If you are not familiar with Edward S. Curtis’s magnum opus, The North American Indian, you ought to come by the Rare Books Department in Central Library to be blown away by this first edition, twenty-volume set (accompanied by oversized photogravure plates), published between 1907 and 1930. Curtis’s work maintains its importance as a contribution to Native American history and culture--controversies aside. That is not to say that the work is not without flaws.
This self-educated photographer and pioneer was determined to record the traditional North American cultural practices that he believed were threatened by Federal Indian Policy before it was too late. At the time Curtis began his project, the allotment and assimilation era of the Federal Indian Policy was in full swing. Traditional ceremonies and other practices were forbidden. Children were sent to boarding schools where they were forbidden to speak their native languages and had their hair cut.
Theodore Roosevelt came across the Seattle photographer’s portrait work and was invited to photograph the family. Curtis explained his idea to document Indian traditions. Roosevelt expressed encouragement and under his suggestion, approached J.P. Morgan for funding towards his dream project. Morgan offered $75,000 ($15,000/yr for 5 years) in exchange for twenty-five sets of the volumes (LA Public Library owns set #26). The volumes were offered by subscriptions at $3000 in 1906. Early subscribers included Edward VII, Andrew Carnegie, Alexander Graham Bell, Frederick William Vanderbilt and Henry E. Huntington. With the staggering cost of the subscription, Curtis faced his first of a string of contradictions: his work depicting suppressed societies would be aimed at an elite patron pool.
On the field, he faced further contradictions. Some groups he encountered were in the process of assimilation and did not live their daily lives in a traditional fashion. Traditional costumes now reserved for special occasions were resurrected for Curtis’s camera, as were ceremonies and dances. Certain practices were also forbidden to be recorded or witnessed by outsiders: a Navajo dance was performed “backward” to be considered acceptable for recording. Curtis also added romanticism to his staged photos and removed signs of modern technology. Situations and intentional actions like these called into question the authenticity of the photographs. However, Curtis was capturing what he knew was disappearing and he saw this as a cause worth pursuing.
The intended five year project became a thirty year saga. After J.P. Morgan’s death, what little money Curtis received went towards his work. For the last seventeen years of the project he received no remuneration. Curtis stated that the project was his life’s work and it was the only work that he knew was worth doing.
The continued importance of Curtis’s work is credited to the sheer size of the project and the number of groups represented in his striking images. Before the publication of the volumes, few people grasped the diversity and complexity of Native American cultures and few had ever seen Native Americans depicted with dignity and sophistication. Curtis’s images have inspired new generations of Native Americans to rekindle and maintain forgotten traditions.
Edward S. Curtis moved to Los Angeles at the start of the 1920s and lived there until his death in 1952.
The following plates from The North American Indian show individuals from groups throughout California.
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