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Curtis and The North American Indian
Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952) and The North American Indian*
By Mick Gidley
Professor of American Literature, School of English, University of Leeds, England
When the Spanish conquistadors appeared on their horizons in the sixteenth century, elders of the Hopi people advanced to greet the soldiers in the belief that the Spaniards were representatives of their long lost white brother. Contacts between whites and Indians like this--together with encounters which proved bloody from the start, such as with the Comanches of the southern plains--brought North American Indian peoples into the consciousness of Europeans, and into the consciousness of those Europeans who, through the formative experiences associated with migration across seas and settlement in strange lands, became white Americans. The whites at once started to mythologize: the Indians who helped the Mayflower settlers survive their first winter in the New World became noble savages, those who threatened Captain John Smith with execution became bloodthirsty villains, and those who exchanged Manhattan Island for a few beads and trinkets became both fools and benefactors. I am, of course, oversimplifying a long and painful history of the construction of what one scholar, Robert Berkhofer, has called "the white man's Indian," a history upon which much important commentary has been produced.
In essence, many different peoples speaking hundreds of distinct languages and living according to a vast variety of cultural patterns in environments ranging from sunken deserts to tropical swamps, from wooded mountains to bone bare plains, were remade into one complex but composite image: the Indian. And during the period of most rapid expansion westwards in the nineteenth century, though particular tribes were singled out for public acknowledgement in that their names--Sioux, Cheyenne, Apache, Nez Percé--became bywords for savage fighting (or, at best, resistance), the individual qualities of the cultures of these and other distinctly different peoples became further fused, subsumed into the one overwhelming myth of the Indian, invariably a painted plainsman about to swoop with bloodcurdling yells onto an unsuspecting wagon train of sturdy yeomen wanting only to start a new life. Moreover, as all who have watched films and television can testify, such imagery has dominated the mainstream (white) consciousness until very recently.
But when the seeming white brother appeared on the mesas of Arizona in the sixteenth century, the Hopi had been expecting him for hundreds of years. That is, they had an extensive history quite their own, and a corresponding literature. Indeed, all of the Indian peoples--however much the coming of horses and other later imports affected the bases of their cultures--had a history, a religion, a system of government, social customs, handicrafts, and myths and songs of their own which predated the coming of white people among them. Edward Sheriff Curtis' The North American Indian was a truly magnificent effort to record a vast amount of very many of these aboriginal cultures. Published between 1907 and 1930 in twenty volumes of illustrated text and twenty portfolios containing more than seven hundred large-sized photogravures, The North American Indian, which was issued in a very limited edition and sold rather expensively on a subscription basis, contains millions of words: descriptions of homelands; accounts of religious beliefs that some might find strange; accounts of tribal organizations ranging from the aristocratic to the casually democratic; records of ceremonies so subtle in their significance, or so seemingly bizarre, that an alien eyewitness could easily not understand what it all meant; versions of haunting myths, songs and stories; descriptions of domestic chores and of intricate and skilled arts and hunting practices; and heroic tales of arms and men. In short. The North American Indian is a monument in words and pictures to a range of cultures which most white men could not or would not see.
Early Life and Influences
It is also a monument to the zeal and stamina of its primary producer, Edward S. Curtis. Curtis was born in Wisconsin, grew to early manhood near Cordova, Minnesota, and came of age in the environs of Seattle, Washington. The Curtis family, led by Edward's father, Johnson, were part of the great westward migration in search of a better life. In 1855, when Chief Sealth--from whom the city of Seattle took its name--surrendered the Puget Sound region, he is supposed to have said in his address to Governor Isaac Stevens, "When the last Red Men shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the white man, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children's children think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone." During Curtis' youth Seattle was a frontier town, confident, heaving and building, yet still in fact frequented by some few dispossessed Coastal Salish Indians, including Princess Angeline, Chief Sealth's daughter. Seattle was also a port, and the combination of frontier city and the opening to the sea presented the energetic young Curtis, who had already learnt photography, with opportunities for both advancement and travel. He was quick, for example, to follow and report on the hardships which befell the prospectors who joined the gold rush to the Klondike in 1897.
