What is Life?
It is the ﬂash of a ﬁreﬂy in the night.
It is the breath of the buffalo in the winter time.
It is the little shadow which runs across the grass
and loses itself in the Sunset.
— Crowfoot’s Last Words
Edward Curtis’s brief expedition to the Great Plains in the summer of 1900 the most profound experience of his life. That summer, Curtis accompanied George Bird Grinnell, his friend and early mentor, on a trip to Montana and witnessed one of the last great enactments of the Sun Dance. As Curtis viewed the Sun Dance—a ceremony that few whites, or natives, would see again for nearly seven decades—his vision for the grand photo-ethnographic undertaking that would become his life’s work crystallized. The small body of images he made on that summer trip, among them The Three Chiefs (p. 30), Piegan Dandy (p. 28), and Piegan Encampment (p. 29), clearly reveal that he had been touched by the magniﬁcence of the Indian nations and the overwhelming depth of their culture. These photographs formed the beginning of the vast, elegant portrait of Native American cultures that Curtis would bring to the world over the next thirty years. During Curtis’ time, the Indians of the Great Plains lived primarily in North and South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming, a territory once traversed by great herds of migrating buffalo. Curtis was strongly attracted to the ﬁercely independent lifestyle of tribes such as the Lakota, Apsaroke, and Piegan and seemed particularly adept at transforming their dignity and pride into extraordinary photographic images.
Curtis’ photographs of Indian life on the Great Plains comprise perhaps his most popular body of work; for many people, his photographs of the chiefs and warriors, the beadwork, the horses, and the Plains landscape have come to exemplify the American Indian. However, his photographs of the Plains Indians also documented many other aspects of tribal cultural life, including hunting, warfare, vision quests, and religious ceremonies. These images remain an unparalleled vision of the strength and nobility of the Plains Indian peoples who had once held dominion over tens of thousands of square miles.
The seminomadic culture of the Plains Indian tribes centered on the magniﬁcent buffalo that roamed the region. By the late 1890s the herds were gone and the buffalo was on the verge of extinction due to the white settlers’ careless decimation. Curtis’s photographs and his ethnographic writings clearly show that he understood the central importance of the buffalo to traditional Plains Indian culture. Dependence on the buffalo meant that entire villages and tribes moved along with the herds’ migrations. So vital was the animal that virtually no part of a slain buffalo was wasted.
The bison was not only the chief source of food of the Plains Indians, but its skin was made into clothing, shields, packs, bags, snowshoes, and tent and boat covers; the horns were fashioned into spoons and drinking vessels; the sinew supplied thread for sewing, bow-strings, and ﬁbre for ropes; the hair was woven into reatas, belts, personal ornaments, and the covers of sacred bundles.… So dependent on the buffalo were these Indians that it became sacred to them, and many were the ceremonies performed for the purpose of promoting the increase of the herds.
The buffalo provided a rich resource for Plains Indians and created an unprecedented demand for horses and, later, guns. These additions yielded even greater prosperity as they greatly increased the Indians’ ability to track and kill the buffalo; but they also led to new intertribal conﬂicts.
Many of the Indians who lived on the Great Plains at the time of Curtis’s visit had migrated there from areas east of the Mississippi, some from as far east as present-day New England. These tribes had been forced west at various times by the relentless white expansion, which reached its zenith during the 1800s. Intertribal conﬂict intensiﬁed as more tribes were pushed onto the Plains and competed for buffalo. The increased availability of horses expanded the range within which they could hunt, trade, and raid, and many tribal alliances were formed to counteract the competition for resources. Allied tribes sought to protect and expand territories and ensure superiority in warfare. The largest Plains tribes came to be powerfully and formidably outﬁtted. Allied tribes also attempted to control the ﬂow of critical goods from the East, both for their own beneﬁt and to deprive their rivals. Competition for territory and resources was a key motivation for the frequent warfare that came to characterize Plains Indian life and, at times, destroyed entire tribes.
Curtis’ photographs vividly convey the Plains peoples’ prowess as skilled horsemen, hunters, and warriors. The two primary symbols of a warrior’s wealth and status, horses and guns, often appear in his images. A system evolved among Plains Indians for measuring war honors, which they referred to as “counting coups.” Capturing horses and guns garnered distinct honors, while other honors were earned by striking an enemy. The Plains male, the archetypal Indian warrior, prominently displayed the symbols of his war honors on his person to indicate his stature. A warrior might affix painted sticks to his hair to denote the number of times he had been shot or injured, or hooves might be embroidered onto a leather pouch to indicate the number of horses he had stolen. Curtis described this in his writings.
The men wore deerskin shirts at all times when they were not about their own tipis. When the warrior had gained honors, they were indicated on the shirt he wore on special occasions, each weasel-tail, scalp, lock of hair, or feather indicating some deed of bravery.
Warfare on the plains was a very real and deadly struggle for tribal superiority and survival. For the Plains Indian male, success in war and in accumulating material wealth was directly attributed to his spirit power, or “medicine,” on which ascendancy through tribal leadership and respect as a warrior were dependent. To a Plains Indian, possessing medicine ensured that he would kill enough game to feed himself and his family and protected him in warfare and raiding. Individuals took great care to maintain the strength of their medicine and to preserve the connection with their spiritual “helpers” through prayer and supplication.
