Plateau & Woodlands

If the white man wants to live in peace with the Indian, he can live in peace. There need be no trouble.
Treat all men alike. Give them the same law.
Give them all an even chance to live and grow.
All men were made by the same Great Spirit Chief.
They are all brothers. The earth is the mother of all people and all people should have equal rights upon it.
— Chief Joseph

Curtis studied Native Americans in the Plateau and the Woodlands regions of the West, and published his findings and photographs in volumes seven, eight, and eighteen of The North American Indian.

The similarities among the peoples he found in these contiguous areas are clearly reflected in both the text and the visual record. Many of the photographs Curtis made in the Plateau region are unusually lyrical and serene, and it is likely he felt especially at home there. The region had an abundance of water, one of Curtis’s favorite pictorial elements, and numerous high-mountain valleys surrounded by majestic forests. In addition, the people still retained much of their traditional material and social culture. By the time Curtis began his Plateau work in 1910, the worst of his early financial struggles had subsided, and he could afford to be a little more relaxed about financing his project.

It is not mere coincidence, then, that the image universally hailed as his most serene and lyrical, the Kutenai Duck Hunter (p. 155) is from the Plateau. His most famous portrait, the moving depiction of the great Nez Percé leader, Chief Joseph (p. 16), is also from the region. That two of Curtis’s three or four most important images are from the same area is all the more striking considering he made an estimated forty-five to fifty thousand negatives during the thirty years of his project.

Curtis also created a number of memorable images in the beautiful birch and poplar forests of the Woodlands; however, he found the Woodlands to be less fertile ground visually. While the region was beautiful in its own right, the Woodlands had less water, the forests were less dense, the trees less massive, and the landscape less compelling overall.

The Plateau and Woodlands regions extend from the northern United States into Canada. Plateau tribes, among them the Yakima, Kutenai, and Nez Percé, resided throughout eastern Washington and Oregon and into Idaho and Montana. During Curtis’s day the geographic region of the Woodlands encompassed a wider area than the more eastern boundaries considered today. Woodlands tribes such as the Cree, Sarsi, and Chipewyan migrated and hunted principally in the subarctic Canadian provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and eastern British Columbia. Both regions were inhabited by substantial animal populations, due not only to the ample forests and vegetation, but also to the sheer size of the territory coupled with a relatively small human population.

The territory covered by the Plateau was essentially that of the Columbia River Basin, demarcated on the east by the Rocky Mountains and on the west by the Cascade Range. This mountainous, semi-arid plateau, laced with mighty rivers and streams carrying snowmelt to the Pacific, provided the Plateau tribes with bountiful salmon harvests. They also gathered plants and roots and hunted deer and, on occasion, buffalo, but they subsisted almost entirely on fish. Because so much of their activity centered on harvesting fish, the Indians led largely sedentary lives. Many built dwellings made from rush or cattail mats, others constructed wooden plank buildings. Chinookan tribes lived in cedar houses in villages scattered along the Columbia River; the Nez Percé inhabited a particularly verdant, scenic territory formed by the drainage of the Clearwater, Snake, and Salmon Rivers; and the Wallawalla, Umatilla, and Cayuse tribes bordered the Chinookan tribes, sometimes inhabiting the same territory. These tribes occasionally skirmished with their Plains neighbors, although at other times they interacted harmoniously, sharing campsites and hunting territories.

Curtis noted that Plateau tribes were heavily influenced by Plains Indian dress and observed that they had adopted the moccasins and formal leather shirts more customary of Plains tribes. The Plateau tribes also adopted war dances and other war customs of the Plains, as well as an important Plains ceremony called Eshatltstema, which was performed to call the herds in times when buffalo were scarce. While it was not unusual for Native American tribes to adapt customs from other tribes, such explicit imitation, especially in dress and religion, was rare.

The subarctic territory inhabited by the Woodlands tribes comprised a broad-ranging topography of streams, lakes, prairies, swamps, forests, and barrens. Unlike tribes of the Plateau, the livelihood of the semi-nomadic Woodlands tribes was predominantly dependent on migratory caribou herds; they also hunted moose, elk, deer, beaver, and even buffalo. Instead of the more sedentary villages of the Plateau region, Woodlands Indians lived in smaller bands in tipis, moving with the seasons.