There was much business--and much which held interest--for a Pacific Northwest photographer at the turn of the century, as is evidenced by the rapid growth of portrait studios and the commercial exploitation of the medium by local industries--including, to give just one example, the documentation of logging by Darius Kinsey. By 1892, Curtis was a partner in a portrait and photo-engraving business, and went on to make his own studio, acquired soon afterwards, the portrait venue in the city. His favorite subjects beyond the confines of the studio were Mount Rainier, city scenes, and, increasingly, local Indians. Curtis kept abreast of national, even international, trends in photography--and in the visual arts more generally--and his early writings for Seattle magazines reveal that he absorbed much from Pictorialism in photography, including the example of Alfred Stieglitz, the founder of the Photo-Secession. He took what he had learnt into the field with him, and we can see this even in his depictions of nearby indigenous folk, people Curtis seems to have considered as decadent and lost. They were struggling for survival on the outskirts of the city, many sported their hair short and wore so-called "citizen's dress" rather than traditional costumes, but in Curtis' "picturesque genre studies" of them, they appear still and timeless against the sunset. Several such pictures, including one of Angeline digging clams, began to win prizes in competitions.
In later life Curtis liked to tell a story of how, when out climbing and photographing on Mount Rainier, he rescued a stranded party of travelers that turned out to be a group of leading scientists. It is more likely that the rescue, if such it was, took place during one of the expeditions he led for the Mazamas, a Portland-based mountaineering club. Among the group was George Bird Grinnell, editor of the sporting journal Forest and Stream who was also an authority on Indians. It was probably through Grinnell, who befriended him, that Curtis was appointed Official Photographer to the Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899. Curtis had had very little formal education, so he assimilated much from the evening ship-board lectures delivered during the voyage. In the course of this survey of the Alaskan coast, though Curtis was impressed by the leader, C. Hart Merriam, and by the conservationist John Muir, the influence on him of Grinnell deepened and he agreed to accompany the older man on his annual visit to the Piegan people of Montana the following year.
In the course of the Sun Dance ceremonies--rituals of pain willingly suffered "for strength and visions"--that he witnessed during the visit, Curtis appears to have experienced a sense of mystical communion with the Indians, and out of it, together with Grinnell's tutelage and further experience in the Southwest, came his developing conception of a comprehensive written and photographic record of the most important Indian peoples west of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers who still, as he later put it, retained "to a considerable degree their primitive customs and traditions." Curtis seems to have held to a varying but always paradoxical racial ideology. In part, like most white men of his day, he believed that when measured against the doctrine of "the survival of the fittest" the Indians were revealed as unadaptable, even inferior, and thus he could cast down judgements as if from superiority, as he does, for instance, when he says "no single noble trait redeems the Kwakiutl character." In part, however, he agreed with the established policy of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, that Indians could not survive unless they forfeited traditional lifeways and adapted to the mores of the dominant culture; indeed, they should be made to adapt. Yet again, perhaps because of his aesthetic--even religious--appreciation of the attractions of traditional Indian cultures, Curtis also regretted and elegized the Indians' passing, and chose "The Vanishing Race"--his view of some Navajos entering a canyon, one head turned to look regretfully back--as the keynote picture for The North American Indian. And this complex of views did not remain stable: in later years, partly as a result of stories he heard about California settlers' mistreatment of Indians, Curtis grew to respond to his government's policy towards Indians--which he then saw not as inevitable but chosen--with fierce anger (as may be witnessed in his 1924 preface to Volume 13 of The North American Indian).
