of the American Indian
3001 Central Street
Evanston, IL 60201
The Photographs of Edward S. Curtis
Between 1900 and 1930, Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952) traveled from Mexico to the Arctic, compiling a vast store of information covering more than Indian tribes, in the form of 40,000 photographs, 10,000 recordings of songs and stories, and several volumes of field notes. The published result, The North American Indian (1907), spanned 20 volumes of illustrated text, accompanied by 20 photo portfolios.
Most critics agree that the work is an impressive achievement, and that Curtis overcame many obstacles, including difficult field conditions and a chronic shortage of funds, to complete such a comprehensive project. However, opinions diverge about the value and integrity of his undertaking. Do these photos have merit beyond the world of art? In his quest to preserve “vanishing” tribes, Curtis promoted, and helped to shape, the public’s view of Indians as “noble savages.” Because he staged many of his scenes with overly fancy accessories or culturally inaccurate details, some scholars have criticized his work. However, others praise Curtis’ genuine interest in the Native people he photographed, in an era when tribes had been forced onto reservations and children sent to government-run boarding schools that stripped them of their language and traditions.
Curtis worked with his subjects to recreate images of “vanishing” Indian peoples before contact with non-natives. But the people did not disappear, and neither did their customs. Many traditions have been preserved by modern tribes, some of whom use the information captured in Curtis’ photos–from building homes to designing pottery or clothing–in their contemporary activities. Should we condemn Curtis as an arrogant artist who tried to make people conform to preconceived notions of how they should look and act? Or should we thank him for his vision and determination? These images, flawed or not, open a window onto Native people and their customs at the start of the 20th century.
By Maureen Perkins
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