Edmund Curtis

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Tue Apr 24 11:22:04 MDT 2001

Last night PBS aired a fascinating documentary on the photographer Edmund
Curtis who spent over thirty years documenting the American Indian:


Starting in 1906, when he first came across Squamish Indians digging clams
in his native Puget Sound, Curtis made a systematic effort to record first
through the camera, and then with phonograph recordings, Indians in their
"native" context. This meant that the subjects would dress in traditional
buckskins, etc. and would be shown erecting tipis, etc.

His goal was similar to that of his collaborator George Bird Grinnell, who
collected Blackfoot lodge tales. Both saw traditional Indian ways as dying
out *by necessity* and thought that their work would help to keep a part of
the extinct past alive, like dioramas in a museum.

Given this world-view, it was no accident that Curtis would go to Theodore
Roosevelt for funding. Roosevelt symbolized the kind of mortuary nostalgia
for the Indian that was popular back then. Gaining fame through his
Apache-killing skills early in his career, he later on became a "friend of
the Indian" whose ghastly image and words are on display in a memorial in
the foyer of the Museum of Natural History.

Roosevelt directed Curtis to financier J. Pierpont Morgan who decided to
fund the project after reviewing some of the photos after being guaranteed
a share of the profits. Curtis's photo collections, eventually consisting
of 20 volumes, were meant to be sold on subscription basis to the
super-rich. A list of the subscribers was practically identical to a Forbes
100 of the time. Of course, these were the same industrialists who were
responsible for driving the Indians into reservations and stealing their

The documentary included footage of Indian children in residential schools
where they were beaten if they spoke their native tongue. Several Blackfoot
Indians who were victims of these schools were interviewed. Their attitude
toward Curtis was consistent with that expressed by other Indians. Although
they were troubled by his tendency to objectify Indians, they were glad
that images of their past were still available. One Pikanii was shown
making a pipe by hand. He said that his determination to return to
traditional ways was partly inspired by Curtis's photos of his ancestors,
which truly are impressive. I own a paperback edition of his work and truly
enjoy looking at his work, no matter the circumstances in which they were

The only Indian interviewed who would have nothing to do with Curtis's
project was an unnamed Hopi who said that the photos were a travesty. His
only wish is that his ancestors had thrown Curtis off a cliff the way that
they had done to the Spanish in the 1680s.

Curtis's main artistic influence was Alfred Steiglitz who sought to
establish photography as an art. This meant competing with painting on its
own terms, although from what appears to be a generation earlier. The
Steiglitz-Curtis style is reminiscent of mid-19th century painting rather
than the modernism of the WWI era when both photographers were active.
These photos are highly melodramatic, with subjects captured in silhouette
before a setting sun, etc. This lends itself to the kind of
museum-mentality nostalgia that permeated Curtis's work.

Curtis, like many western intellectuals including the Columbia University
shaman-professor Michael Taussig, was alienated from his own culture but
lacked the analytical tools to understand how to change it. This led him to
romanticize Indians. He kept pressing the Hopi to initiate him into their
snake dance rituals, but they resisted him for years. Finally, when they
relented, they refused to allow him to film the more sacred moments.

True Indian culture is constantly being re-invented. If anybody gets a
chance to come to NYC, I urge you to visit the Museum of the American
Indian which is located near the bottom tip of Manhattan. It is curated by
Indians who fully understand how to represent themselves without obligating
the curious "other". Most Indian art today is a creative mix of traditional
and modern and includes sharp satirical views of white ruling society. If
in the future we see a full emancipation of American society, we can
certainly expect Indian values and beliefs to re-emerge. At the very least,
despite its dubious origins, Edmund Curtis's photographs might serve some
useful purpose in re-establishing a link to the past.

Louis Proyect
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