In 1832, George Catlin witnessed a dramatic ritual at Fort Union, two thousand miles northwest of St. Louis. According to the artist, the medicine man began the healing by administering roots and herbs. If this failed, he would try “shaking his frightful rattles, and singing songs of incantation.” Catlin wrote that the medicine man’s clothing often consisted of “the skins of snakes, and frogs, and bats,—-beaks and tows and tails of birds,—-hoofs of deer, goats, and antelopes,” each possessing “anomalies or deformities,” which gave them their healing power. This healer wore the skin of a yellow bear attached with the hides of snakes. Catlin actually owned the costume, and he sometimes wore it to enhance the spectacle of his Indian Gallery.
George Catlin painted ominous, swirling clouds of black smoke that loom out of the distance and drive the Indians before them. The artist was an eyewitness to such terrifying events, and described the fire’s “thunder rumbling as it goes.” But he also wrote that prairie fires made for “some of the most beautiful scenes that are to be witnessed in this country, and also some of the most sublime.”