In hindsight--in the light of the emergence of pan-Indian political movements (including the American Indian Movement), the vitality of Native American literature and arts, and other subsequent manifestations of what some have termed "Red Consciousness"--Curtis was undoubtedly too pessimistic in feeling that Indians had no definable future as Indians. Like so many others, he simply did not grant that an abiding sense of identity may persist through all sorts of cultural change; indeed, dynamic cultural change, if at variable speeds, is an aspect of the human condition. At the same time, Curtis was certainly correct in his judgement that he was living at a time that was the last possible one for many memories to be recorded (such as those of Hunts to Die, who passed on much Apsaroke or Crow lore for inclusion in The North American Indian) and for many images to be captured by his magic box (such as the faces of figures like Little Wolf and Red Cloud or the celebration of fading ceremonies like that of placating the spirit of a slain eagle). Although married, and with a growing family, Curtis embarked on a task that lasted thirty years, that took him in heat and snow to the remoter regions of a continent, and to which he frequently devoted over seventeen hours a day.
The North American Indian Project
Despite the local success of his studio, popular exhibitions, lantern slide lectures, and contracts for magazine articles, by 1905 Curtis had run out of funds for the expanding Indian "series." But his photographs had attracted national attention. President Theodore Roosevelt employed him to take both his official Inauguration views and his daughter's wedding pictures. Other national figures also patronized him. Then financier J. Pierpont Morgan, out of his virtually uncountable fortune, agreed to subsidize the field work for The North American Indian by granting the capital to set up a company, The North American Indian, Inc. In return, Morgan was to have several sets of the completed work for his own use and Curtis was to take on the task not only of producing the work, but also of selling subscriptions to it. Over time, this arrangement was to prove something of a treadmill for Curtis, but it did enable a major project--perhaps the largest anthropological project ever--to be undertaken. It was always a more collective project than has often been granted. While Curtis was the leader and figurehead, and while the publicity for the enterprise often stressed his personal role as an intrepid Westerner venturing among wild, mysterious, even hostile, peoples, camera and six-gun at the ready, the Morgan money actually enabled a changing team to be created.
Frederick Webb Hodge, one of the period's leading authorities on Indians (he was then compiling the standard Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico, completed in 1910), agreed to edit the volumes. William E. Myers, a former newspaperman, became the single most important recruit. In later years Curtis frequently expressed his indebtedness to Myers' gift for languages and his ethnological assistance, but he did not publicly disclose that Myers was in fact the person responsible for the bulk of both the research and the writing of each succeeding volume of The North American Indian. Other ethnological assistants were employed, including Curtis' nephew by marriage, William Washington Phillips, Edmund A. Schwinke, Edwin J. Dalby and, on Myers' resignation ahead of the final two volumes, Stewart C. Eastwood. The field team of regular assistants was often augmented by valuable Indian helpers, including A. B. Upshaw, a Crow who had been educated at the Carlisle Indian School, George Hunt, who had also worked for Franz Boas and other ethnologists of the Northwest Coast, and such lesser-known figures as Sojero, a Tewa-speaking Pueblo, and Paul Ivanoff, who acted as interpreter among some of the so-called Eskimo groups along the Alaskan coast. President Roosevelt himself wrote a foreword in which he praised Curtis' powers of observation, both of external facts and of what he termed "that strange spiritual and mental life" of his subjects.
It was with such support that Curtis set out to create The North American Indian as a major production. At the same time, he was compelled also to tout for subscriptions on the Eastern seaboard. His extraordinary egotism and ambition for "the work," as he called it, enabled him repeatedly, despite extreme difficulties in selling subscriptions (only 227 were ever sold), to return to the field with optimistic vigor, sometimes accompanied by members of his family, sometimes by such notables as Edmond S. Meany, historian of Washington State, or A. C. Haddon, virtual founder in Britain of anthropology as an academic discipline. He caught thousands of images, mounted an elaborate "musicale" or "picture-opera" at Carnegie Hall and other venues, and even made a film--In the Land of the Head-Hunters (1914)--which in some respects anticipates Robert Flaherty's conception of narrative documentary in Nanook of the North (1920). (In passing, I should say that during the 1920s, in Hollywood, Curtis also took stills for Tarzan films and for Cecil B. de Mille's The Ten Commandments of 1923). Curtis wanted The North American Indian--with its oral histories, detailed tribal summaries, occasional hand-colored pictures, language data, transcriptions of music (which had been recorded on phonographic cylinders)--to be both the most comprehensive compendium possible and to present, in essence, nothing less than the very spirit of the Indian peoples.
