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The Endless Indian Summer of Edward Sheriff Curtis

Mosa – Mojave (1903)

Mosa – Mojave (1903)

Indian summer: Figuratively, a late flowering following a period of decline.

By 1930, when self-taught photographer/ethnographer Edward S. Curtis completed his three-decade quest to document remaining tribes of Native Americans, the Shadow Catcher, as Arizona Indians named him, had made more than 40,000 images.

The 47 photogravures on view at the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University in San Marcos — printed images tinted with a rosy shade of burnished honey — offer a fine sampling of the 80-plus tribes that Curtis photographed. The exhibited images were produced for portfolios that were sold along with The North American Indian book project that eventually encompassed 20 elaborate volumes. They include his first Native American image, Princess Angeline, taken just before the turn of the century in Seattle, where Curtis had opened a portrait studio in 1891. The elderly Angeline was the last surviving child of Seattle’s namesake, See-ahlsh, a.k.a. Chief Seattle, and the lines on her face seem to plat the weary roads traversed by all native peoples uprooted from their homelands and traditions.

Vanishing Race

Vanishing Race

Curtis’ image of Geronimo in the exhibition was captured in Washington, D.C., in 1905 when the aged Apache — by then a somber-strange combination of vanquished foe, celebrity, and anthropological entity — rode in President Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade. In his foreword to the book project, the president effused that Curtis’ “pictures are pictures, not merely photographs,” praising the Shadow Catcher as “both an artist and a trained observer.”

Teddy marveled that Curtis gained rare and intimate knowledge of all strata of Indian society, including the mysterious cosmologies and healing practices of shamans and medicine people. Among the multitude of contradictory forces and factors that Curtis had to navigate were such odious edicts as the Indian Religious Crimes Code of 1883. This measure effectively made it illegal for Native Americans to regard the rivers, hills, and sky as their ancestors had done. Or beseech the heavens for rain, or assuage the spirits of animals slain.

Snake Priest

Snake Priest

Two Hopi images in the exhibition, Snake Priest (1900) and Snake Dancers Entering the Plaza (1921), illustrate that many defied orders of the dominant society and preserved their indigenous sacraments. Curtis made numerous return trips to the Southwest, and he seems to have been especially affected by the rituals of the Hopi Snake Dance, asking the Hopi if he could actually participate. With each visit, Sikayletstiwa, the leader of the Snake Society, placed a little more trust in the Man Who Sleeps on His Breath, as they called Curtis because of his air mattress.

Blanket Weaver - Navaho

Blanket Weaver – Navaho

Eventually, the Shadow Catcher was allowed to enter the kiva where the snakes were prepared for the dance. On another visit, the Hopis invited him to accompany them to gather rattlesnakes; as a novitiate, he was required to allow the first captured diamondback to be placed around his neck. Surviving that test, he continued to fast and purify himself, sleeping within feet of the fearsome crotalus atrox as he prepared to actually participate in the ritual’s main event.

On the day of the Snake Dance, the photographer donned a loin cloth and was further accoutred like the dancer seen in Snake Priest. The Hopis’ “dramatized prayer,” as Curtis described it, had become a tourist attraction, and the mesa-top village of Old Oraibi was filled with gawking rail excursionists, as well as hawk-eyed missionaries and government agents. Fearing that his participation could spur more aggressive restriction of Indian human rights, Curtis, perhaps the only white man allowed into the Snake Society, withdrew at the last moment and did not dance out into the plaza.

As Timothy Egan notes in his 2012 biography, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, Curtis’ reluctance was likely also fueled by the fate of Apache medicine man Goshonne. Before that visit to the Hopi villages, Curtis had finally been able to persuade Goshonne, who had spent time in jail for practicing his people’s pharmacology, to share with him the secret Apache creation myths.

The photographer-ethnographer had ample motivation to acquire this arcane knowledge because a scholar in Washington, D. C. — where the Smithsonian had rejected Curtis’ project due to his lack of formal education — had sneered to him that Apaches had no religion. But after Goshonne educated Curtis about Apache lifeways and sacred traditions, the medicine man had a panic attack. “My words are on the white man’s paper and I cannot take them back,” he later told Curtis. “My life will be short. All the medicine men have said it.”

And so it came to be.

Like the Hopi villages on sun-drenched mesas, the Acoma Pueblo of New Mexico is another of the oldest continuously occupied sites in North America. Acoma means “the place that always was.” A Feast Day at Acoma (1904) provides a long lens view of village life under a vast and luminous sky. In a piece for Scribner’s magazine, Curtis defended the Acoma practice of worshipping both Jesus and the sun. At the Old Well of Acoma (1904), in which two women gather water in earthenware pots, offers a painterly perspective on a domestic scene that embodies a meditative stillness.

