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Vanishing Race and Cañon de Chelly
Page 3 of Visualizing the "Vanishing Race"
Ken Gonzales-Day, Scripps College
[T]he view that America's continental "Manifest Destiny" was successfully completed in geographic terms, that the "frontier" had been closed by Euro-American expansion into every part of this nation; and 2) Social Darwinism, which posited that cultures battled with each other in an evolutionary contest in which one was destined to triumph and the other to fade into extinction. This theory dovetailed both with demographic evidence, embodied in a precipitous drop in Native populations, and with the federal policy of forced assimilation, which even most supporters of Indian people believed to be the only hope for Indian survival in the new century. In popular terms, these views were reinforced in wild west shows, world fairs, art, literature and a variety of other venues, all of which helped lay the foundations for the American public's long-standing misinterpretation of American Indians.Many of the subjects and Native American peoples selected to be included in the twenty volumes of The North American Indian were located, or had been relocated, to areas west of the Mississippi river. Many of the traditions, spiritual practices, and modes of dress that Curtis photographed, were already a thing of the past, prohibited by the U.S. government, or had already been transformed by the communities themselves. For example, the Sun Dance was outlawed by the federal government just a few years after Curtis had witnessed the ceremony with Grinnell in Montana. In many cases Curtis encouraged his models to stage, restage, or perform dances or ceremonies out of season and out of context, but Curtis believed that performing for the camera could serve as a way of preserving cultural traditions while there was still a living memory of them. In his own caption to “The Vanishing Race,” Curtis wrote: “The thought which this picture is meant to convey is that the Indians as a race, already shorn in 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, the author has chosen it as the first of the series.” As David R. M. Beck reminds us in “The Myth of the Vanishing Race,” that Native American populations continued to decline throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He writes, “violence and disease caused some tribal communities to lose as much as ninety percent of their member populations.” Begun at first contact, compounded by the repeated use of disease filled blankets as gifts, and other methods of transmission, eastern tribes were slowly forced to move or relocate to areas west of the Mississippi. Beck concludes that as “wave after wave of disease hit ... All in all, a land that may well have held seven to ten million American Indians at the time of Columbus's arrival contained approximately a quarter of a million by 1900.” In addition to the images, with their highly suggestive titles, Curtis’ promoted the popular conception of the “vanishing race” on a more nuanced level as well. Curtis consciously chose to print all of the photographic images in The North American Indian as photogravures instead of halftone printing, which was already widely available in commercial printing by the beginning of the twentieth century. For those not familiar with the process of halftone printing, it simply required adding a screen over a continuous tone image, like a photograph, and by blocking some of the light, the screen would reduce what had been an infinite number of grey tones down to a series of solid dots of different sizes, and was the same method once used in newspapers and comic books. By the time it is completed, The North American Indian will include over 2228 individually printed photogravure illustrations, and it is Curtis’ insistence on such a labor intensive process that will dramatically increase the time and cost of printing each volume. It is the one decision that will ultimately be both the projects greatest strength for the unique record he creates and its greatest weakness, causing financial hardships for himself, his family, and the many assistants, editors, and workers who often went long stretches without being paid. In 1905, The New York Tribune Illustrated Supplement ran a short article on Curtis stating that he “…has many rare pictures of striking features of some of the most secret and sacred Indian ceremonies. In obtaining these pictures Mr. Curtis has oftentimes risked life and limb…”In a way the passage reveals a tension that will run throughout The Native American Indian; the tension between, his sincere interest in photographing and recording aspects of Native Americans culture, beliefs, and people, and his more pressing desire to capitalize on a subject that he hoped would have lasting commercial and popular appeal. The photogravure process clearly created a visual metaphor for the “vanishing race”, but it also undermined the financial feasibility of the project.