Members of the team accordingly consumed quantities of energy and patience on their subjects, spending weeks at a time with them, returning year after year to acquire the information and pictures they needed, persuading them to re-enact ceremonies and events and to let them witness sacred occasions. And this was not just a one-way traffic: while the dominant culture and its servants inevitably have the upper hand in representations of "others"--as the opening remarks here intimated--the subject peoples should not be thought of as mere malleable matter. It is interesting that by now, in the early twenty-first century, we have a number of Native American contributors to the debate on the Curtis project who see a sustaining value in the representations the project produced. Certainly, its creation would not have been possible without a great deal of willing cooperation from many different tribal groups. This does not prevent us acknowledging that sometimes events were not so much re-created as constructed whole--as in the case of the supposed "whale hunt" that Curtis persuaded the Kwakiutl to undertake for the film, to give it, he thought, excitement akin to that provided by contemporary westerns. And, it seems, Curtis himself was sometimes aware of the damage that could be done--and was done--by the celebration of sacred events not for their spiritual purpose but for the camera, and for money.
The final volume of The North American Indian, on Eskimo groups in Alaska, was published in 1930. After this, his health broken by the strain of incessant travel compounded by legal and financial worries consequent upon his earlier divorce, Curtis took an interest in the remnant of his studio that had been relocated to Los Angeles--by then run by his eldest daughter--dabbled in mining, farmed a small-holding in Whittier, dreamed of an expedition to the interior gold mines of South America, wrote (but didn't publish) much memoir material, and in his later years watched his life's work seemingly slide into oblivion.
Representing Indian Life in Words and Pictures
The North American Indian--expensively produced and issued in a severely limited edition over a long period--could not prove popular. But in recent years anthropologists and others, even when they have censured what they have assumed were Curtis' methodological assumptions or quarreled with the text's conclusions, have begun to appreciate the value of the project's achievement: exhibitions have been mounted, anthologies of pictures have been published, and The North American Indian has been increasingly cited in the researches of others. There has been a reprint edition of the entire work, a valuable paperbound reprint of all the large-size photogravures, and there will doubtless be scholarly editions of parts of The North American Indian complete with annotation incorporating the findings of more recent authorities.
The text is rich. Curtis stated that the objective of The North American Indian was to depict "all features of Indian life and environment … the young and the old, with their habitations, industries, ceremonies, games, and everyday customs," and to this list could be added such matters as the history, religion, mythology, and stories of each people. In my opinion it meets the stated objective, and it is written with vigor and--whether descriptive or analytical in kind--considerable flair. On occasion it includes data--linguistic, or ethnographic, or historical--to be found nowhere else. Sometimes its data provide useful qualification or supplementation of other authorities. Always, it has something interesting to tell. Needless to say, the nature of ethnographic investigation and, especially, writing has been a matter of much heated theoretical debate. We have to accept that, in a variety of ways, anthropology does not simply record indigenous people; it constructs them. But I for one am prepared to accept, without too much hesitation, the project's claim that all its data were derived from or checked against what Indians "in the field" told Myers and associates. That is, The North American Indian is not monolithic or merely a monument. It is alive, it speaks, if with several voices, and among those perhaps mingled voices are those of otherwise silent or muted Indian individuals.
