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White Cloud: A Hero to His People

Grade Level: 5–6

Students will learn about White Cloud, one of the chiefs of the Iowa people who attempted to raise money for his tribe after losing their land. Through discussion and research, students will write a journal entry from the standpoint of a hero/heroine in their lives and then present to the class as if they were this person.


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
  • Performing Arts


  • Computers with internet access for student research
  • Writing materials
  • Costumes and props

Warm-Up Question

Compare the size of White Cloud’s figure to the rest of the painting. Why might Catlin have made the figure of White Cloud large and the only object in the painting?


Mew-hu-she-kaw, known both as White Cloud and No Heart-of-Fear, was one of several tribal chiefs of the Iowa people in the mid-nineteenth century. His father, also named White Cloud, had been a tribal chief before him. By the time this portrait of the younger White Cloud was painted in 1844/1845, the Iowa population had dwindled from fourteen hundred to about 470 people. Treaties, some signed by the senior White Cloud, and laws passed to promote America’s westward expansion had forced the Iowa people from their traditional territories on the plains of eastern Iowa to a small reservation in southeast Nebraska. Missionaries tried to convert the Iowas to Christianity and teach them farming, contrary to the tribe’s traditional beliefs and customs. Deprived of their hunting lands and related livelihood, the Iowas became increasingly impoverished.

At this time of great crisis, White Cloud decided to raise money for the tribe by taking a small group of his people to London around 1844–1845. There the American artist George Catlin had opened an exhibition of his large collection of paintings and artifacts representing American Indians. A decade earlier, Catlin had traveled across the American West, recording images of American Indian life and customs (see slideshow below for more works of art by Catlin in the National Gallery of Art). In Iowa territory, he visited with White Cloud’s father. Knowing Catlin’s sympathy for American Indian life and ways, the younger White Cloud hoped that he could raise money by performing within Catlin’s exhibition. White Cloud and thirteen other Iowas wore their native costumes and performed tribal dances at Catlin’s gallery and met with British dignitaries while touring London.

Slideshow: George Catlin at the National Gallery of Art

This portrait reflects White Cloud’s stature within the Iowa tribe and his brave nature. He wears a white wolf skin over the shoulders of his deerskin shirt, strands of beads and carved conch shell tubes in his multi-pierced ears, and a headdress of deer’s tail (dyed vermillion red) and eagle’s quills above a fur (possibly otter) turban. His face is painted red and marked with green handprints. The Iowas’ traditional dress for men included such adornments. The bear-claw necklace White Cloud wears may testify to his skill as a hunter; it was reserved for those who earned success as hunters or warriors. Look closely at White Cloud’s expression. Perhaps his resolute gaze is the most direct clue to his bravery. For he crossed the Atlantic to save his tribal culture even after Iowa land and livelihood had been deeply eroded by the politics of expansionism.

Guided Practice

  • From what you’ve heard about White Cloud in this lesson and learned from looking at his portrait, why might he be considered heroic? (A chief of the Iowa nation, powerful hunter, one who sought support for his tribe.) What character traits do you think he possessed? (Leadership, bravery, strength.)
  • Many American Indian names are related to nature. This man was known by the names White Cloud and No Heart-of-Fear. What could these names mean?
  • If you were having your portrait painted and wanted to impress viewers with your strength or skill, how might you adorn yourself? What about a headdress or hat? What could you paint on your face to indicate your strength?


White Cloud was a hero to many. Ask students if they have a hero/heroine in their life? It may be someone in their family, school, or neighborhood or they may also respect athletes, musicians, activists, dancers, scientists, writers, etc. Ask students to pick their favorite hero/heroine and research his or her life. Students should describe their hero/heroine’s achievements in the form of a journal entry. The journal entry can recount an imaginary day in the life of the hero/heroine or retell a particular action he or she performed.


Students will then present the entry as if they were the hero/heroine talking about his or her life. Encourage students to dress up and use props to bring the figure to life.

National Core Arts Standards

VA:Re7.1.5 Compare one's own interpretation of a work of art with the interpretation of others.

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

VA:Re8.1.5 Interpret art by analyzing characteristics of form and structure, contextual information, subject matter, visual elements, and use of media to identify ideas and mood conveyed.

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&

See more about George Catlin through this interactive feature

Research more heroes and heroines—artists, environmentalists, lifesavers, animals, peacemakers, poets, etc.—at the MY HERO Project

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