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Curtis' North American Indian Online: New Uses for Old Images

April 1, 2008 | by Wendy Leopold
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Until recently only the most intrepid scholars prowled libraries' special collections. But as institutions make their most beautiful, unusual and important works available on the Web, they are being sought not for research alone but for more urgent, sometimes life-changing purposes.

Since Northwestern University made Edward S. Curtis' "The North American Indian" fully available online in 2004 -- its haunting images have shown up in classrooms, museums, concert halls and films and on tribal Web sites and compact disc covers.

An anthropologist of Native American descent was thrilled to discover her own grandfather's portrait had been taken by Curtis, creator of one of the most significant and controversial representations of traditional American Indian culture ever produced.

Donated to the University in 1928 by millionaire industrialist J.P. Morgan, the complete 20-volume work went essentially unused until Northwestern made it available on the Web. In 38 years, the former curator of the McCormick Library of Special Collections recalled only two researcher requests to view any of its 2,226 images or 5,000 pages of text.

Deanna Paniataaq Kingston, the Oregon State University anthropologist who discovered her grandfather's Curtis portrait, works on a project on King Island in Alaska's Bering Sea. She uses images of "The North American Indian" and other historic photographs to document life on the tiny island where her ancestors and parents once lived.

Armed with historic photographs and aided by Inupiaq elders, she has mapped 150 place names. She now relies on elders and images in her quest to define namesake and kinship relationships on King Island, which has been uninhabited since 1966.

"People often forget something or someone until you jog their memory with a photo," Kingston said. "Old photos tell us about King Island life -- what the weather was like, what the houses were like, what the ice looked like, and they connect us to our past."

Artist Ryan Burr, a full blood Mandan and Hidatsa, has used images from the Curtis Web site in teaching drawing and mural painting classes at the community college on North Dakota's Fort Berthold Indian Reservation and in his own art.

Using a Curtis photograph of a Mandani chief for inspiration, Burr said he and his North Dakota students have created murals that give them "pride in their heritage."

That pride was not always present. "In the early 1900s a lot of Native Americans tried to hide their identities and assimilate, and it seemed a lot of their history might have been lost forever," said Dennis Neary. A director and producer of documentaries on Native American topics, he was "elated" to find the online Curtis images and called them "the closest thing to a realistic portrayal we have."

Neary, with Blackfeet Indian leader and historian Curly Bear Wagner, produced "A Blackfeet Encounter." The television documentary reconstructs a deadly clash in 1806 between the Piegan, a Blackfeet sect, and the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The fight at Two Medicine was the only violent interaction between Indians and the expedition.

"The Piegan had a reputation for being…fierce, and lived in a…remote place (in what's now northern Montana)," Neary said. "We're just lucky that Curtis (got) that far north with his camera."

But Curtis' work -- a testament to his determination to document Native American life -- is not without detractors. It has been criticized for romanticizing Native American life, ignoring the desperate conditions that Indians of his day lived in and failing to acknowledge their continued survival.

Curtis is known to occasionally have staged and costumed his subjects, recreated secret rituals that some Indians felt should remain private and to have approached his subjects from an alternatively respectful, paternalistic and ethnocentric point of view.

Yet his work continues to influence the ways in which American Indians are viewed, and native and non-native Americans continue to refer to it. Kingston calls the stagings "a mixed blessing that give us a sense of an otherwise undocumented lifeway, but that freeze native people in ways that make them 'ahistorical.'"

Len and Erik Nelson have used Curtis' photos in their educational videos. While shooting "Destination the Pacific," Erik recalled a day when he and his father suddenly observed four Chinook paddling against the current, singing a traditional song. On coming ashore, the four greeted awaiting tribal elders and presented them with the first-caught salmon of the season.

"I grew up in (Washington) hearing about the Chinook so I know about the traditional salmon ceremony. But to see it (was) a life-changing experience!" Erik said. He first thought it was a reenactment, but "this was the Chinook performing the salmon ceremony for real -- just continuing their culture" as Curtis once had captured it.

Stitching together moments of surviving ritual, history and culture -- and using historic resources online and offline to do it -- native and non-native people continue adding to the record of Native American culture in ways similar to and ways different from Curtis.

The edition of "The North American Indian" at Northwestern is one of fewer than 250 sets ever produced. Printed on the finest paper and bound in leather, the lavishly illustrated sets were sold by subscription at prices prohibitive for all but the most avid collectors and libraries.

Issued over two decades, the last volume was published in 1930. Remaining project materials -- including the handmade copper photogravure plates -- were sold in 1935 to the Charles Lauriat Company, a Boston rare bookseller. They languished in the bookstore's basement until the 1970s, when their rediscovery revived interest in Curtis' spectacular images.

To view or order images from the fully searchable Northwestern site, visit http://curtis.library.northwestern.edu/.
Topics: Campus Life