The Photographer Who Created The Myth Of The American Indian

Between 1906 and 1930 Edward Curtis took portraits and images, as well as recorded the language and music of more than 80 tribes.

Museums are funny places. On the one hand they’re the keepers of history and peoples that have gone before us, and on the other they’re a third party’s version of these stories. I remember being in a guided tour a few years ago at a museum that featured different exhibits on indigenous groups of the American Southwest. Since this was a special event, our guide was a member of the Hopi tribe who was explaining and dispelling different statements on the objects that were on display. At one point he pointed to the picture of a farmer wearing nothing but a strip of cloth and carrying a plow.

I remember he looked at the photograph and said something like, “That’s almost like me and my crops, except I wear more clothes.” As someone who grew up between the border and the nearby farmlands, my idea of Tribal lands and communities was a little different. Mexico does not have reservations and depending on where you are, it’s possible to find towns where Spanish is the second language. This is not to say that there are no issues of prejudice or misunderstanding; it’s just a different perception.

But, at that moment, it struck me then how, for many, a museum exhibit or a “historical” film might be the main sources to understanding the reality of indigenous populations around the world, not just the US. There are several mediums and narratives responsible for the generalized and stereotyped idea of an indigenous person. One example is how during a filming of a Western in the golden age of Hollywood, the wardrobe department places bandanas over the wigs of the actors playing the parts of the indigenous characters, some of them actually belonging to particular sovereign nations. It wasn’t historically or culturally accurate. It was an improvisation to keep their costumes in place. Yet after that film, it became a staple. Like this, there are several stories of reality being bent for convenience purposes that ended up becoming an assumed truth.

Another person who had a hand in this creation of the contemporary misunderstanding of Native Americans was famous photographer, Edward Curtis. Between 1906 and 1930 Curtis took portraits and images, as well as recorded the language and music of more than 80 tribes. Originally backed by J.P. Morgan and Theodore Roosevelt, the photographer set out to create a multivolume collection of images and folklore titled The North American Indian.

The first person that Curtis captured in his lens was Princess Angeline, the daughter of Chief Seattle. For each picture he paid her a dollar, which translates to $27.57 of today’s money. While this could obviously be seen as the photographer taking advantage of the situation, since his backers did provide him with a hefty funding, it would become the least problematic aspect of Curtis’ project.

As Julia Dolan, photography curator for the Portland Art Museum explained to Artsy,

“I can’t help but be stunned at times when I look at these images made at the turn of the century of people doing everyday tasks half nude, or completely nude, like spear-fishing. When Timothy O’Sullivan was photographing Native Americans back in the West in the 1870s, they were wearing denim.”

Curtis would encourage the subjects of his images to wear outfits and accessories of their ancestors, mostly grandparents, in order to present the “idea” of who native peoples were. It’s not just that most indigenous communities had assimilated, but it’s only natural that with time people would start dressing differently. However, this photographic series would perpetuate stereotypes and outdated realities that continued to be repeated.

While we can’t dismiss Curtis’ work because they are historical documents, yet not the most accurate, we can’t forget the fact that these are someone’s “subjective vision” of these communities. They’ve created the modern myth surrounding indigenous groups, and for that we need to tread carefully when use them as historical constructions of the past. The people in the images were real, but the story created around the photographs was probably more propaganda than an actual ethnographical endeavor.

For more historical photographs, and the stories behind them, check out the following:

Sebastião Salgado and the Importance of Capturing Genocides on Film

These Photos Show How French Women Were Punished For Collaborating With Nazis