Of his own photographs Curtis said, "rather than being designed for mere embellishment," they are "each an illustration of an Indian character or of some vital phase in his existence." Sometimes the relationship of picture to text is direct, as in the portrait of Two Strike, whose "Biographical Sketch" in Volume 3 reads as follows:
Brulé. Born 1821. At the age of twelve he accompanied his first war-party against Pawnee. At thirty-one he led a party against the same tribe and counted coup. Twelve coups, all on Pawnee, and twenty-two battles. Two Pawnee counted coup on him, but the second he killed. Was never wounded. Name changed from Living Bear to Two Strike after unhorsing two Pawnee riding the same animal. After the sixth coup he was declared chief, and, as others died, gradually ascended to the position of head-chief of the Brulés. He never fasted for the purpose of seeing a vision, and had no medicine, but wore a bear's ear "to frighten the enemy."
The photographic portrait of Two Strike cannot, of course, say all of this. But I venture to suggest that, like so many of the other portraits, it does enable the viewer to see Two Strike, in his "vital" old age, as the authoritative figure he must have been. He looks slightly downward, as many of Curtis' elderly subjects do, this vantage accentuating his wistful gaze, but the camera lights and confirms the physical strength of his bone structure and, metaphorically, hints at his inner fortitude.
Truly, the photogravures are never "mere embellishment." The very composition of a famous image like "Cañon de Chelly" has much to tell: without reducing the Cañon's scale or harsh grandeur, the photograph stresses--in that their heads do not break the horizon line--the fact that it is home to the Navajos who transverse its floor. Or, again, in "The Fire Drill" the movement of lines and the play of textures in the foot of the tree, in the Kwakiutl man's apparel, in the twigs in his hair, in the very lines of his face, all betoken that he is as rooted in that land as the tree by which he squats. To be sure, the image is a reconstruction of a process of fire-making made unnecessary by the introduction of safety matches a generation earlier, but it is a clear and accurate reconstruction by someone who knows what he's doing: the spark created by the smaller piece of wood drilled against the larger piece will catch the nearby kindling tinder.
The recording and aesthetic impulses are inextricably expressed to perfection in Curtis' works. When the present-day western person looks at Curtis' view of Kenowun, a Nunivak Eskimo, he or she cannot but be aware that a representative of an "alien" society returns the gaze--the very accoutrements of her culture dangle between, threatening to hinder a relationship. Yet she is seen close up: her essential humanity smiles through. To expand the reader's, the viewer's, vision of humankind by presenting, via words and pictures, Indian peoples in their wondrous varieties: this is the ultimate objective--and achievement--of The North American Indian. For the viewer, the sense of the human family is enhanced. And this is most apparent in Curtis' portraits. The Indians, with no thanks to the governments or dominant groups of the United States and Canada, are not vanishing. But Kenowun, for one, inheritor of a harsh existence and photographed in 1927, is surely dead now. Yet, too, she partakes of immortality in this image. I hope it is not sentimental to suggest that, with such Curtis images before the eyes and in mind, even modern-day western viewers--if in a different sense to that predicted by Chief Sealth's speech--truly will never be "alone" in North America.
*This essay was originally written as the introduction to the first anthology of both words and pictures derived from The North American Indian, The Vanishing Race: Selections from Edward S. Curtis' "The North American Indian" (Newton Abbot: David and Charles, 1976; New York: Taplinger, 1977); it was reprinted, without change, in an edition of the same book published by the University of Washington Press in 1987. I now know a great deal more about the Curtis project than I did when I edited that anthology. For evidence, please see my later study titled Edward S. Curtis and The North American Indian, Incorporated (New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998; paperback, 2000), in which I attempt to give a full and balanced account of the project as a whole, and to assess with more subtlety than is possible in a short essay the nature of the project's contribution to the evolving representation of Native American peoples. Therefore, though I have retained the basic structure of the original introduction, along with very many of the same words, the present essay should be considered, in its own right, as new work. And since, like its predecessor, the present essay is intended for general readers rather than for academics, I have avoided recourse to footnotes. [Details about these and other publications on Curtis and photography of North American Indians are available from my web page at the University of Leeds. Mick Gidley]