Untitled – (Nampeo painting pot)

Intensity of Regard

– Louise Erdrich

When I look into the eyes of the women photographed by Edward S. Curtis, there is an exchange, there is intensity of regard (pl. 66). Curtis mastered the art of making his subject so dimensional, so present, so complete, that it is to me as though I am looking at the women through a window, as though they are really there in the print and in the paper, looking back at me. This is the genius and the gift of the work. The women photographed by Curtis are so alive that it seems any minute they will change their expression; the hint of a smile will turn into a hoot or laugh, the frown into exasperation. Just look into the eyes of Klamath Woman, photographed in 1923. She doesn’t quite trust you. The bells on her hat will jingle in just a moment, when she turns away to go about her business. Although these portraits were posed and painstakingly arranged, the liveliness and the spirit of the women always breathes in the image—the Clayoquot Maiden is hiding a laugh in her blanket of fur and cedar, the Mohave Mother nurses her child with offhand dignity. The baby stares with some suspicion at the photographer, but does not relinquish his mother’s breast. To me, Curtis’ images of women with their children are as disquieting as they are profoundly beautiful (pls. 65, 77). As Anne Makepeace mentions in her essay in Edward S. Curtis: The Women, these children are shortly to be taken from their mothers and sent to boarding schools run by the United States government. There, they will be stripped of their culture and language. They will cry for their mothers, and their mothers will cry for them. Loss trembles in the background.

Women’s work is celebrated in Curtis’ photographs—women grind corn, bake bread, make clay vessels, doctor each other, pick berries, haul wood and water, gather reeds, dig clams. These images of women working are among my favorites, for they are more practical than elegiac, yet entirely harmonious, and they are often the most sensual of Curtis’ works. His eye lingers on the feel of things, the baked earthen vessels, the clay under the potter’s hands as she mixes it, the motion of the reaper, the tensile beauty of a loom set against a canyon wall. There is a flow of energy in these photographs that carries into the present. For although Edward Curtis believed that he was documenting a vanishing culture, it is in these humble arts that the strength of Native culture lives on. Women still make pots using the same techniques and designs. Women still reap crops and harvest rice in canoes. And into their rugs and baskets, their clothing and beadwork, women still weave the sacred symbols of their nations.

Louise Erdrich