One method by which young men acquired medicine was the vision quest, a male puberty ritual involving fasting, prayer, and isolation. It was the means to acquiring both personal power and the power of perception. A vision might include dreams and songs as vehicles to illuminate meaning. Particular dreams might inform the youth of the location of an enemy camp or of enemy horses. They might reveal the number of braves in an approaching war party. The most signiﬁcant dreams were those in which a supernatural or spiritual helper appeared. The helper might take the form of a man or woman, an animal such as a snake or bird, or it might appear as a great cloud. A vision of a helper was an indication of divine or supernatural favor that could be called upon in times of distress. Sometimes the helper taught magic songs or chants designed for speciﬁc occasions, such as songs that could be sung to ensure success in battle or to bolster stealth and calmness when raiding rival camps. Receiving a vision was extremely signiﬁcant, yet not all vision-seekers were rewarded; the realization of a vision, when it occurred, could take years. Some Plains Indians lived their entire life without achieving a vision.
Sadly, Curtis’ written ethnographic record of Native Americans has been overlooked in the recent assessments of his contributions, primarily undertaken by photographic historians rather than by anthropologists. This is unfortunate because his writing contains a wealth of information about the tribes he visited and often provides insights that are not available elsewhere. Curtis was particularly adept at eliciting highly personal information that individuals would not share with other outsiders. For example, Curtis describes one of Red Hawk’s visions and the signiﬁcance those visions held for the great Ogalala leader.
Red Hawk fasted twice. The second time … a voice said, “Look at your village!” He saw four women going around the village with their hair on the top of their heads, and their legs aﬂame. Following them was a naked man, mourning and singing the death-song. A few days later came news that of ﬁve who had gone against the enemy, four had been killed; one returned alive, and followed the four mourning wives around the camp singing the death song. Still later they killed a Cheyenne and an Apsaroke scout, and the two heads were brought into camp.
Plains Indians were intensely spiritual peoples. In a way that paralleled the individual’s pursuit of medicine, community religious ceremonies focused on supplication to the Great Mystery—the divine power that permeates the universe. The largest and most spectacular of these ceremonies was the Sun Dance, which had had such a profound impact on Curtis in 1900 when he joined Grinnell on a journey to the Piegan Reservation in Montana. The Sun Dance was primarily a ceremony of supplication and sacriﬁce for supernatural aid and spiritual power, but it also served as an afﬁrmation of community, demonstrating the community’s devotion to and reliance on the power of the Great Mystery. Curtis wrote extensively about the Sun Dance.
It is wild, terrifying, and elaborately mystifying. The ﬁrst time I witnessed it I sat in the hallowed lodge with my friend George Bird Grinnell, who was called the “Father of the Blackfoot people.” It was at the start of my concerted effort to learn about the Plains Indians and to photograph their lives, and I was intensely affected.
Curtis witnessed entire tribes, thousands of individual lodges, converging for the ceremony. Then the call goes out to all neighboring tribes and thousands come to feast, give presents to the poor and form alliances with hostile tribes. Two days are taken up in forming the great Sun Dance circle, sometimes a mile in diameter. The placing of tribes and dignitaries, the herding of the common people, all this is arranged by masters of ceremony and criers carrying tufted, beaded wands.5 plains Indians undertook the Sun Dance both for the strength of the community and, not unlike the vision quest, for fulﬁllment of their personal vows.
Participation in the dance was entirely voluntary, a mental vow to worship the Mystery in this manner being expressed by a man ardently desiring the recovery of a sick relative; or surrounded by an enemy with escape apparently impossible; or, it might be, dying of hunger … since some inscrutable power had swept all game from forest and prairie. Others joined in the ceremony in the hope and ﬁrm belief that the Mystery … would grant them successes against the enemy and consequent eminence at home.
One of the most dramatic aspects of the Sun Dance involved the self-torture of young braves, beginning at sunup and lasting till sundown. In the center of the tribal circle, a “mystery tree” was secured in the ground. The Indian brave was brought out of conﬁnement and the medicine man prepared him for the test of strength.
Incisions are made on each breast, the skin loosened between the parallel slits and bone skewers slipped under the strips of skin. Another set of cuts is made at the shoulder blades and another pair of skewers inserted. [The young man] is now led to the mystery tree pole as blood streams down from the cuts and placed to face the sun. Long thongs have been attached to the willowy tip of the pole and the lower ends now fastened to the breast skewers. From the ones at his back the heavy buffalo skull is suspended.
The ceremony was accompanied by drumming, chanting, and singing. Then the circle was occupied by dancers whose presence brought the singing to a crescendo.
The young brave is moving his legs in time to the music, his body arched back in agonizing pain as the pole is bowed and the skull jerks up and down, the full strain centered on the stretched skin and ﬂesh of breast and back.
Does the youth endure the torture, the physical pain and twisting of his inner pressures, until the sun has crossed over the heavens and sunk below the burning prairie? Or has the skin broken loose or the subject fainted in ignominy? That is the test. It is the supreme bending of fates to the will of man or the domination of the gods. Either a new warrior has been made or a lesser man found wanting. It is a moving spectacle, a never-to-be-forgotten experience.
The tribes of the Great Plains were the most formidable and powerful in the United States, and they inspired Curtis by the majesty of their way of life. The great expanses of land and sky, the horses, the lodges, the stunning ceremonies—all are depicted in Curtis’s powerful Plains landscapes. His portraits of Plains Indians evoke the warriors’ emotional gravity, ﬁerce pride, and independence. Curtis would not ﬁnd a more dramatic example of the notion of the “American Indian” in his travels.
— Christopher Cardozo with Darren Quintenz