The Imperfect Eye of Edward Curtis

By Ponce, Pedro | Humanities, May/June 2000 | Go to article overview

The Imperfect Eye of Edward Curtis


Ponce, Pedro, Humanities


In 1900, photographer Edward Curtis traveled to Montana to witness a Regan Sun Dance. As the Indians made offerings to the sun against a stark prairie landscape, Curtis was intensely moved.

He thought it might be the last of its kind. The ceremony had already been outlawed in the United States, and the federal government was taking steps to assimilate Native Americans.

After two more visits to tribal ceremonies in Arizona that same year, Curtis conceived his life work. He would make a photographic record of Indian tribes before their traditions were lost.

"The passing of every old man or woman means the passing of some tradition, some knowledge of sacred rites possessed by no other," he wrote, "consequently the information that is to be gathered, for the benefit of future generations, respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost for all time."

The project garnered the support of President Theodore Roosevelt and financier J. P. Morgan. The first volume of The North American Indian appeared in 1907. The New York Herald hailed it as the most ambitious enterprise in publishing since the production of the King James Bible.

By the time the twentieth and final volume was published in 1930, Curtis was professionally and personally ruined. Interest in Native American subjects dwindled as the country suffered through the Great Depression. Years in the field had taken their toll on Curtis s health and led to the end of his marriage. Curtis died in 1952, his work on American Indians nearly forgotten.

The story of Curtis's work and its impact on contemporary understandings of Native American culture is told in Coming to Light: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indians, a documentary by Anne Makepeace. It will be scheduled for broadcast as part of the PBS series American Masters.

"I knew I had great material, but how to shape it was very, very challenging," says Makepeace, who wrote, produced, and directed the film, which had originally been conceived as a biographical drama. "If it works, it looks like it was easy. But it wasn't."

Makepeace says she was drawn to Curtis because of his classically American life story of self-made success and tragic failure.

Curtis was born in Whitewater, Wisconsin, in 1868. While still a boy, he built his own camera using a lens his father had brought home from the Civil War. With only a sixth-grade education, Curtis taught himself photography and, in 1891, went into business in Seattle with a fellow photographer. Curtis started his own commercial studio in 1897.

As he built the business, Curtis looked for other sources of inspiration. He began taking pictures of Northwest Coast Indians, and in 1898 he joined the Harriman Expedition as its official photographer. On that scientific trip to Alaska, Curtis worked with naturalist George Bird Grinnel, who would later invite him to the Sun Dance in Montana.

Earnest in his desire to learn about all aspects of Indian religious life, Curtis practiced persistence. It took him six years to convince Sikyaletstewa, the Hopi Snake Chief, to allow him to participate in a ceremonial snake hunt.

"Once the confidence of the Indians gained, the way led gradually through the difficulties," Curtis wrote in his general introduction, "but long and serious study was necessary before knowledge of the esoteric rites and ceremonies could be gleaned."

Even then, his subjects did not always cooperate. In 1904, he paid three Navajos to help him capture a Yei be Chei healing dance on film.

But, as shown in Makepeace's film, the hired dancers performed the ceremony backwards and did not reveal its most sacred parts.

Coming to Light originally centered on Curtis's work with the Hopi. A script was developed with support from the NEH and state humanities councils in Arizona and California. …

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