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Head Chief of the Iowas

Grade Level: 5–6

Students will learn the history of the Iowa tribe. Each student will then select a different tribe and complete research on the impact of the “Trail of Tears” on this tribe. Using Catlin’s portrait of White Cloud as their inspiration, they will create a self-portrait including symbols and emblems that represent who they are and what they care about.


George Catlin
American, 1796–1872
The White Cloud, Head Chief of the Iowas, 1844/1845
oil on canvas, 71 x 58 cm (27 15/16 x 22 13/16 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Paul Mellon Collection



Curriculum Connections

  • History/Social Studies
  • Language Arts


  • Computers with internet access for student research
  • Writing and drawing materials

Warm-Up Question

What feelings does this portrait evoke for you?


This is a portrait of Mew-hu-she-kaw (also known as White Cloud and No Heart-of-Fear), one of several leaders of the Iowa tribe of American Indians in 1844/1845 when he posed for the American artist George Catlin. By the mid-nineteenth century the Iowas had been moved from their traditional territories in eastern Iowa to a small reservation in southeast Nebraska, forced there by the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

Like a number of treaties before it, the Indian Removal Act sought to resolve the most difficult aspect of the clash between American Indians and European settlers—control of the land. The Indians believed that no one could “own” the land, but U.S. settlers held to the European concept of individual property rights. White settlers, rapidly increasing in number, wanted to acquire land west of the Mississippi where Indians inhabited vast areas.

The Indian Removal Act stripped the Indians of claims to their traditional territories and then failed to protect them on the reservations to which they were assigned. Geographic displacement dealt a huge blow to the Indians’ way of life. Deprived of their hunting lands and related livelihoods, Indian peoples became increasingly impoverished.

Few American Indians spoke or wrote English. Thus, understanding tribal orators (spokesmen) required interpreters, who were not always reliable in their translations. In 1836, after the Iowas had signed several treaties ceding all their claims to historically tribal lands, the Iowa orator Wach’emanyi is reported to have said:

. . . This reduction of [the] Tribe has been mainly caused by their association with, and strict adherence to, their white fathers and brothers to keep their Treaties and the peace with all Nations. It is a notorious fact that they have stood like squaws, with their Bows unstrung, and scalping knives and tomahawks buried; with the peace pipe in their hands until they have been killed or destroyed. . . . Search at the mouth of the Upper Ioway River, they see their dirt lodges or Houses, the Mounds and remains of which are all plain to be seen . . . the existence of which no Nation can deny. . . .

Speech attributed to Wach’emanyi, Orator of the Iowas (1836)

Wach’emanyi’s speech was delivered during the decade when American artist George Catlin traveled among and documented the tribes of North America (1830–1836). Catlin had turned from a career in law to become an artist. He had a long-standing interest in American Indians, having heard stories of their exploits as a boy growing up in Pennsylvania. Catlin’s pictorial record of the Indians is vast: the National Gallery alone has over 350 of his paintings—including portraits, hunting and ceremonial scenes, and landscapes.

Slideshow: George Catlin at the National Gallery of Art

In 1832, Catlin first encountered and painted a number of images of the Iowa tribe. At that time, the Iowa numbered about fourteen hundred and White Cloud’s father, also known as White Cloud, was among their chiefs. The senior White Cloud signed peace treaties with the U.S. government that led to the tribe’s eviction from its Iowa lands. By the time Catlin painted the young White Cloud’s portrait in 1844/1845, the Iowas had been reduced to approximately 470 people.

White Cloud’s portrait was painted in London, where he had gone to seek financial support for his struggling tribe. Catlin had established an “Indian gallery” there to show his large collection of paintings and native American artifacts. White Cloud and thirteen other Iowas traveled to Europe in 1844 and spent a year performing native dances and demonstrating tribal customs for gallery visitors. Catlin’s portrait of White Cloud includes many details that signify Iowa identity. Tribal headgear was often, as here, made of deer’s tail (dyed vermilion red) and eagle’s quills. Beneath it, a fur turban (possibly otter) was also worn. The red paint and green lines on White Cloud’s face are consistent with the Iowas’ extensive use of face painting. White Cloud’s bear claw necklace, strands of beads and tubes carved from conch shells in multipierced ears, and large seashell strung at the throat, are all typical Iowa adornment.

Catlin admired the Indian people. He painted White Cloud and other American Indians as figures exhibiting dignity and pride. Catlin expressed these qualities by making White Cloud’s figure large against the sky, and by including details of costume that symbolize the chief’s rank and achievement as an Iowa.

Guided Practice

  • Why did the United States pass the Indian Removal Act of 1830 to move American Indians west of the Mississippi? If you were a member of the Iowa nation, how would you have felt about moving? What was Wach’emanyi reported to have said about why the Iowas didn’t want to leave their land? (Their lodges and burial grounds were there.)
  • Andrew Jackson was president of the United States when the Indian Removal Act was passed. If you had been president then, how might you have handled the desire of settlers for lands occupied by American Indians?
  • In order to record tribal customs and individuals, Catlin painted them. There have been many inventions since that are faster than painting for documenting things. What technology would you use today to record people and daily activities? (Camera, video recorder, etc.)
  • What did you learn about the nineteenth century through this painting and reading?


In late 1838, the United States Army forced the last group of Cherokees off their lands. The Cherokee people traveled more than eight hundred miles on foot from North Carolina and Georgia through Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas. More than four thousand people died of cold, disease, and lack of food during the 116-day journey called by the Cherokees the “Trail Where They Cried.” Other Native Americans were marched at gunpoint as well. Have students research the effects of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 on the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Cree, Seminole, Mohawk, or another tribe. Where did the tribe live originally? What was life like before they were forced to leave their land? Where were they relocated? How did daily life change in their new homes? An online search of “Trail of Tears” yields many appropriate sites to begin research. Ask students to write their findings in one or two short paragraphs, illustrate them, and share them with the class. Class writings and drawings can be posted together on a bulletin board.


The American Indians adorned themselves with decoration to indicate their identity and status. People around the world do the same thing today. What do we use to distinguish ourselves as members of various groups or clubs? (Medals, badges, uniforms, t-shirts, color coding, rings, ribbons.) Students will complete a portrait of themselves including symbols and emblems that represent who they are and what they care about.

National Core Arts Standards

VA:Cn11.1.5 Identify how art is used to inform or change beliefs, values, or behaviors of an individual or society.

VA:Cr2.3.5 Identify, describe, and visually document places and/or objects of personal significance.

VA:Re7.2.5 Identify and analyze cultural associations suggested by visual imagery.

Search the online collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian or explore resources for teachers and students

Borrow the teaching packet Art&

Download or borrow the teaching packet The Inquiring Eye: American Painting

Learn more about George Catlin through this interactive feature

Download a family-oriented guide about Thomas Moran and George Catlin's depictions of the American West