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.