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Coming to Light: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indians (2001)

an indelible image

The variously named documentary on the life of Edward S. Curtis begins with today's Native Americans lamenting the passage of time and how hard it has been on them. The last Sun Dance was over 40 years ago. They dwell in a world apart. How can they exist without being able to relate to their own heritage? Then, along comes a treasure trove of photogravures and hand-etched plates, lost but rediscovered in 1972. The viewer hears a Suquamish, then a Peigan, and later a Navajo, followed by a Kwakiutl and a Crow talk about the plight of their people and the strain of living, off and on, out of the main fold. But all agree that Curtis's photos, taken over a number of years, were not only works of art but ways to reconnect.

Edward S. Curtis had always been a man with a calling. Born in Minnesota in 1868, he built his first camera from diagrams in a book. Eventually, he would write a twenty volume study in word and photograph, entitled The North American Indian. The Smithsonian would publish it and J.P. Morgan would subsidize most of the project. It intrigues me as to how somebody like Curtis, who by appearance seems hopelessly Caucasian, would win the confidence and trust of various gun-shy and embittered tribes. Nevertheless, they allowed him to pursue his objectives without complaint year after year. Included in his vast production of photographs are those of Angeline, daughter of Chief Seattle. She can be seen digging clams. In other photos, men dance ceremonially. In still others, portraits create a record much more vibrant than x's on ineffective treaties. Many compositions are nostalgic. One shows numerous chiefs in war bonnets on horseback. The background is stark. For as far as the eye can see, there is nothing except infinite space uninterrpted by manmade constructions.

It is a good thing when a man or woman is judged mostly by his or her work. But workaholic that he was, Curtis did not go through life without criticisms. He was considered unreliable, amateurish, unprofessional. It was true that he "rented" a whale to dramatize shots of Indians in canoes. He also deliberately eliminated modern objects from his photographs. He employed blankets for backdrops. He liked to stage. Different people posed in the same shirt. Numerous Native Americans were shot in flamboyant costumes. But all in all, Curtis did more good than bad. Just think of the counter trend to cause Indians to lose their heritage. Many are living today who recall schools that punished them for speaking in their native tongues. Dances and rituals were illegal. To engage in traditional forms of worship could land worshipers in jail. How successful the drive to stamp out Indian culture was can be judged by how little remains. Yet no administration will admit to hiding the implementation of a policy of extermination that seems evident in its aftermath. Not just in North America, but all over the Americas, indigenous peoples were hunted down, enslaved, and abused. No one is making this up. But are governments, not just our own, concealing relevant information?

They say that photographs are ultimately an attempt to rescue the present from the ravages of time. By preserving images of more than eighty tribes on photographic plates, Curtis accomplished an inestimable task. As to what really motivated such a prolonged, unremunerative interest, I would have to do further research. Curtis appears to have been one of those overactive types. In addition to The North American Indian, Curtis also worked in Hollywood and turned his attention to gold-mining. But he was a lone wolf. Although he could team up with others for the sake of expeditions, such as boating to Alaska to photograph Eskimos, his main activity was to document in stills, and motion pictures, the vanishing life of Native Americans. While doing so his wife sued for divorce, his absentee ownership of a studio came to naught, and his twenty-volume masterpiece generated next to no interest. Its foreword, written by Theodore Roosevelt, could not rescue such a monumental piece of work from instant oblivion.

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