R. Carlos Nakai shines again here. It's off his Fourth World CD, released by Canyon in '02. a
Edward Sheriff Curtis was never in the employ of the Santa Fe Railway, but I have been using his images throughout this series. His photographs of American Indians are simply better than those of many others from that era, and of course, the photogravures have been held in university and museum collections, which has made possible digital copies of images in mint condition. But Curtis was active in the Southwest during much of the period when the Santa Fe developed and promoted its mass advertising campaign, so connected to the American Indian. The Curtis project was something the Indians themselves wanted to participate in, and this can be verified. The idea of preserving this record, even though in some cases it was a record of what was, years before, was something that obviously appealed to the imagination of the tribes Curtis worked with.
In the Santa Fe's case, the evidence seems to show that there was a tremendous amount of cooperation between the Southwestern tribes and the railroad. Navajo medicine men came and blessed Harvey House Hotels at openings; Hopi Indians built Hopi House, on the edge of the Grand Canyon, an attraction - for tourists - to showcase their crafts and culture; Pueblo people in New Mexico have been gracious, and tolerant, hosts to countless tourists brought to their villages courtesy of the Santa Fe and Harvey's Indian-detours.
Obviously, it's all been a two-way street, and there's cash involved. But it's hard to believe that the accusations of the critics who bemoan the railway's exploitation of the Indians are fair, much less accurate. It's a poor argument. If these people hadn't felt they were being treated fairly, and with respect, then the railroad would have had to reexamine their advertising campaign. The Southwestern tribes (like all) had been cheated and taken advantage of for years, and were not unaware of the trickiries of traders, missionaries, and "agents" of various stripes; and if the railway had not offered what the Indians considered to be fair compensation for labor, arts and crafts, etc., it's almost a given that the Indian people would have walked, or balked. If the railroad advertising boys had turned the Santa Fe "Chief" into the grinning charicature found on baseball caps, T-shirts, and whatever, the whole enterprise would probably have gone up in smoke. I've searched a lot, and cannot find any story, anecdote, interview, whatever, that has an American Indian claiming that the Santa Fe/Harvey people they dealt with were cheaters or liars.
And don't tell me that some Indians wern't (and aren't still) proud that the Santa Fe gave names to its superliners like The Chief, The Superchief,The Navajo, etc. It was a compliment. It implied, via the advertising campaign, a certain type of strength and dignity, a certain presence, a certain something that was completely American in origin; and when it touched a nerve somewhere deep down, you were hooked. I can't find any other train names from American history that compare. There's no history of trains named The Polish Progress, The Irish Flyer, or The Limey Limited. But back to Curtis.
Curtis has come under fire since the photogravures came on the market in the early 70's. The fact that he "staged" certain scenes, and went to great lengths to keep any hint of contemporary reality out of "the shot," has made him a target for the professional whiners who are self-proclaimed "experts" on Native American culture, history, and image. Though some of the criticism is based on fact, whatever shortfalls the material has are far outweighed by the inherent value of what Curtis accomplished. No one, no one, in the history of American photography ever attempted such a massive (really overwhelming) undertaking. In the last thirty-five years or so since the material came to public notice, after having been hidden away for decades, countless scholarly papers, magazine articles, books, slide sets, films, TV programs, and exhibitions have given the material the exposure it deserves.
For those interested in more of this amazing story, I suggest you look at the web, where there's a LOT of information about Curtis and "the project." I've included some background info below, which is from the Library of Congress website. Later in the Santa Fe Series we'll have more up about the prints. Karl Kernberger, my co-producer on two video documentaries, was the one who found the Curtis material that hadn't found its way into private or institutional collections, and had been gathering dust since the 1930's at the Lauriat Company in Boston (see the Wikipedia entry on the web).
The more than eighty tribes Curtis visited over this thirty-year period, the ancestors of today's Indian people west of the Mississippi, cooperated with the man. They must have. They had to, or the project would have been a hopeless failure. The same thing applies here as to the Santa Fe Railway's advertising campaign - without the Indians' proactive cooperation, none of this would have happend. Indians, at least in my experience, appreciate what Curtis set out to do. Indian tribes and individuals are among those who have purchased Curtis photogravures, and utilized them in tribal-related informational and documentary formats, as well as gracing the walls of tribal museums, visitor's centers, and offices with them.
I can assure the intellectual "experts" that what many Indians do not appreciate are the snoopy, snobby, smug, psuedo-intellectuals passing themselves off as "experts" in cultural relations and ethno studies. What is it about academia in this country that so many pompous and bloated egos, filled with self-importance and a certain cockiness, if you get my drift, fill the ranks in these fields (and others of course) at so many colleges and universities? What's WRONG with THIS picture? Plenty.
