The Splendid Indians Of Edward S. Curtis


He broached his idea to Grinnell—to visit every tribe in the West, studying and photographing them and publishing their histories with pictures and text that he would write. The project, he estimated, would take five or six years of his own and an assistant’s time, might cost as much as $25,000, and could be financed by sales of his pictures and of the finished sets of perhaps several volumes. When he was done, he told Grinnell, he would have a lasting record of the “Indian as he was in his normal, noble life so people will know he was no debauched vagabond but a man of proud stature and noble heritage.” Grinnell responded enthusiastically to the proposal, gave Curtis a short course in the kinds of questions to ask and information to gather among the tribes, and assured him of his support in making his work known to others.

Curtis was off almost immediately, like a man possessed. Within ten days, after a brief stop in Seattle, where he put his studio affairs in the hands of associates, he was on the Hopi reservation in Arizona, commencing to photograph as if he feared that the other tribes would disappear before he could get to them. After the Hopis he moved through the Arizona desert and along the Gila and Colorado rivers, photographing the Navahos, Apaches, Mohaves, and other southwestern tribes. From time to time, between 1900 and 1904, he returned to Seattle with his glass-plate negatives, making and selling prints to keep himself going, then hurrying off to photograph more tribes.

It was a grueling, committed life, full of frustrations, difficulties, and hardships in the field; but, as Curds later said, he thought of himself as a man with a mission whose time was running out. Tall, rugged, and husky, still in his thirties, he was generally able to maintain good health as he drove his rattling photographic wagon across the reservations, through all kinds of terrain and climate, visiting remote villages, hunting camps, fishing stations, and sacred sites. He lived in the deserts, the mountains, the open plains, and the deep forests. Sometimes there were no roads, and he had to travel by packhorse. He started with a 14” x 17” box camera with a fine German lens, but it was big and cumbersome, and he switched eventually to an 11 X 14, and finally to a 6 X 8, reflex camera. He used a tripod and natural lighting for all of his pictures and took most of his portraits of Indians in his tent, which was lined with a maroon-colored drape and had a skylight on one side, with a curtain to control the light. Almost all of his pictures were taken on glass plates that were heavy, fragile, and hard to handle in the field; he carried them in trunks and changed them into their holders in a changing bag or in his tent at night.

Curtis started with relatively little knowledge of Indian history or culture, and his early attitudes reflected the white man’s conventional point of view about them. He referred to the Hopis’ religious beliefs as “superstitious” and their sacred rites and ceremonies as “esoteric.” He was sometimes frustrated by headmen in getting the pictures he wanted and said there was no use arguing with them, for “Indian logic is apart from the American’s.” But he was becoming a good student of human nature and developing increasing patience, diplomacy, and, above all, a growing understanding of the Indian’s point of view about himself and about all white men. They recognized his genuine sympathy and helped him secure the pictures and historic and cultural information he wanted.

It was rarely easy to tell Indians what to wear and where and how to pose and, in addition, to ply them with questions about their religious beliefs and other secret and personal details. But by trial and error Curtis learned how to win over most of his subjects. Sometimes he gained acceptance through the help of a paid interpreter or a missionary or a government agent. At other times he got what he wanted by simply paying the Indians or buying them a meal. He learned to practice guile and go through long periods of patient waiting, during which he did his best to seem uninterested and “innocent,” until gradually he won friendship and confidence. Seemingly idle conversation about nature, he found, would attract an Indian’s curiosity and lead him to talk about other things. Once, to get Apache shamans to reveal the secrets of their religious life, he spent days assuming a “nonchalant indifference.” In time he found himself being accepted. Presently he paid some of the Apaches to take trips with him in the mountains. More and more people—men, women, and children, and finally shamans—came along. “Had the medicine men dreamed,” he said, “that I possessed a real questioning thought, nothing could have induced them to join the party. But no—I was just a sucker furnishing the food and paying for the privilege.” At last, totally trusting him, the shamans “went on with their devotions,” oblivious to the white man who was carefully watching. The final step, taking the pictures, required only a bit more time.