The Literariness of the Curtis Photographs
Cheryl Walker, Scripps College
Though there are surely others, one reason the Curtis photographs have achieved such longevity is their literariness. In their elegance, their gravity, and particularly in their suggestion of a wider (unseen) context, such images give rise to narratives, with both positive and negative consequences. They command attention to native people and their conditions but also distract from those conditions by removing the individual from his or her cultural context, substituting instead something of wonder.
It is possible, for example, to imagine Curtis’ photograph “Hopi Girl” as the inspiration for Louise Erdrich’s character Susy in her story entitled “The Red Convertible” (Love Medicine): “All her hair was in buns around her ears.” It turns out, however, that Susy’s family live in Chicken, Alaska, so the Hopi connection is occluded. Did Susy—who is first encountered in the lower forty-eight—copy her hairstyle from someone else? We don’t know her story. The narrator Lyman simply says: “We were somewhere in Montana, or maybe on the Blood Reserve—it could have been anywhere. Anyway it was where we met the girl."1
Of course that’s the thing about art. Its appeal need not have anything to do with authenticity. Many Indians in the mid-nineteenth century admired Longfellow’s “Hiawatha.” Given Longfellow’s lack of accurate knowledge about Native Americans, it might seem ironic that Simon Pokagon (a turn-of-the-century Pottawattamie writer) was called the Longfellow of his race.2 But the attraction of “Hiawatha” for Native American writers was its lyrical power, not its attention (or inattention) to detail.
Though he messed about with the details, Curtis, who often spent months with the Indians he photographed, was usually careful to identify their tribe and situation. His notes for the picture entitled "Hopi Girl” in Portraits from North American Indian Life (1972) state: “Soft regular features are characteristic of Hopi young women, and no small part of a mother’s time used to be devoted to dressing the hair of her unmarried daughters. The original style is rapidly being abandoned, and the native one-piece dress here illustrated is seldom seen even at the less advanced of the Hopi pueblos.”3
Curtis clearly had a preference for what he called the “less advanced” Native American people and habitats. His camera dwells lovingly on Geronimo’s head scarf and blanket,4 but the photo was taken the day before the famous Indian was to march in the inaugural parade of President Theodore Roosevelt. The photographer preferred to catch his subjects “in a retrospective mood”5 and sometimes staged their presentation. In one compilation of his photographs, he chose to place “The Vanishing Race—Navaho” first in order to make a point. “The thought which this picture is meant to convey is that the Indians as a race, already shorn of their tribal strength and stripped of their primitive dress, are passing into the darkness of an unknown future. Feeling that the picture expresses so much of the thought that inspired the entire work, [I have] chosen it as the first of the series.”6 By that time the narrative of the vanishing Indian had been around for more than 50 years, with Indian writers both refuting and proclaiming it. Because of its sense of urgency, it inspired activism in some quarters, but it also contributed to a fatalistic belief that Indians would not survive, a belief that has turned out to be seriously misguided.7 Since 1900 Indian numbers have actually increased as native peoples change and adapt to modern conditions.
Though Curtis preferred the “primitive,” his photographs have been used to support various stories about Native Americans. In 1971 T. C. McLuhan published Touch the Earth, examples of eloquence from Indian speeches and writings. Accompanying these with Curtis photos, McLuhan’s aim was to bring the wisdom of Native speakers to “the White man.” “We need to establish a right relationship with the land and its resources; otherwise, the destruction of the Indian will be followed by the destruction of nature; and in the destruction of nature will follow the destruction of ourselves."8 These words have great resonance even today, some forty years later. McLuhan ends her introduction by saying: “The pictures in this book were taken by Edward S. Curtis in the early years of this century under the patronage and support of J. Pierpont Morgan and President Roosevelt. Curtis spent many years recording with extraordinary photographic skill a people and a way of life he knew was doomed to extinction."9
And yet, it is important to note that McLuhan’s book also provides a counter-narrative; it too is supported by Curtis’ images. The last section of Touch the Earth—called “If We Surrender, We Die”—includes an extract from Chief Dan George (Salish): “I shall rise again out of the sea; I shall grab the instruments of the white man’s success—his education, his skills, and with these new tools I shall build my race into the proudest segment of your society."10 McLuhan also adds the manifesto of the Indians who occupied the island of Alcatraz in the early 1970s. “We, the native Americans, re-claim the land known as Alcatraz Island in the name of all American Indians by right of discovery."11 On the last page, one of Curtis’ photographs, mistitled “Navaho,” (the correct title is "Out of the Darkness - Navajo"12) shows three Indians on horseback emerging from the shadows. Far from vanishing, they, like the accompanying “Skokomish Woman” and “Nootka Man,” confront us directly, as though to say, we have our own story to tell.
A new edition of Curtis’ work, Sacred Legacy, was published by Simon and Schuster in 2000 with a Forward by Joseph D. Horse Capture, who writes: “In Indian homes all across the country, [Curtis photographs] hang on the walls over fireplaces and dining tables, in living rooms and dens. These priceless images help modern Indian people maintain links with their past.”13 As past, as present, as future--as art (and sometimes as ethnography)—the Curtis photographs are full of meanings. But no one of them sums up all that can be said. It is up to us—all of us, native and non-native alike-- to provide new narratives to explore their force as well as their limitations.