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Edward Curtis & Native American Photography
September 20, 2005 8:44 AM   Subscribe

Selling the American Indian: The controversial work of Edward S. Curtis
posted by .kobayashi. (21 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
Nice post.
Thanks, .kobayashi..
posted by Floydd at 9:47 AM on September 20, 2005


What I found on Indian reservations was a tremendous variety of responses to Curtis' photographs. Most people loved seeing pictures of their ancestors. It was interesting that, when telling stories about them, they nearly always talked about their departed ancestors in the present tense as if they were still here, and referred to them as relatives, not ancestors. Some people did say that their grandparents had feared the camera, believing that a part of them remained in the photograph. When these pictures did come back to families and to the reservations where they were taken, through the efforts of tribal cultural preservation offices or of researchers, they have usually been welcomed as though the ancestors were coming home. However, in my travels, I found that some Indian people did not welcome them. One Blood Indian man threatened to confiscate the Curtis pictures I showed him, saying they should never have been taken, that the people in them should be allowed to go on into the other world, and that their souls should not be held captive in photographs.

Really interesting. Goes to show (again) that it's wrong to assume that there's one unified "Indian" opinion or an easy answer about what to do with these cultural artifacts.
posted by footnote at 9:59 AM on September 20, 2005


Very nice post, thanks.
posted by OmieWise at 10:20 AM on September 20, 2005


I grew up between the Navajo and Zuni reservations, and these photos are everywhere. Well, everywhere the tourists congregate. On the reservation, I never saw anyone hang a photograph as a work of art. hm.

I wasn't aware of the staggering volume of his work, so thanks for the links, .kobayashi.
posted by whatnot at 10:25 AM on September 20, 2005


One would think that a huge mistake (Labeling the people of the "New World" as Indians) would have been fixed as soon as it was realized, but No, it hasn't. I don't like it when they refer to Native Americans, and other native groups in South America as "Indians". Stop calling them Indians!

Real Indians are the ones from South Asia/India, or people of Indian descent, also referred to as East Indians.
posted by ArunK at 11:09 AM on September 20, 2005


actually, ArunK, many american tribes don't like the term Native American, either. it suggests that America (the political organization) existed before before those native to the land.

there's the misnamed "Indian", based on Columbus thinking he had reached India (although, wasn't India called Hindustan, back in 1492?). but there are other records of Columbus's trip, where he calls the natives "In (or is it En?) Dios" ... with God ... which morphed into "Indian." in that way, the word has a second meaning, although invested with European noble savage tones.

who knows what the real story is, 513 years later. perhaps everyone should take the time to learn which tribal nation someone is from, and use that term.
posted by aieou at 11:45 AM on September 20, 2005


Most of the Native Americans I know prefer to be called Indians. When I need to be clearer, I just say "American Indians."
posted by whatnot at 11:46 AM on September 20, 2005


Great post! I am actually working on a book right now about Curtis and the Indians of the Pacific Northwest.

Curtis is by miles the most important single figure in defining our popular perceptions of American Indians, and his influence is mostly insidious. Curtis was a great artist, but his Indian photographs are terrible ethnography. He put wigs on Indians, dressed them in the wrong costumes, and portrayed them as feeble and doomed. The linked American Masters website only begins to explore this issues. Unfortunately, most of the scholars who have studied Curtis become besotted with his artistry and end up pulling their critical punches.

Fortunately there is another source of Indian photographs from Curtis' time--studio photographs where the Indians had some control over their production. By searching the Northwest Digital Archives you can find studio portraits like this and this, that show Indians successfully adapting to the new century while retaining elements of their traditions, a sharp contrast to Curtis' portraits of doomed old men and women.
posted by LarryC at 11:46 AM on September 20, 2005


Also, for more on the subject, Philip Deloria's book, Playing Indian, is a must read:

"At the Boston Tea Party, colonial rebels played Indian in order to claim an aboriginal American identity. In the nineteenth century, Indian fraternal orders allowed men to rethink the idea of revolution, consolidate national power, and write nationalist literary epics. By the twentieth century, playing Indian helped nervous city dwellers deal with modernist concerns about nature, authenticity, Cold War anxiety, and various forms of relativism. "
posted by aieou at 11:53 AM on September 20, 2005


ArunK: I've noticed from the other perspective that "East Indians" don't much like being called that. My ex is Indian, and she would say, "I'm from India, I'm Indian, there's no east there. North American Indians aren't, and more often than not I've found [in Vancouver] they are First Nations."

