Performing Archive


Ken Gonzales-Day, Scripps College

‘Wrapped in his blanket, a bronze enigma – a silent but irreconcilable criticism of our civilization! …They muffle themselves in their blankets and disappear over the edge of the hill into the dark valley. To throw the light of knowledge into that dark valley is the purpose of Mr. Curtis’ work.”
Gustave Kobbe, The San Francisco Call, 1911.

Perhaps no figure better exemplified the image of “the vanishing race” to Curtis in these early years than the image of Geronimo. As in a great many of his Native American portraits, Curtis once again employed the use of a blanket, both as a compositional device to direct the eye, and perhaps to cover any signs of contemporary life that may have been suggested by modern clothing. This image was taken in March 1905 and in his description, Curtis suggests that Geronimo was in a “retrospective mood” as he gazed off --constructed as an aging relic of a people in decline. In the text, Curtis explains that Geronimo was seventy-six years of age when the picture was taken in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, on the day before the inauguration of President Roosevelt. Geronimo had been invited to march in the inaugural parade.

It should be remembered that the first image in the first portfolio of large prints was “the Vanishing Race” and that the second image was Geronimo, who appeared frail and immobile. A monument of Native American history rendered immobile by a blanket which both frames and literally confined his motion.

With the support of President Roosevelt Curtis is given the absolute freedom to enter any reservation he wanted to, with or without invitation. Francis E. Leupp, director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, is quoted as saying Mr. Curtis’ “...careful methods have been such that he is the one historical prospector to whom I have felt justified in giving absolute freedom to move about in the Indian country, wherever he would.” This freedom also reminds us that the reservation was not autonomous state but is more akin to series of colonies managed by the United States government, and as is suggested by the quote, Curtis was given unlimited access “prospect” for human treasures in Native American lands – and to transform their images into both a record, as well as marketable goods.

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