a similar mortality can be found amongst the children of any aboriginal race on any part of the globe. ...

    Amongst the Tribe of Mandans, on the upper Missouri, a Tribe of 9000, and living entirely in their primitive state, I learned from the Chiefs, that the death of a child under the age of 10 years was a very unusual occurrence; and from an examination of the dead bodies in their Cemetery, at the back of their Village, which were enveloped in skins, and resting separately on little scaffolds of poles erected on the prairies, amongst some 150 of such, I could discover but the embalmments of eleven children, which strongly corroborated in my mind the statements made to me by the Chiefs, as to the unfrequency of the deaths of children under the age above- mentioned; and which I found still further, if not more strongly, corroborated in the collection of human Skulls preserved and lying on the ground underneath the scaffolds.

    By the custom peculiar to this tribe, when the scaffolds decay, on which the bodies rest, and fall to the ground, the skulls, which are bleached, are carefully and superstitiously preserved in several large circles on the ground; and amongst several hundreds of these skulls, I was forcibly struck with the almost incredibly small proportion of crania of children; and even more so, in the 'almost unexceptional completeness and soundness (and total absence of malformation) of their beautiful sets of teeth, of all ages, which are scrupulously kept together, by the lower jaws being attached to the other ones of the head.

    In this Tribe of 2000, I learned also from the Chiefs, that there was not an instance of Idiocy or Lunacy- of Crooked Spine (or hunch-back), of Deaf and Dumb, or of other deformity of a disabling kind. ...

    Amongst two millions of these wild people whom I have visited, I never saw or heard of a Hunch-back (crooked spine), though my inquiries were made in every Tribe; nor did I ever see an Idiot or Lunatic amongst them, though I heard of some three or four, during my travels, and perhaps of as many Deaf and Dumb. ...

    Shar-re-tar-rushe, an aged and venerable Chief of the Pawnee-Picts, a powerful Tribe living on the headwaters of the Arkansas River, at the base of the Rocky Mountains, told me in answer to questions, 'we very seldom lose a small child--none of our women have ever died in childbirth--they have no medical attendance on these occasions--we have no Idiots or Lunatics - -nor any Deaf and Dumb, or Hunch-backs, and our children never die in teething.'

    This Tribe I found living entirely in their primitive state; their food, Buffalo flesh and Maize, or Indian corn. ...

    Cler-mont, Chief of the Osages, replied to my questions, ' Before my people began to use "fire-water," it was a very unusual thing for any of our women to lose their children; but I am sorry to say that we lose a great many of them now; we have no Fools (Idiots), no Deaf and Dumb, and no Hunch-backs our women never die in childbirth nor have dead children.' ...
    And so it goes on.

    Catlin adds:

    The above, which are but a very few of the numerous estimates which I have gathered, when compared with the statistics of premature deaths and mental and physical deformities in civilized communities, form a contrast so striking between the sanitary conditions of the two Races, who are born the same, and whose terms of natural life are intended to be equal, as plainly to show, that through the vale of their existence, in Civilized Races, there must be some hidden cause of disease not yet sufficiently appreciated, and which the Materia Medica has not effectually reached.
    Anyway, if your appetite is whetted - someone's put the text online, and here it is:

  • #2
    Interesting read, Thanks. I down loaded the PDF and will read in-toto later.
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