Zuni Girls at the River

Zuni Girls at the River

That quality is inherent in another image at the Wittliff, Zuni Girls at the River (1903), as the subjects stand looking at the camera, pots balanced on their heads, enveloped in dark blankets. A dual sense of the exotic and the familiar is also captured in Blanket Weaver – Navaho (1904), in which a woman works at her loom outdoors, underneath a large cottonwood. Two of the Shadow Catcher’s most iconic works in the exhibition are also from the Navaho Nation. Cañon de Chelly (1904) underscores the smallness of humanity’s presence on the earth and in space and time. The canyon in Navaho mythology serves as the rift through which the gods emerge, and canyon walls echo the voices of those who have gone before. Curtis described Vanishing Race (1904, one of two gelatin silver prints in the Wittliff exhibition) as a “touching, melancholy poem” depicting a line of riders representing all Native Americans as the race was “passing into the darkness of an unknown future.”

In 1906, one image on view, Mosa – Mojave (1903), somehow plucked the heartstrings of the terrifying financial mogul J. P. Morgan, who at first had refused to aid Curtis’ project. But when the Shadow Catcher pulled from his portfolio the image of the Mojave girl with painted face, Morgan ponied up $75,000 in support over a period of five years. “Her eyes are those of a fawn of the forest,” wrote Curtis of the young Mojave, “questioning the strange things of civilization upon which it gazes for the first time.”

In a Piegan Lodge

In a Piegan Lodge

In a Piegan Lodge (1910) is a good example of a practice that made Curtis’ work controversial for some. The image shows Little Plume and his son Yellow Kidney seated with objects such as a pipe and tobacco cutting board, a buffalo skin shield, and a medicine bundle and eagle-wing fan. When Curtis printed and retouched the image, he removed a clock that had been sitting between the two men. Some critics have chided Curtis for a false romanticism or forced purity for his habit of deleting such factory-made items from the white man’s world that found their way into early twentieth-century Indians’ use.

Contemporary Native Americans are often unfazed by such perspectives, defending the Shadow Catcher’s art for insuring that their ancestors’ visages convey a sense of dignity. And because Curtis made so many photographs over such a long period of time, his pictures are often the only visual record of an Indian’s forebears.

“Mr. Curtis, I like a man who attempts the impossible,” said J. P. Morgan to the Man Who Sleeps on His Breath in 1906. Curtis may have achieved the impossible, but the project broke him physically, mentally, economically, and romantically. In the years before his death in 1952 and for years afterward, his colossal life’s work was all but forgotten.

The endless Indian summer of Edward Sheriff Curtis began a generation later. Partly sparked by the social changes of the 1960s that included an intensified interest in Native America, the semi-obscure late artist was suddenly blowing up. Beginning in the 1970s, his images were everywhere, and the flow of books, museum and gallery exhibitions, documentaries, and other Shadow Catcher activity shows no signs of diminishing. Curtis scholar and gallerist Christopher Cardozo has even announced the re-publication of the photographer’s magnum opus, the 20-volume set The North American Indian. 

“It’s such a big dream I can’t see it all,” Curtis told mentor George “Bird” Grinnell when he first conceived his life’s work. “I want to make them live forever.”


” …an absolutely unmatched masterpiece of visual anthropology, and one of the most thorough, extensive, and profound photograph works of all time.” –A. D. Coleman

“Because my father, George Horse Capture, discovered Curtis’ portrait of my great-great-grandfather, Horse Capture… our ancestor is with us in all our homes; his presence helps us choose the directions we take in life.” – Joseph D. Horse Capture


‘EDWARD S. CURTIS: Treasures from The North American Indian’ will be at The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University in San Marcos through December 3.

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2 Responses

  1. m

    Rightly so, the 60s would come to represent the ushering in of a new discovery for the round-eyes of a reality denied and viciously beaten back by sociopath gatekeepers at the intelligence alphabet soup who initially proselytized, then vilified the chemically synthesized ergot-branched form on DMT, known as LSD, which only hinted at the insights and understandings of the former, and which is found in varying degrees in the roots of all living plants. Those truths did not sit well with the Judeo-Christian forms of hierarchical worship that dominate even to this day, but are beginning to make a resurgence as the hollow and destructive force of consumer capitalism magnifies itself globally/exponentially. Shaman were allowed and expected to gaze upon the great Gaian mind and commune with worlds hidden from sight and bring back their meaning, a feat no technology can or will ever do. Artists would do well to understand this for they alone, acting as imagineer, can save us from our destructive selves. As Terence McKenna once postulated, if the artist cannot find the way, then the way cannot be found.

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