Last Updated on February 5, 2023
At the turn of the 20th century, American Indians had been forced into small territories and their numbers were dwindling. A prominent Seattle photographer embarked on an ambitious project to document and promote a better understanding of their lives and cultures. Over 30 years, Edward Curtis visited more than 100 tribes from Alaska to New Mexico and California to North Dakota. He took 40,000 photos and chose 2,200 of these to fill the 20-volume set of The North American Indian, along with 4,000 pages of text. He lived in poverty and devoted the prime of his life to this work.
Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of The West, in downtown Scottsdale, has created an engrossing exhibit, “Light and Legacy: The Art and Techniques of Edward S. Curtis,” the largest collection of his work ever gathered. This presentation gives visitors an opportunity to see Curtis’ photographs of North American Indians and learn about the techniques he perfected. It runs through April 30, 2023, and may be the only chance to see this much of his work in one place ever again.
Curtis was known as the “shadow catcher” and you can see why when standing in front of his portraits. He worked to gain the trust of his subjects over weeks or months, sometimes returning year after year so Indigenous people would agree to sit for his camera. He captured the spirit of famous Indians such as Geronimo and Chief Joseph, as well as everyday men, women and children from the tribes he visited.
Some subjects stare straight into the camera with a look of independence and defiance, perhaps with a feeling of loss and sadness. In a profile shot of Geronimo, it appears as if the great Apache medicine man is searching into the distance for his lost lands and people.
Curtis asked each person to dress in traditional regalia featuring complex beading and feathers as opposed to the western-style clothes many wore day-to-day. This was controversial at the time, and remains so today, but his goal was to preserve the history and culture of Indigenous people for the future.
The Curtis Controversy
And that’s where the controversy comes in. Curtis’ photos, due to their popularity, have trapped Native People in the minds of the dominant white culture as “past.” Curtis’ Indigenous people are not contemporary in any way. “Salvage ethnography” was the term of the day – white scientists, photographers and researchers trying to “capture” Indian culture before it was driven to what they felt was an inevitable extinction. But despite the best efforts of white people and the Federal government, the Indigenous people of what is now called America survived. They survive to this day and continue producing art, raising families, participating in their cultural practices. Curtis’ images, and the institutions that display them, often neglect that fact. For this reason, many Native people take exception to Curtis, because he, like the society he existed in, viewed Indians as a dying breed with no hope for the future.
Because he earned the trust of tribes, Curtis witnessed many ceremonies that were not typically shared with outsiders. Here, again, is another bone of contention with Curtis many Native people express. While Curtis did witness these ceremonies, was it his privilege to photograph and distribute them?
His advocates will say he strived to portray a Native spirituality that went against the common belief of the time that Indians were “savages.” He visited the Hopi several times over years before being allowed to participate in the Snake Dance.
Since local authorities outlawed Indian religious practices, which persisted until 1978 when Native Americans were granted full freedom of religion, he often had to be stealthy in his work. His photos further captured how Native people hunted and fished, prepared food, and gathered water.
Many of his images show the living conditions of Native people, including teepees, wooden homes and adobe structures. The landscape around the Indian villages is empty, demonstrating the sparse, infertile land where many tribes were forced to relocate.
The Western Spirit exhibit dedicates one group of photos for each volume of The North American Indian, including four large portraits surrounded by six smaller photos showing everyday life. A map and description of the people and his work with them provide insight to visitors.
Curtis first became interested in photography while living in Seattle at the birth of that city. His photo of Princess Angeline, eldest daughter of Chief Seattle and thought of as the last Indian in Seattle, sparked a passion for photography and storytelling. The treaty of Point Elliott in 1855 required all Duwamish Indians to relocate to reservations outside the city, but she refused to leave. Her actual name, Kikisoblu, was found difficult to pronounce by the white settlers so she was called Princess Angeline. The claim was that this was to show that she was the daughter of a chief, but it was more often used in a mocking way.
Curtis developed new techniques and perfected others while carrying his equipment around the country and into rugged environments. Most of his photos involved etching a copper plate which was then used to print photogravures with a sepia tone. This process brings out the character of the subjects due to the details visible and the light and shadows present. Two walls of the exhibit include a row of large copper plates and one of three small plates with the accompanying photogravures representing each volume of his work. The copper plates are gorgeous works of art in themselves.
Curtis also produced platinum prints, silver gelatin border prints, and cyanotypes with tinged colors and many examples are sprinkled throughout the exhibit. Gold tones on glass plates were only a fraction of one percent of his photos due to their expense and fragility. They capture the light to produce a bright, 3D-effect that creates a glowing image.
Curtis said that, “they are as full of light and sparkle as an opal.”
The immensity of Curtis’ endeavor required great assistance and funding of wealthy people and he worked just as hard to woo their support as he did to take photographs in the field. A friendship with President Theodore Roosevelt opened a few doors after Curtis photographed his daughter’s wedding. He struggled to find monetary support, but finally convinced J.P. Morgan to advance $75,000 and the Morgan family continued supporting the project over the decades. Curtis also filmed a movie and did portrait work on the side to finance his project.
Curtis never received payment for his work on The North American Indian, but he employed assistants in the field and his studio. He also compensated the Indians who agreed to sit for photos and allowed him to observe their lives. His devotion to the project cost him his marriage and strained relationships with his family members. He wanted to expose the poor treatment of American Indians who were robbed of their lands and livelihoods and to promote a greater understanding of their customs and humanity. He had to walk a fine line between spreading his message and not angering the funders and potential buyers of his work.
Only 222 bound sets of The North American Indian were purchased and many were separated over the years as Curtis faded into obscurity. The bulk of the material owned by the Morgan family was sold for $1,000 during the Great Depression and sat in a basement in Boston for 40 years. A Santa Fe gallery owner discovered this treasure and brought it back into the light.
In the 1970s, Tim Peterson, a teenager at the time, saw Curtis’ photos which sparked an interest in him to begin collecting historic Western material, memorabilia and art. He would go on to become one of the most prominent collectors of Western objects and a Western Spirit trustee; he co-curated this exhibition.
Another lingering problem Native people have with Curtis is how his fame continues soaring thanks to museum exhibitions like this one while the Native people he photographed remain mostly overlooked in such spaces. There is a “white savior” complex at work here where Native people are welcomed into museum spaces as long as they’re photographed and put there by whites, but not on their own terms, in their own words. That, thankfully, after more than 100 years, is changing.
Mikita Wilbur, a member of the Swinomish and Tulalip, has visited over 300 tribal nations to photograph and record the narratives of the people. “Project 562: Changing the Way We See Native America” will be published in book form and is currently being shown at Barrett Gallery in Santa Monica, CA. I look forward to seeing her work when I travel to California later in 2023.
The role of Native Americans in contemporary American society remains a contested one, just like it was when Curtis was toiling away on his series. No less a figure than President Roosevelt in 1886 said, “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indian is the dead Indian, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.” Curtis’ contested legacy should be kept in mind when visiting Western Spirit. We can continue learning about the history of our country from his remarkable photos while embracing the role Native people have had here from before its founding through the present day.