In Indian homes all across the country, photographs by the early-twentieth-century anthropologist and photographer Edward Curtis hang on the walls over fireplaces and dining tables, in living rooms and dens. Many other contemporary Indian families have similar connections to their past. In Indian homes all across the country, photographs by the early-twentieth-century anthropologist and photographer Edward Curtis hang on the walls over fireplaces and dining tables, in living rooms and dens. These priceless images help modern Indian people maintain links to their past.
Recently I went to the Minneapolis American Indian Center to visit some friends at the gallery there. I looked at the artworks and scoured the shops for beadwork that might appeal to my six-year-old daughter, Singer. On the second floor of the center, I noticed a series of faded Curtis photographs on display. As I walked along the corridor examining the images, I was startled and moved to see that one pictured my great-great-grandfather. Through these powerful images we are reminded that our relatives are always with us.
Eventually I saw several Native American kids with their parents who were also looking at the photograph. I couldn’t help overhearing their conversation and their fascination with the images. It was evident in their eyes that Cutis’s work had survived not only as a testament to one man’s vision, but also as a glimpse into the past for generations of Indian people.
For my family, Horse Capture has been a role model. Although he passed on before I was born, all of our family members have heard stories about him. Through Curtis’s photograph, through anthropological studies, and through oral history, we have come to know Horse Capture. By noting the clothing he wore in Curtis’s photograph, we can see that he was a traditional Indian man. People recognized for their power wore pierced shirts, as he is wearing. He also wears an eagle-bone whistle, indicating that he participated in sacred ceremonies. A scalp lock is attached to his rifle, representing his exploits as a warrior. He led a traditional life and dedicated himself to the care of one of the objects most sacred to my people, the Flat Pipe.
This book tells the story of Edward Curtis, a man who devoted a significant portion of his life to a project that continues to have an impact on Indians and non-Indians alike. His travels to seven geographic regions-from California to Alaska; from Great Plains to the Pacific Northwest-illustrate that this was more than an occupation. It was a calling. I think non-Indians are able to appreciate not only the technical skill Curtis brought to his photographs, but also the works’ emotional fulfillment. Native Americans, too, appreciate these qualities, but we are also grateful because his work depicts for us a time to which we would like to be closer.
In the background of some of the Curtis photographs, I can recognize the Fort Belknap Reservation landscape. In the foreground, I can see my people on horseback. These same areas remain reasonably untouched today, broken by only a few houses and an occasional road. The families of Curtis’s subjects are still there, fostering the traditions their ancestors established.
These connections between the past and present make Curtis’s work important to us-visual reminder of our people and our commitment to future generations.