Edward Curtis was a star at the start of his monumental work, "The North American Indian." At the halfway point, his fame had vanished, though his stupendous effort to record the "vanishing Indians" continued. By the time he finished, he lived in obscurity, his work almost forgotten. Today, his work is once again famous, and, more important, is a record for posterity of those who he thought were doomed.
The trajectory of Curtis's fame follows the trajectory of American popular attitudes toward the Indigenous peoples of the continent. The romanticism of the earlier period was coupled with cynical arrogance: Pictures of Indians living the old ways were both beautiful and a sign that the "progress" of the colonial process was inevitable.
By the time the colonists felt they had fully overrun the Indians, Curtis's photographs were passé. Indians were remnants. Despite this—or, more accurately, because of this, Curtis felt impelled to ever-greater effort. He did more than photograph. He recorded songs and language and built word lists and dictionaries, with the help of Indian and non-Indian assistants.
Timothy Egan has detailed all this in his book, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, a biography of Curtis and a history of the immense talent and deep commitment he brought to his project. He began in 1896 with a photo of Kick-is-om-lo, daughter and last-surviving child of Chief See-ahlsh (anglicized to "Seattle"), and continued until 1930, when the final number of a 20-volume set was published.
Along the way, he engaged Teddy Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan and numerous other luminaries of the very American apparatus that was engulfing the Indians. Somehow, he managed to cajole these people into supporting his work. He lived hand-to-mouth for himself, putting all available resources into the exploration of Native communities and recording their life-ways.
Many times, Curtis and Native people were in danger of being shut down by the government, despite the high profiles of Curtis's backers: The ways of life he wanted to record were forbidden by the criminal codes of the various "Indian agencies." A potlatch, for example, or a Bear Medicine man, put him and the Indians in the cross hairs of religious associations trying to eradicate "heathen and pagan" ceremonies.
We may forget sometimes just how blatant the colonial process was, before it was toned down and covered up by such high-sounding phrases as "trust relationship." That toning down also reflected a deeper and more ominous situation: namely, the aftermath of the boarding schools and the ongoing reduction of reservations to dependent status. Over the years of Curtis's work, he was increasingly upset by evidence that the old ways were being eradicated. He resisted taking photographs of the newly Americanized Indians, preferring to ask people to pose in old garb, in stances that showed old ways.
Some critics complained that Curtis was falsifying reality by his insistent emphasis on the old ways. Some people complained that he was perverting the old ways by paying people to pose for his camera. In some instances, Curtis himself acknowledged unease at invading ceremonies that had been kept hidden from outsiders and authorities. But he never wavered from his goal, which was to document what he feared would be lost in life.
Today, we know that Indians have not disappeared. It seems Curtis' fears were unjustified. But that is not entirely the case. In fact, much has been lost, including, crucially, some languages and ceremonies. Here is where the legacy of Curtis' work comes together with the continuing existence of Indians. His work is a resource for those who now aim to maintain, restore and revive Native ways of being in the world.
Egan writes, "When the Makah…set out to revive whale hunting in 1999…, they had trouble finding anyone alive with memory of the practice. They relied on pictures by…Curtis, and the text from [one of his volumes], as a guide to reconstructing the ritual of the hunt."
He also points out that the Hopi used Curtis' work "to build and solidify…teachings, traditions and language. The Hopi found the alphabet and the accompanying song lyrics crucial tools in teaching words that nearly disappeared."
It's a strange and amazing story. The once and now again famous photographer, self-taught ethnographer and outside observer, took upon himself the task of preserving images and sounds of what he feared was disappearing. Today, his works are available in coffee-table editions and in world-class universities and museums. More significant by far, his work is paying off in a way he did not foresee: as a tool for sustenance, survival, and revival of those who were supposed to be gone by now.
A record of the past is a map to the future, proving that Indigenous independence is alive.
Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970. Taught Legal Studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. Consulting attorney on indigenous issues.