On many reservations today, photography might be frowned upon, particularly if it involves ceremonies, yet not always. In some cases it's allowed, but with certain restrictions/conditions that the photographer must abide by. Sometimes there's a fee, sometimes not. The whole scenario varies from reservation to reservation, and there can sometimes be exceptions, depending on circumstances. As always, respect is the keyword here, and amateurs and pros alike, who have come away from a day on the REZ with some good snaps, know whereof I speak.
Of course, cameras are to be found everywhere today in Indian Country, from point-and-shoot's in the hands of Indian kids working on the high-school yearbook, to Leica's and Hasselblad's clicking away in the hands of polished professionals like John Running and other Native photographers, who have produced absolutely stunning visual imagery from Indian America that is far more than just "eye candy." Cameras can be OK, you know, depending on. . . well. . . you know. . . .
However, an anthropologist or the like, poking around, could very well be escorted to the reservation line and told NOT to return. Or worse. Throughout Indian Country, many of these types wore out their welcome long ago, and are considered persona non grata. More on all this later.
Although unknown for many years, Edward S. Curtis is today one of the most well-recognized and celebrated photographers of Native people. Born near White Water, Wisconsin, on February 16, 1868, he became interested in the emerging art of photography when he was quite young, building his first camera when he was still an adolescent. In Seattle, where his family moved in 1887, he acquired part interest in a portrait photography studio and soon became sole owner of the successful business, renaming it Edward S. Curtis Photographer and Photoengraver.
In the mid 1890s, Curtis began photographing local Puget Sound Native Americans digging for clams and mussels on the tide flats. One of his earliest models was Princess Angeline, the aged daughter of Sealth, the Suquamish chief after whom Seattle was named. Later, as an official photographer of the 1899 Harriman Expedition, Curtis documented the geological features of the Alaskan wilderness as well as its indigenous population. This was a pivotal experience for Curtis and greatly increased his interest in Native cultures. He visited tribal communities in Montana and Arizona and began in earnest to photograph many other Native Americans in the West, spending more time in the field and less time in his studio.
The North American Indian Project
In the early years of the 20th century, Curtis embarked on a thirty-year mission which he described as an effort "to form a comprehensive and permanent record of all the important tribes of the United States and Alaska that still retain to a considerable degree their...customs and traditions." Along with most scholars of this period, he believed that indigenous communities would inevitably be absorbed into white society, losing their unique cultural identities. He wanted to create a scholarly and artistic work that would document the ceremonies, beliefs, customs, daily life, and leaders of these groups before they "vanished." The North American Indian project, Curtis decided, would be a set of 20 volumes of ethnographic text illustrated with high quality photoengravings taken from his glass plate negatives. Each of these volumes would be accompanied by a portfolio of large size photogravures, elegantly bound in leather and printed on the highest quality paper. To fund the enormous project, Curtis would sell subscriptions to five hundred sets of the publication.
Working alone or with various assistants, soliciting donations and support from diverse sources including President Theodore Roosevelt and the railroad tycoon John Pierpont Morgan, and also accumulating a heavy personal debt, Curtis visited more than eighty tribes across the country, and north into Alaska and parts of Canada. Eventually, he took more than 40,000 photographs; made over 10,000 recordings of Native speech and music; produced lectures, slide shows, and a multi-media Curtis Indian Picture Opera throughout the U.S.; and in 1914 directed In the Land of the Headhunters, an inventive, seminal film documentary on the Kwakiutl tribe.
Volume one of The North American Indian appeared in 1907. In 1930 the last two volumes were finally published, completing nearly thirty years of work. Only 272 complete sets had been printed. By this time, the modest popularity of Curtis's work had diminished and the North American Indian Corporation--the business enterprise overseeing Curtis's ethnographic ventures--soon liquidated its assets. When he died in 1952, his lifework with Native Americans had all but faded into obscurity. "Rediscovered" in the 1960s and 1970s, Curtis's photographic work is now recognized as one of the most significant records of Native culture ever produced. His photographs have been included in virtually every anthology of historical photographs of Native Americans and are now frequently used to illustrate books and documentaries.
