Performing Archive

At the Old Well and A Zuni Woman

Ken Gonzales-Day, Scripps College

Curtis published volume sixteen in 1926, and as with many of the volumes, he incorporated images he had shot earlier. The first image, "At the Old Well at Acoma," is beautifully composed and depicts some women collecting water in ceramic vessels. The second image, A Zuni Woman," shows a woman balancing a ceramic vessel on her head, her body wrapped in a dark blanket. Curtis included many images of women with various baskets and vessels balanced on their heads. He writes, “Bowls of food are often thus carried on the head with a woven yucca ring during an intermission in or following a ceremony, when the participants feast.”

In addition to images of daily life, Curtis was particularly interested in trying to photograph Native ceremonies and had made repeated requests for permission to observe and photograph the Snake Dance. After repeated trips, over multiple years, Curtis was eventually allowed, not only to witness the ceremony, but also to participate in it. In 1907, The San Francisco Call reported: 

The real, savage Indian is fast disappearing or becoming metamorphosed into a mere ordinary, uninteresting imitation of the white man. It is probably safe to say that Mr. Curtis knows now more about the real Indians than any other man alive. He has eaten and lived end slept with them. He has been admitted to their councils and taken part in their ceremonies; he has submitted to having a live rattlesnake coiled around his neck, its death dealing fangs within a few inches of his face, in order to take part in the snake dance of the Hopis.

In reading the text, Curtis (or his collaborators), cite earlier historic accounts that suggested the practice of human sacrifice to giant snakes. Snakes that were kept in hidden caves and fed human sacrifices of babies and even full-grown women. A startling contrast to the highly aestheticized images he produced of the Hopi, Zuni, and other Pueblo peoples, he was repeatedly drawn to narratives around human sacrifice and cannibalism as proof the “primitive” ways of Native Americans. Most of these accounts included in the text seem to be taken from earlier explorers and thus come across more than highly speculative and are deeply incongruous with the many images of women, young and old, wandering about picturesque mesas, reflecting pools, babbling brooks, or set again fantastic cubist adobe structures which rise in interlocking stacks, one upon the next. The women are pictured filling water jugs, making pottery, grinding corn, and aside from a single ceramic vessel with a snake design, contradict the “primitive” savagery suggested by the text.

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