The Splendid Indians Of Edward S. Curtis


Today a new and exciting chapter in Curtis’ saga is under way. Two years ago a group of investors in Santa Fe finally purchased all of Lauriat’s remaining Curtis materials. Soon afterward they were joined by a group in Boston, headed by John A. Sodergren, a graduate student in anthropology at Harvard, and David Napior, who with Sodergren owns a small social-research firm in Cambridge. The two groups combined into a Massachusetts corporation of eleven individuals, using the old name, North American Indian, Inc., to take up the publishing of Curds’ books and prints where Curtis and Lauriat had left off.

Doing business as Curtis Gravures, the group has already sold a few complete sets, several individual volumes, and a number of the prints that came to them from Lauriat. But following the high standards set by Curtis—making prints by hand from the original copperplates on a flat-bed press and using the best paper, printing, and binding available—they plan to produce and sell two hundred twenty-eight new sets, matching those made by Curtis, and thus complete the 5oo-set edition originally planned.

In one of his interviews, when he was still busy with his project, Curtis was asked what Americans had made of the Indian—a question that he answered, ironically, in terms of what he had seen and come to feel but had taken great pains not to photograph. “We made of him,” he replied, “a race totally discouraged. … Forced to the wall, with no escape, he has accepted his dull fate with the grim stoicism of his race, and has ceased to try to combat or avert it. Our efforts to extend assistance to him have been insincere and he has known it; linked, unwillingly, with cupidity and stupid lack of understanding, even the work of those few honest men who really tried to help him has been wasted- has been worse than wasted, for it has been harmful. We have always wronged the Indian but the greatest wrongs we are doing him today are born of our misunderstanding of him. The hardest of his manifold misfortunes came through the ever-changing policies by which we managed him after he had been fully conquered. We have ever been and still are vacillating and uncertain in our dealings with him. …”

Curds’ photographs have sometimes been criticized for showing none of the wrongs he saw. Although he photographed Indians when the authoritarian hand of government agents, of missionaries, and of soldiers lay heavily on the reservations and when the tribal peoples were enduring the period of their greatest suffering—many of them shorn of their leadership and traditional organizations, subjected to harsh punishments, denied freedoms, and often maintained at near-starvation levels—Curds’ idealized pictures give no hint of any of it. That, however, was not his goal as he originally expressed it to Grinnell in 1900 and as he carried it through to completion thirty years later.

Are they perversions of the truth or, at best, the fictional works of a romantic who paid Indians to show tfiemselves, not as they were, but as he wanted them to be? Look closely into those faces. Even as they bore the oppression and misery that Curtis did not picture, they show the dignity and pride that defied and endured it. This, if anything, is the greatness of Curtis’ Indian photographs. For all Americans, now and in the future, this is the way Curtis wanted us to remember them.