[Wi-Jun-Jon. The Pigeon’s Egg Head.], 1844
Toned lithograph with applied watercolor
Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas
Through his art and writings, George Catlin devoted his life to preserving knowledge of the American Indian. He expressed his displeasure at the impact of Anglo civilization on these indigenous peoples with whom he had lived from 1829 to 1838. This print, a double portrait, illustrates a story Catlin recorded about a young Assiniboine chief named Wi-Jun-Jon (interpreted by Catlin as "The Pigeon's Egg Head," but properly translated as "The Light").
Catlin first drew Wi-Jun-Jon in 1832 when the Indian was in St. Louis with other tribal delegates en route to the Capitol in Washington, D.C. (visible on the left side of the print). Catlin depicted him in his native dress of leggings and shirt of mountain goat skin decorated with porcupine quills and locks of scalps, taken from his enemies' heads. In the portrait on the right, the artist ridiculed the Assiniboine's assumption of Anglo manners and attire.
George Catlin (1796–1872) was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. After a brief career as a lawyer, he produced two major collections of paintings of American Indians and published a series of books chronicling his travels among the native peoples of North, Central, and South America. Catlin set out to record the appearance and customs of American Indians—who he believed were a "vanishing race”after his interest was sparked by a visiting American Indian delegation in Philadelphia. In 1830, he began his journey by accompanying General William Clark (1770–1838) on a diplomatic mission up the Mississippi River into American Indian territory. St. Louis became Catlin's base of operations for five trips he took between 1830 and 1836, eventually visiting fifty tribes. When Catlin returned east in 1838, he assembled his paintings and artifacts into his Indian Gallery and delivered public lectures about his personal experiences among the American Indians. The Indian Gallery traveled to major cities like Cincinnati, New York, and Pittsburgh, but it did not attract the paying public Catlin financially needed. His dream was to sell his Indian Gallery to the U.S. government, and when he was unsuccessful, he was forced to sell the works due to personal debts in 1852. Catlin spent the last twenty years of his life trying to recreate his collection.