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National American Indian Heritage Month: history through the lens

Portrait of Navajo medicine man. (Courtesy photo)

Portrait of Navajo medicine man. (Courtesy photo)

Portrait of Princess Angeline, Washington. (Courtesy photo)

Portrait of Princess Angeline, Washington. (Courtesy photo)

A Cheyenne maiden stands near water, Wyoming. (Courtesy photo)

A Cheyenne maiden stands near water, Wyoming. (Courtesy photo)

A group of Navajo Indians walk the desert in Arizona. (Courtesy photo)

A group of Navajo Indians walk the desert in Arizona. (Courtesy photo)

GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- Edward S. Curtis stands as a monument in photography and anthropology. In photography’s infancy, he took the simple art and the soul of the Native American people and culture, now both of which are almost lost.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s Native American culture was in a steep decline that went so low it still hasn’t recovered, not even close. As the westerners expanded east, the natives were being forced out of their land and relocated into reservations. Most famous of which, the Trail of Tears. This culture, existing thousands of years, was suddenly unraveling at an alarming rate. None seemed to care, and at first, neither did Curtis.

If anything, Curtis was indifferent. It was seemingly by chance that a miniscule encounter launched his life into a new direction.

While walking the streets of Seattle, he saw an elderly native woman. So captivated by her age and seemingly outward wisdom so apparent on her face, he asked to take her portrait. Reticent at first, she eventually agreed and went with him to the studio he worked.

This was the beginning. Of all the old native women he could possible photograph, he picked Princess Angeline, daughter of Chief Seattle, for which the Emerald City is named. Her death marked an end of an era, as her father’s ancient bloodline was now gone from history. And history would have no record of her appearance, essentially her essence, had not Curtis took the initiative to take her photo.

As tragic as this is, Princess Angeline stands immortal.

Over the next few years, Curtis was hired to document excursions led by anthropologists and scientists. One was the scaling of Mt. Rainer. On this excursion Curtis met George Bird Grinnell, Anthropologist of Yale University.

It was through Grinnell that Curtis’s life changed radically. Interested in Curtis’s photographic talent, Grinnell, in the year of 1900, asked Curtis to accompany him and a few other colleagues to meet with the Blackfoot Confederacy in Montana. It was here Curtis truly saw the natives. He was so engrossed with their culture that he knew from here what he had to do: he had to preserve the culture of these peoples before it was too late.

From here he launched an expedition spanning across America. He enslaved himself to his craft. He saw the decline of Native American culture and he realized that it could all vanish—before his death.

He did everything he could to document the lives of the remaining tribes in North America. Curtis ruined his marriage, his image as a father, and even bottomed out broke, resulting in him seeking financial help from the titan himself, John Pierpont “J.P.” Morgan.

He created a series spanning 20 volumes cataloguing the natives of America.

“These are not like those which anyone has seen,” said Grinnell. “The results which Curtis gets with his camera stir one as one is stirred by a great painting.”

Grinnell further complimented his ability to allow the subject to speak for itself, rather than Curtis adding his own flair, “while Curtis is first of all an artist, he does not think solely of his art.”

At first glance, his photos seem ordinary. Getting natives to pose for a photo is nothing extraordinary. But his photos don’t readily explain the context of the times. Back then, the relations with the natives were so bad that no white men, except a very chosen few, were allowed anywhere near the natives. Even after approval, non-Indians were kept at arm’s length and were viewed with heavy suspicion.

Even Curtis, with the sweetest of intentions ran into trouble with the natives. One story in particular that sticks out is when Curtis, in an effort to save his marriage, brought his family down to Arizona to stay with the Navajo. The night they arrived went smoothly, but the next night everything turned to shambles. A woman of the tribe went into labor that second night, and was suffering greatly. The problem, as the elder’s took it, was the presence of Curtis’s family on their land. Curtis was friends with a few of the members and when they caught wind of the suspicions they rushed to escort Curtis’s family off the reservation. And their worries weren’t without warrant: a group was assembled to kill them.

That interaction was an exception, but it is telling of the tumultuous relationship the westerners and the natives shared. Throughout his expeditions Curtis was constantly using his charm and persuasion to gain trust of the natives. They had to have trusted him and his mission, for it was a pure one to simply immortalize their culture before it was washed away. Curtis himself knew he could do next to nothing to save their culture, but he could record it. Though he felt that wasn’t enough, he did it greatly.

Another testament to his sincerity and dedication to his duty is that he worked for free. The deal he struck with J. P. Morgan was such that his travel, his equipment and his guides were all paid for. But him? He wouldn’t make a dime. He was personally relieved upon this news, because he just wanted to bring his vision to life.

His wife, however, wasn’t too excited about being married to a man with no income. She divorced him.

Can’t save everything.

Curtis is now remembered as a man who lived up to the very word photographer. Because of him we have legends preserved in the flesh, in a still frame of reality. Curtis is proof and a strong reminder of the importance of photography, not just as an art form, but as a literal preserver mankind and their story. Because of him the heritage of the Native Americans is forever saved. The faces of the past are now forever.