Art of the American West
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Karl Bodmer (Swiss, 1809–1893),
Billie, a Choctaw Man , 1833
watercolor and graphite on paper, 8 3/4 x 6 3/8 in.
Gift of the Enron Art Foundation, 1986.49.332. Photograph © Bruce M. White, 2019
Faces from the Interior: The North American Portraits of Karl Bodmer, is the first Museum project to focus on Bodmer’s watercolor portraits of Indigenous people painted in 1833–34. Numerous Indigenous artists, scholars, and elders from communities that Karl Bodmer and Prince Maximilian visited contributed texts to the exhibition that examine the ongoing challenges and significances of these images of cultural encounter. The exhibition was organized by the Margre H. Durham Center for Western Studies, Joslyn Art Museum, in association with the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Choctaw were the first of the Southeastern tribes forcibly removed to present-day Oklahoma. Bodmer encountered Choctaw refugees in New Orleans, and his portrait of Billie shows the emotional and physical strain of the long trek West. Billie wears a tanned robe, moccasins, knee-high leggings held with finger-weave garters, and a traditional kilt in a pliable material made from mulberry tree bark. His crossed arms and unfocused Eastward gaze express sadness, perhaps seething anger, or dejected surrender. Tshanny stands with dignity, dressed in a turban, shell adornments, leggings, frilled shirt, traditional kilt, and a Southeastern-style “matchcoat.” Fierce warriors and fine statesmen, the Southeastern tribes attempted to coexist with Europeans harmoniously. But, incessant demands for land for the growing cotton trade and the discovery of gold in Georgia gave the U.S. government reasons to ignore the original inhabitants’ needs—to the Nation’s great shame.

Nancy Gillis
Eastern Cherokee and Choctaw descent
Independent historian and retired instructor of
    Native Studies
Former Executive Director, John G. Niehardt
    Historic Site

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