The inscription on this wash drawing is misleading. Miller never traveled to the upper Missouri River. It is, nonetheless, a credible portrait of an Omaha or Osage earthen lodge probably visited by the artist somewhere along the Kansas River. According to Miller, this interior was the sight of a variety of activity, from the sober testimonial of a chief on the left to a laughter-filled game of cards being played by the group in the back. The air was filled with haranguing, laughter and, of course, a lot of smoke.
Peter H. Hassrick
Pawnee Earthen Lodge
The interior of an earth lodge is seen in this painting. The structural framework of poles and the roof’s planking are visible. George Catlin also painted a similar interior view of a Mandan lodge. Since Miller did not go to the upper Missouri, it has been suggested by art historians that Catlin’s work inspired this Miller image. However, the architecture is more consistent with the Pawnee style of earth lodges that Miller would have seen as the rendezvous-bound caravan traveled up the Kansas and Little Blue rivers. Earth lodges were used by Indians along major rivers where permanent Indian villages were practical as opposed to tipi-based Indian tribes that were always on the move.
In 1833, German explorer and naturalist, Prince Maxmilian zu Weid traveled up the Missouri River to Fort Union and recorded his observations of the lifestyle and culture of the native tribes that he encountered along this route. His detailed description of the interior arrangements of an “earth lodge” is illuminating:
“The entrance at the front of the hut could be closed by a door made from a piece of leather stretched on a frame and positioned directly behind the entrance. Behind this obstacle was a long high, transverse wall made of woven willow rods and draped with hides as protection against drafts. A lower wall, only three feet high, partitioned off the right portion of the hut as a stable for horses. The central fire pit was surrounded by the four main posts of the hut and four oblong benches made of basketry and covered with skins. Against the back wall was positioned a bed made as a large square case from parchment or skins with a square entrance.”
In the background of the Miller painting, a group of men appear to be occupied with a popular gambling game. In notes for a similar image, Miller described the game as being akin to “Hunt the Slipper,” likely the game Warren Ferris described as “Hand”:
“The game is played by four persons or more. Betters, provided with small sticks, beat time to a song in which they all join. The players and betters seat themselves opposite to their antagonists, and the game is opened by two players, one of each side, who are provided each with two small bones … they shift from hand to hand, for a few moments with great dexterity, and then hold their closed hands, stretched apart, for their respective opponents to guess in which the true bone is concealed.”
Ferris, Warren A., Life in the Rocky Mountains
Davis, Thomas and Karin Ronnefeldt, People of the First Man
LC: AJM. LR: Indian Lodge on the Upper Missouri
The artist; by descent to Louisa Whyte Norton; [Old Print Shop, New York, NY, 1947]; The Boatmen’s National Bank of St. Louis, MO; Bank of America, New York, NY; present owner, 2013