27 April 2012

Images of early post-contact North America

The two images above are crude photographs of pages from the book at right, Karl Bodmer's America - a huge coffee-table-type art book.  Bodmer was a Swiss artist who traveled to the United States in the 1830s to join an exploration of the Missouri River.

The images are watercolors; the subject matter consists of landscapes and people - the former being views mostly from the surface of the river, and thus somewhat limited in scope, but impressive nevertheless.  The people he depicted were Native Americans in everyday clothing and in full dress-up mode. 

I thought the lower image was particularly interesting for its depiction of what amounts to a "sky burial."  I think I remember seeing reports of that technique having been used by Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest, but I've not heard of it in the central or eastern U.S.

Addendum:  btw, I have oftened wondered to what extent sky burials reflect not philosophy or religion, but simple common sense and practicality.  The image above shows a sky burial in a deep woods; anyone who has ever tried to dig in a woods knows that the top couple feet of soil are a latticework of roots that would have been difficult to cope with in the era before steel tools.  The other place where sky burials are traditional and common is Tibet, where the "ground" is often rock.  


  1. " I think I remember seeing reports of that technique having been used by Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest, but I've not heard of it in the central or eastern U.S."

    Funny, I'd never heard of it in North America. I'd only ever heard of sky burial in places like Tibet, Nepal and the like. And perhaps in some regions of India and Pakistan, too.

    1. I can't find my own post about that (if I wrote one), but I did find this one just now -


  2. I'm surprised you didn't know about sky burials, Stan. I grew up in Wisconsin, and as a kid remember being out in the North woods (mostly on snowmobile trips, when the trees were bare) and seeing the remains of platforms. My dad told me how the Indians would put their dead up on those platforms, and the birds would eat the bodies. Totally fascinating for a little kid, as you might imagine. Images of those platforms are burned into my mind. The instant I saw the painting you posted, I knew exactly what it was. I sort of thought it was common knowledge among people that grew up in rural north midwest areas.

    The top painting also doesn't look so out-of-time to me. Living/working out West (Colorado, Utah), I remember coming across lots of trail markers made out of rocks & skulls -- albeit the skulls were cattle or horse skulls, not Bison.

    Anyway -- thanks for bringing back some great childhood memories!

    1. My summer woods explorations (1950s-60s) were in Cass County, MN, where the local "Chippewa" (Ojibwe) ancient tradition was for ground burial with slight mounds over the site, typically within view of water.

      Near larger towns or communities there were defined graveyards where there were conventional ground burials with sometimes little wooden coffin-like boxes constructed over the gravesite that I understood were empty. If I saw any platforms in trees, I would have ascribed them to deer hunters.

      Interesting to learn. Thanks, anonymous person.

    2. You wouldn't have ascribed these platforms to deer hunters, Stan. The ones I remember were really high up -- higher than in the painting, actually, and not really so much a 'platform' (sorry for using that word, but I can't think of a better one), but something more like in the painting -- a kind of 'support structure'. It was obvious that they were built by somebody for something (e.g. not windfall or eagle nests or weird giant squirrel nests), but if I hadn't been told that they were for bodies, I wouldn't have guessed. That said, the term 'sky burials' fits exactly. I hadn't ever heard that term before reading your post. But yea -- it fits... The platforms I saw were clearly intended to get the body up in air away from the ground in a sort of ceremonial/special way.

      Wow. This is bringing back memories.

      Do you remember ever seeing copper mines, Stan? The North Woods are also full of old Indian copper pit mines.

      Like I said, I thought every kid growing up around there knew this stuff (and I'm not very old - mid 40s). But a lot of my Dad's pals (the guys in the woods with us) were county and state wardens, and my relatives were farmers with a lot of land around there, so maybe we were relatively woodsy and had access to places & knowledge that others didn't. It's funny I never really thought much about the Indians growing up or even now -- certainly not the way they are portrayed by popular culture these days or especially by the weird sort of Native American worshipers that inevitably come from big cities. To me they were always just people who kept to themselves pretty much and whose grandparents left a bunch of old crap around the woods. Not romantic at all. My dad's law enforcement and DNR pals had opinions about the Indians, of course. But I won't share them. Those were racist times.

    3. No native copper in my part of Minnesota, which is closer to the iron range than to any copper deposits. I have been up to the Keweenaw Peninsula in the UP for rockhounding and went into a copper mine there.

  3. I see also that the text of the book (under the pictures) ascribes sky burial to the Assinoboins and Sioux. These are recorded as Northern Great Plains tribes, but were probably originally more Eastern because most tribes/native cultures got pushed West as the Eastern U.S. got Europeanized. Which would put the practice right about where I saw its remnants: Northern Wisconsin/Minnesota.

    Whew! I'd hate to think my dad and his friends were telling me lies out there in the snow and around the campfire.

  4. ummm "early" post-contact??? I would hardly call 1830s, 300+ years after sustained European contact "early".
    Bodmer was a brilliant artist though! I got that book as soon as it was released back 10-15 years ago. His works are THE standard illustrations for several of the Plains-margins tribes like the Mandan.


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