Ken Gonzales-Day, Scripps College
Alexander Upshaw was an Apsaroke or Crow; he appears here in a feathered war bonnet and wears an elaborate beaded necklace. An identical war bonnet and necklace can be found in another Curtis portrait taken of another Native American man, by the name of “Which Way.” Both images can be found in the Library of Congress online Curtis archive. The photos were also taken against what appears to be the same rocky background and suggests that the photographs were shot sequentially. Suggesting that Curtis reused the same items. In addition, the two compositions are nearly identical, with the exception of their expressions. Alexander Upshaw, who worked for Curtis for nearly four years as a translator and native informant, was paid $100 dollars a month, wore his hair short, had a white wife and three children, and looks rather impatient when his boss finally releases the shutter. Upshaw had been sent to, and attended the Carlyle Indian Industrial School as a child. Male children arriving with long hair would first have their hair shorn, were taught to read and write in English, in what was consciously constructed as forced assimilation. Upshaw also worked as a court translator for the Crow people, and in recognition of their friendship and close working relationship, Curtis took Upshaw with him when he was invited to the White House in 1909.
As David R. M. Beck reminds us, Richard Henry Pratt, the founder of the Carlyle school, was well know for his now widely-cited dictum that the school’s mission was to "kill the Indian and save the man" through “an aggressive policy of forced assimilation...to ‘help’ Indians join what was at the time believed to be the melting pot of American culture and society…Under this policy, communal land holdings were individualized and tribal governments were systematically undercut by federal Indian policy.”
Tragically, according to members of the Crow nation, Upshaw was badly beaten for talking back to some white men in town and left bleeding in a jail cell overnight. There were reports that he was drunk and that he may have had a drinking problem. His body was found the next morning in the bottom of the jail cell, covered in blood, and most accounts simply state that he bled to death in his cell. He was 38 years old.
Gerald Viserner, Emeritus Professor at the University of California, has noted that while posing models was in perfect keeping with the sensibilities of pictorialist fine art photography in the period, with its emphasis on timeless painterly compositions, often drawn from the history of art, frequently combined with alternative toning processes, and with an “atmospheric” blur generated through the use of a shallow depth of field, but that such overtly constructed images were in stark contrast with the ethnologist’s quest for scientific accuracy. The conflict, between the artful shot and scientific objectivity, lie at the center of Curtis’ project, which, perhaps naively, sought to bring these two worlds together. This conflict only increased when Curtis removed or altered unwanted objects from his compositions. Or when, for example, Native dancers reversed the order of a dance or ceremony to protect their sense of the sacred. As Viserner argues:
Surely he was not insensitive to the adversities or natives, but his pictures reveal only the simulations of the vanishing race. He paid natives to pose as warriors at a time when their rights were denied, and their treaties were scorned and evaded by the federal government. Curtis was a dedicated pictorialist, but miscarried the ethics of his situation on reservations. Yes, he was indeed answerable for his time with natives, not by historical revisionism, but because he boldly advanced his career in the presence of native torment and worried hearts.