Collection Scope and Description
The Prints and Photographs Division Curtis collection consists of more than 2,400 silver-gelatin, first generation photographic prints-- some of which are sepia-toned--made from Curtis's original glass negatives. Most of the photographic prints are 5" x 7" although nearly one hundred are 11" x 14" and larger; many include the Curtis file or negative number within the image at the lower left-hand corner. Acquired by the Library of Congress through copyright deposit from about 1900 through 1930, the dates on the images reflect date of registration, not when the photograph was actually taken. About two-thirds (1,608) of these images were not published in The North American Indian volumes and therefore offer a different and unique glimpse into Curtis's work with indigenous cultures. The original glass plate negatives-- most of which had been stored and nearly forgotten in a basement of New York's Morgan Library--were unwittingly dispersed during World War II. Many others were destroyed and some were sold as junk.
Although the Prints and Photographs Division does not hold any of the few existing original glass negatives, copy negatives for many of the photographic prints have been made by the Library's Photoduplication Service.
Images from each of the geo-cultural regions documented in The North American Indian are represented in the collection: the Pacific Northwest, New Southwest, Great Basin, Great Plains, Plateau Region, California, and Alaska. Included are both studio and field photographs. A large number are individual or group portraits, and many subjects are identified by name. Other subjects include traditional and ceremonial dress, dwellings and other structures, agriculture, arts and crafts, rites and ceremonies, dances, games, food preparation, transportation, and scenery.
Just as the Santa Fe Railroad had lantern slides and other photo media hand-tinted, Curtis included a small number of hand-colored prints in each full set of The North American Indian.
The Musicale - "A Vanishing Race"
In the winter of 1911-1912 Curtis toured the country with a "picture-opera" or "musicale" - a performance that included magic lantern slides, motion picture footage, an original music score, and narration by Curtis. Though the program received good reviews, it wasn't the financial success Curtis had hoped for, and after giving the show a second chance the following winter, the project was discontinued.
Below is the opening paragraph from Curtis's script for the program.
"My greatest desire tonight is that each and every person here enter into the spirit of our evening with the Indians. We cannot weigh, measure, or judge their culture with our philosophy. From our analytical and materialistic view-point, theirs is a strange world. Deity is not alone in a supreme being after their own image, but rather is everywhere present--world or universal voice, universal spirit. I want you to see this beautiful, poetic, mysterious, yet simple life, as I have grown to see it through the long years with the many tribes."
The Indianist Music Movement was an early 20th century effort to get American composers to find themes and inspiration from sources closer to home than European tradition and style. This piece, performed on piano here by Dario Muller, was part of the music score for Curtis's "musicale" "A Vanishing Race," and was written and performed by Henry Franklin Gilbert, who collaborated with Curtis on this project, as well as assisting in the work with the field recordings of Native music Curtis made as he journeyed from tribe to tribe. The piece is off the CD AMERICAN INDIANISTS Vol. 1, released in '94 on the Marco-Polo label. I should add that the piece, when it was originally performed, was accompanied by a twenty-four member orchestra.
From the Bulletin of the Archaeological Institute of America
MR. EDWARD S. CURTIS'S "PICTURE-OPERA"
Mr. Edward S. Curtis's " Picture-opera," called A Vanishing Race, was given in Washington, D.C., January 30 and February 1 under the auspices of the Washington Society of the Archaeological Institute for the benefit of the Cyrene Excavation Fund. Mr. Curtis is widely known as the author of The North American Indian, a monumental work published under the patronage of Mr. J. Pierpont Morgan, which presents in Mr. Curtis's remarkable photographs, as well as in vivid narrative, the results of his fourteen years of travel and study among the North American Indian tribes. The "picture-opera" is an endeavor to portray, by the harmonious combination of music and pictures and running comment, some of the more striking features in the life of the Indian.
The musical numbers were composed by Henry Gilbert of Boston and were played by an orchestra of twenty-four pieces. Far from being merely adaptations of Indian melodies, they were original compositions manifesting a rich quality of imagination and an unusual sense of orchestral color. The prelude entitled, "The Spirit of Indian Life," is an orchestral interpretation of an Indian folk song. This was followed by a pictorial and musical composition, with appropriate comment, entitled the "Dream of the Ancient Red Man." The dissolving views of the Hunkalawanpi ceremony, "Offering the Skull," portraying the grim, warlike Apaches in their moments of religious fervor, was one of the most effective numbers of the programme. Other numbers deserving of especial mention were entitled, "The Night Scout," "The Mountain Camp," and the "Signal Fire to the Mountain God."
The Washington Society commends A Vanishing Race to other societies of the Institute that may wish to avail themselves of it in enlisting the interest of their communities in the archaeology and ethnology of the North American Indian and in the work of the School of American Archaeology.