Performing Archive

Curtis as Canvas

Beatrice Schuster, Scripps College

While many Americans don’t know Edward Curtis’ name, they know his work. The images of western Native Americans from Curtis’ 20-volume The North American Indian have become nearly ubiquitous as postcards/refrigerator magnets and online. Iconic and nostalgic, the images have become symbols; they are a canvas onto which viewers project their concerns, beliefs, and values.

The Native American subjects of Curtis’ photos are fodder for all manner of modern appropriations - including those seen in YouTube mashup videos and their comments sections. Using word frequency analysis and some good close reading, I’ve come to see that people are often not talking about Curtis’ subject. Instead, they are often talking about themselves and their social positions vis a vis the idea of the Native American. Going through the comments on the most watched Curtis photography videos, I noticed that users tended to discuss their own race and implication (or lackthereof) in “white people’s” violence against Native Americans. Very few commenters discussed Native American history without invoking the concept of “whiteness,” which is why “white” is the third most commonly used word in comments (behind “people” and “native”).

Commenters with Native American ancestry championed their perceived moral superiority (comments have been reproduced with original grammatical and spelling errors):

What a proud people they were!!! – The White man stole their land and lied and cheated them – I am a white man with some Choctaw blood running through my veins which I am very [proud] of!!! (user balicsuljic).

While those without native bloodlines expressed their remorse:

It’s a shame that my ancestors may have been responsible for the re-settling and murder of so many brave and beautiful Native Americans. Their ignorance and misunderstanding of this gorgeous culture almost brings me to tears. My heart goes out to a strong culture I will probably NEVER be able to fully grasp… (usercalebdye3135).

Some commenters even went so far as to make sweeping (negative) generalizations about “white people”:

Yep theres your Typical White people for ya. They will act like “The Good Guys” and warriors Blah blah blah. when someone wants to fight they will try to con there way out cause white people are dummys LOL! (user DeanShadoww).

dude the white people hurt us so bad it’s still deeply engraved in our subconscious. Lots of natives don’t want anything to do with white people and it’s perfectly understandable” (user cleankiller9).

And, of course, it wouldn’t be a true YouTube comments section without some user arguments erupting. In the case of these videos, many users argued about what constitutes a “pure” native and who “deserves” to live in the United States:

im white and this land is NOT as much our[s] as it is theirs… we are on their land every inch of it” (user LaLyNn231)

it’s our land now bab ;D XDDDD (user John_O).

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