Performing Archive

The Idea of the Vanishing Race

Ulia Gosart, Independent scholar

Edward S. Curtis was born in 1868 and his work on The North American Indian extends from 1900-1930. Two major ideological currents popular at the moment of Curtis' life and work - Social Darwinism and Manifest Destiny - disposed many early 20th century Americans to think of American Indians as "species" of "Vanishing Race." Many contemporaries of Curtis believed that the rapid decline in native populations, that resulted from the centuries of warfare with the settlers, was not only natural, but inevitable.  

Social Darwinism was a product of social thought of the last quarter of the 19th century.  David R. M. Beck observes that the main premises of the Social Darwinism were set of assumptions that posited cultures in an evolutionary battle, where the strongest (more developed) ones would force those less prone to adapt, toward extinction.2 It gained popularity significantly because it responded to the social and political settings of the U.S. at that moment.

At the turn of the century the U.S. was engaged in a number of domestic and international military expansion campaigns that partook of both of these theoretical narratives. In 1898 United States took the Philippine Islands from Spain and annexed the Hawaiian Islands. In 1899 the U.S. partitioned the Samoan Islands with Germany, and in the 1900 it participated in suppression of the Chinese Boxer Rebellion. The military operations to protect the U.S. interests in South America continued in parallel, especially in Nicaragua, Panama, Haiti and Mexico. Domestically, the advancement of settlers to the lands of American Indians continued. Beginning with the 1830 Indian Removal Act and the following 1851 Indian Appropriations Act (and consequential set of decisions) the military subjugation of Indians, cession of their territories, and forceful removal of American Indians to the territories designated for them by the government, led to further and rapid decline of tribal populations already vulnerable after centuries of war and accompanying the expansion diseases and poverty. According to some estimates Indian population at the moment of 1890-1900 reached its lowest number of 237,000. Alarmed by high mortality of Indians a number of reformers proposed assimilation policies as a way to stop “extinction” of the Indian racial type by means of turning the “uncivilized” American Indians into U.S. citizens. To this end, economic and educational practices were introduced with varied degree of success and often further destruction of native languages, spiritual and economic practices and social structures. 

In this context, Curtis saw his work as an effort to record the last traces of "a people who are rapidly losing the traces of their aboriginal character and who are destined to ultimately become assimilated with the 'superior race'."3 In many ways, Curtis leveraged his "scientific" approach to the problem to bolster a sense of urgency and validity for the Vanishing Race narrative - as far as he was concerned, native peoples and traditions were unlikely to outlive the century. Of course, Curtis was wrong, native cultures continue to thrive despite a long history of repression and exclusion. Nevertheless, Curtis' "Vanishing Race" narrative resonated enough with patrons and subscribers that he was able to fund a 23 year documentary effort. 

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