Posted by: Aaron Lisec | October 28, 2013

Glimpsing a Lost World: Edward S. Curtis and The North American Indian

ccording to the Library of Congress, this photo Adepicts "Several Kwakiutl people dancing in a circle around a smoking fire, in an effort to cause a sky creature, which they believe swallowed the moon, to sneeze thereby disgorging it."

According to the Library of Congress, this photo shows “Several Kwakiutl people dancing in a circle around a smoking fire, in an effort to cause a sky creature, which they believe swallowed the moon, to sneeze thereby disgorging it.”

A new exhibit opening November 1 in The Hall of Presidents and Chancellors at Morris Library highlights the art of Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952), whose photographs of Native Americans captured a vanishing way of life.  Curtis published The North American Indian in 20 volumes with support from financier J. P. Morgan and President Theodore Roosevelt.  SCRC holds 13 of these volumes, offering researchers a rare opportunity to study these iconic images firsthand.

SCRC’s Beth Martell curated the exhibit and chose 130 images to show how Curtis traveled throughout remote areas of the American west, Canada, and Alaska to depict Native Americans in traditional dress posed for portraits, engaged in daily activities, and performing sacred rituals.  Curtis took thousands of photographs over the course of three decades, many on large glass plates that he transported over rough terrain.

Tobadzischini, Navaho

Navajo in ceremonial dress.

Curtis also wrote at length about his subjects and Martell includes many excerpts that shed light on the photographs and the man who took them.  In one passage, Curtis explains how Nez Perce parents taught their children to fast from an early age as part of their spiritual upbringing.

“What a picture of Indian character this affords: a mere infant starting out alone into the fastnesses of the mountain wilds, to commune with the spirits of the infinite, a tiny child sitting through the night on a lonely mountain-top, reaching out its infant’s hands to God! On distant and near-by hills howl the coyote and the wolf. In the valleys and on the mountain side prowl and stalk all manner of animals. Yet alone by the little fire sits the child listening to the mysterious voices of the night.” (From Volume 8, The Nez Perces, Part 12.)

Martell will discuss the exhibit at a brown bag lunch talk on Thursday, November 14, at noon in the Hall of Presidents.  Dr. Gray Whaley, associate professor of History, will speak on “American Indian Activism and the Primitive Imaginary in the Age of Edward Curtis.”

SCRC encourages students and anyone interested in photography, photojournalism, anthropology and Native American culture and history to tour the exhibit and pursue further research using the Curtis volumes.  For further information please call Beth Martell at 453-4097 or contact SCRC at 453-2516.

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