Time doesn't seem to be measured in the same way that Europeans do it. A friend of mine was doing First Nations studies here, and one of the really interesting things he found was the concept of time was far removed from what the Europeans had come to live by (and for). He mentioned that one of the pieces he read said that they (can't remember which tribe, specifically) couldn't understand why the European man _had_ to get onto the moon, as they had already done that. Coyote had gone to the moon to do (something), so therefore if he'd been there, so had all the First Nations. In that light, I find it makes sense that 'ancestors' are 'relatives'. After all, they are if you talk about them in the present sense and you learn from them by listening to stories of things that they've done then they can be as alive to you as 'relatives'.
Controversial. Well perhaps, as the European must physically document everything, and this is probably not the case with the First Nations peoples in that extreme. Why document it if we've just done it a short while ago? It's the time concept again.
I think.
I like the site - I'm European. Also I don't mean to make presumptions towards all belief systems of the First Nations, so no offence is offered here, just speculation and fascination. Thanks .kobayashi.
posted by Zack_Replica at 12:05 PM on September 20, 2005


Great contribution, LarryC! It's a better post due to your intervention.
posted by .kobayashi. at 12:09 PM on September 20, 2005


LarryC, that pic of Somkin is great. He looks like he'd be a cool person to know.
posted by small_ruminant at 12:46 PM on September 20, 2005


Thanks. There are tons of very similar pictures, studio portraits commissioned by well-to-do natives, in archives all over the west. The interesting thing is how they almost always include some nod to their native heritage. For women, this is usually a beaded bag. (Portraits of white women from the same era almost never include handbags). The Indians are conciously creating visual portraits that show them as successfully assimilating, but doing it on their own terms. But this narrative was overwhelmed by the more popular "vanishing Indian" image peddled by Curtis, and a thousand others.
posted by LarryC at 1:42 PM on September 20, 2005




January 29, 2003

'The North American Indian by Edward S. Curtis is one of the most significant and controversial representations of traditional American Indian culture ever produced. Issued in a limited edition from 1907-1930, the publication continues to exert a major influence on the image of Indians in popular culture ... Featured here are all of the published photogravure images including over 1500 illustrations bound in the text volumes, along with over 700 portfolio plates. ' All that and a great links page too.
The Curtis Collection is also worth a look.
posted by plep at 8:21 AM PST


One should always make an effort to search for, credit and link to previous posts and discussions on a topic even if new material is added.
posted by y2karl at 3:22 PM on September 20, 2005


Indeed. I love plep's links, both here and on his own page, and wouldn't intentionally step on his toes. Nevertheless, I didn't find any previous discussion when I searched for this. Glad you did, though: there's some great stuff in that previous thread. Me, I'm disappointed that I didn't find the previous link, as I'm all about that sort of shout-out to the past; but since I did give it a try and came up empty, and since the last post is nearly 2 years old, I'm not going to lose any sleep over it.
posted by .kobayashi. at 3:31 PM on September 20, 2005


but since I did give it a try and came up empty...

Odd. I found it via Metafilter Google search window:

"Edward S. Curtis"

But I didn't try "The North American Indian" and that would have worked even better--it would have been only two clicks instead of one click a little scrolling..

Give it a try with Google next time--Google is your friend, on or off site.

You didn't try very hard, in my opinion.
posted by y2karl at 4:16 PM on September 20, 2005


ArunK, i used to correct people on that too... until i moved to a place with a large population of American Indians.

it is preferred, if you know, to identify someone by the tribe, (ex. Anishinaabe (for Ojibwe)). otherwise, First Nations (the closer you are to Canada, this is common). but in common speech, no Native person i know uses "Native American"--they use Indian. i will use Native American more around liberal white people or in a formal speech than i will around Native people.

and i used to think using "Native" instead of Native American wasn't so great either. but it's pretty common here. (northern MN.)
posted by RedEmma at 4:38 PM on September 20, 2005


(although, wasn't India called Hindustan, back in 1492?)

I don't know when the region was officially called India/Hindustan/Bharat, since there was no centralized government. The British use both India/Hindustan when referring to the region.

The word "Indian" is derived from the Indus Rivers name, also known as Sindhu.

"ArunK: I've noticed from the other perspective that "East Indians" don't much like being called that."

I don't like being called this either. I've also heard some people refer to the people of Indian descent in the Caribbean/Trinidad & Tobago/South America etc, as "West Indians".

Whatever the case, I don't think this will change anytime soon. Call them First Nations peoples, Natives, Native Americans or by their tribal names, just stop calling them Indians. That's all.
posted by ArunK at 5:01 PM on September 20, 2005


y2karl: Yes, though it's probably fairer to say that I didn't search very well. I'd added "photography" to the search terms (curtis photography, and later, native american photography), thinking that would be better. Turns out it wasn't: I couldn't find the signal amidst all that noise. Again, thanks for calling our attention to the previous post.

And remember kids: Don't be like me. Train to be a google master. Or you'll have only yourself to blame.
posted by .kobayashi. at 5:16 PM on September 20, 2005


Curtis' work was also discussed recently on the Savage Minds anthropology blog.
posted by box at 7:27 PM on September 20, 2005


There is a very similar history in New Zealand. C F Goldie, a painter, was accused of doing exactly the same things to the Maori race. He often asked his subjects to pose with a dejected look because it was thought at the time [turn of the century] that the Maori were going to die out.

His extraordinary paintings [enter Goldie in search box] are now valued as an important archival record of Maori.
posted by meech at 1:16 AM on September 21, 2005


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