Plateau and Woodlands Indian culture evolved around the essential activities of hunting and fishing. As in the Great Plains, these Native Americans fashioned food, clothing, household utensils, and hunting implements from the meat, hides, organs, and bones of the animals they hunted. A good hunter or fisherman, who had both the ability to provide for his entire family and the generosity to share with those less fortunate in their own efforts, gained great respect from the community. The Indians believed success at hunting and fishing was as much a matter of luck and supernatural fortuity as of skill, and they took precautions to ensure their efforts would be rewarded. They decorated their gun cases and other items used when hunting with marvelous beadwork representing different game animals. Traps, fishing hooks, and nets often carried symbolic representations of the animals they were designed to catch.

When they bait a hook, a composition of four, five, or six articles, by way of charm, is concealed under the bait, which is always sewed round the hook. In fact, the only bait used by those people is in their opinion a composition of charms, enclosed within a bit of fish skin, so as in some measure to resemble a small fish.

Many tribal people are animists, and those of the Plateau and Woodlands were no exception. In simple terms, animism is the belief that all living things possess consciousness and that they are interconnected with and interdependent on all other life forms. Since every action taken could have unforeseen consequences within the human, animal, and spirit worlds, Plateau and Woodlands Indians attempted to be very clear in their conduct and intentions. They established ceremonies, taboos, and ritual activities as reminders to focus on the complex and often subtle effects their actions might have.

These Indians believed that the animals they caught sacrificed themselves for the benefit of humans and that the animals would only continue to do so if their spirits were treated with respect. Successful hunting and fishing was thus dependent upon courting animal spirits. Not only were the spirits afforded respect, the animals’ remains were handled and disposed of in a ritual manner. After the useful parts of fish and other creatures of the water had been removed, the remains were customarily placed back in the water. Likewise, hunters sometimes removed an internal organ, perhaps the heart or liver, of a larger game animal and each member of the hunting party ingested a small portion. Hunters also refrained from eating certain kinds of animals or certain body parts for similar spiritual reasons.

Both before and during a hunt, hunters would avoid contact with women who were menstruating. The menses was believed to be very powerful with spirits that could scare away animals. All females in their periods … refrained from eating the internal organs of animals, for these parts represent the “life,” … [and] the animals and game would have been too wary for hunters. For the same reason such women were not permitted to step across a hunter’s trail.

Puberty was a critically important juncture for Native Americans. In the Plateau and Woodlands, a young woman experiencing her first menstruation was often sent to a special lodge away from the village and given careful instructions regarding her behavior. She observed many rules, especially concerning foods, and she dressed in ritual garments and performed ritual actions to ensure strength, comeliness, and long life. It was believed that a young woman undergoing first menstruation was acquiring a great but also potentially harmful and dangerous power, and her behavior during the acquisition of this power would influence the rest of her life. The ceremony helped the young women of the tribe understand the power within them and the potential—both positive and negative—it held. In this way, she gained a new place within the community of human and spiritual forces.

White trappers and traders often intermarried with Plateau and Woodlands Indian women. They usually adopted Indian lifestyles and thus did little to change traditional Indian culture. However, as more whites moved into the region and did not assimilate, they competed for the valuable resources, and conflict inevitably increased. Like their Plains neighbors to the south and east, Plateau and Woodlands Indians, most notably the Nez Percé, resisted confinement to reservations and warred with government forces. In 1877, Chief Joseph led a band of fewer than seven hundred men, women, and children on a seventeen-hundred-mile trek, alternately fighting and fleeing, evading more than two thousand United States Army soldiers. As Chief Joseph attempted to reach Canada, where his tribe would find asylum from reservation life, he was finally and decisively defeated just miles short of the border. At the end of the ordeal, he spoke these famous words:

I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Toohululsote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. Ollokot who led the young men is dead. It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them have run away to the hills and have no blankets, no food; no one knows where they are—perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me my chiefs. I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I shall fight no more forever.

Chief Joseph was one of the most well-known Indian figures of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and he and Curtis became close friends in 1903, a year before the Indian’s death. While on a speaking trip to plead for the return of his people’s land in Oregon, the Nez Percé chief traveled to Curtis’s Seattle studio to have his portrait taken. Chief Joseph was a large man who stood more than six feet two inches and had a strong and dignified manner. In a series of portraits that includes the image that is recognized as one of Curtis’s most successful, the photographer captured the strength, intelligence, and humanity of the legendary Indian leader. Curtis’s sensitive and penetrating depiction of Chief Joseph becomes even more powerful with the knowledge of the tragic story of Joseph and the Nez Percé people.

In the landscape of the Plateau, Curtis found a perfect setting in which to portray Indian tribes whose culture and religion still seemed in perfect harmony with their natural environment. This is reflected in the serenity of his best photographs from the area, suggesting that the places and peoples he found in the Plateau exemplified the sacred legacy he strove to record.

—Christopher Cardozo with Darren Quintenz