Magazine article Literary Review of Canada

The Frozen Bodies of Edward S. Curtis: A New Collaborative Play and Photographic Series Tackle the Representation of Aboriginal Peoples and the Legacy of Colonialism

Magazine article Literary Review of Canada

The Frozen Bodies of Edward S. Curtis: A New Collaborative Play and Photographic Series Tackle the Representation of Aboriginal Peoples and the Legacy of Colonialism

Article excerpt

The Edward Curtis Project: A Modern Picture Story

Marie Clements


Photographs by RITA LEISTNER 160 pages, soft cover

ISBN 9780889226425

April 2011

Aboriginal peoples of the Americas are known primarily through stories of tragedy, dismal statistics and romantic photography of their pre-colonial cultures. What is less commonly known is the story of colonialism itself, and the stories that are behind the traumas that make up colonialism's continued legacy.

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In her new play, The Edward Curtis Project: A Modern Picture Story, B.C.-based Metis playwright Marie Clements creates a unique and layered drama around the trauma of silence on colonialism.

The main character is Angeline, a reporter on aboriginal subjects. Angeline is writing a factual news story about a man who walked out of his home in the middle of a very cold northern night with his little girls in tow, looking for help for his sick child. Along the way, he passes out and loses his children. After waking from his drunken slumber, he finds his children frozen to death. Haunted by the image of frozen bodies and her own reportage, Angeline is having a breakdown. Her news story, which, as she was instructed, reported just the facts, became yet another headline involving tragedy and drunkenness in aboriginal country. However, she has realized that the facts simply do not do justice to the story: focusing on the facts allows the public to ignore their responsibility for the contemporary situation of poverty, bad housing and violence within aboriginal communities.

The project arose when Presentation House Theatre asked Clements to submit a proposal for the 2010 Vancouver Cultural Olympiad. Clements in all her wisdom decided to tackle the weighty historical figure of Edward S. Curtis, who took over 2,000 photographs of indigenous peoples between 1907 and 1930, which were then published in the massive twenty-volume The North American Indian. I say wisdom because these photographs have been, for over one hundred years, the international community's main point of access to representations of aboriginal peoples; yet it is a work that, in attempting to capture the image of authentic, pre-contact aboriginal culture, problematizes the limits of representation, where truth becomes merely a perspective. Clements then invited Toronto-based photojournalist Rita Leistner to collaborate on the project by undertaking a parallel photographic investigation with aboriginal peoples across North America as the subjects. So right at the moment when the Olympics decided to represent Canada through aboriginal arts, communities and symbols like the Inukshuk, Clements and Leistner decided to tackle the fraught terrain of what people think an "Indian" is. (1)


Clements is in her element as a writer when her subjects are controversial and full of contradictions. Her play Copper Thunderbird, which sets out to capture the many facets of the great Anishnabe artist Norval Morrisseau, is a case in point. Her characters often represent different perspectives on a given person, history and time period, each of which functions to complicate the overall narrative. Curtis, therefore, is an ideal subject for Clements. In her new play, she brings to life the contemporary controversy over Curtis and the "reality" of what he photographed.

Curtis is introduced into Clements's narrative through The North American Indian. …

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