The name came to Edward S. Curtis from Indians, who were the subject of his life work—a twenty volume study in words and pictures of The North American Indian. The title of Tim Egan’s fascinating new biography is Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: the Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis.
It must have been easier for the ones with firm beliefs and intentions, the purists: the original Europeans who thought the indigenous peoples on the new continents were less than human and best used as slaves, and, if worked to death or killed, of no moral consequence; the northern Europeans who started on the Atlantic seaboard and drove Indians west with diseases and superior weapons, duplicity, and sometimes savagery; and those on all fronts who thought and said that the best Indians were dead Indians. Col. John Milton Chivington, who engineered the Sand Creek Massacre of friendly Cheyenne and Arapaho in 1864, said it this way: “Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! … I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians.”
Another group of purists was—and is—the saviors, the biggest number Christian missionaries. The Franciscans under Father Serra, beginning in 1769, set up a string of 21 missions in California, and the good father is said to have converted over 5,000 Indians. He has been beatified for this work, but there is strong opposition to the final step of Sainthood from Indians and Indian advocates who argue that he and his missions were responsible for the enslavement, torture, and death of thousands of California Indians. Some have called what happened in California genocide—Josephy, in 500 Nations, hedged only slightly, saying that the history of the California tribes “was as close to genocide as any tribal people had faced, or would face, on the North American continent.”
Further north—almost a century later—President Grant turned over the administration of Indian reservations to Christian missionaries. Missionaries, from early French priests accompanying fur traders to the Whitmans and Spaldings at Walla Walla and Lapwai, had been active from the beginning of white settlement in converting Indians, but it was Grant who, in Josephy’s eyes, caused the biggest breach in the separation of church and state in our history in giving over the administration and control of Indians to churches. These true believers, like their earlier Spanish counterparts, believed that they knew what was best for the Indians, and outlawing music, dance, clothing, and spiritual rituals was good because it was to the Indians’ benefit.
To be fair, there were and are missionaries who saw grayer shades, who sometimes have helped to keep Indians and Indian culture alive—some few helped Curtis.
And there is another associated group—possibly for much of our nation’s history the dominant group, made up of a few dedicated Samaritans and a silent majority of the population, which has promoted assimilation as the way of survival for Indians. Their mantra: kill the Indian to save the man. Examining “assimilation”—killing the “Indianness” is what Josephy called it—is now a major part of my work at the Josephy Library.
But today I am thinking about the white men and women who engaged the Indians as equals, and the Indians on the other side who also pinned their hopes on a relationship of equals, and how they have struggled—and still struggle. Tim Egan outlines a Curtis life that runs from poverty to great success as the finest portrait photographer in the land. Curtis consorts with the rich and famous from Gifford Pinchot and Teddy Roosevelt to J.P. Morgan, and sets off on a quest to present the American Indian as he and she were—still were in many places in Curtis’s time—in their own highly developed physical and spiritual cultures.
The curve in the book—and I think maybe in Curtis’s life, came with his intense examination of Plains Indians and the Battle of the Little Big Horn. After going over and over the battlefield with Crow Indian scouts who had been there, he learned that Custer was not a hero, but when he tried to tell the true story he was rebuffed on all fronts, finally by President Roosevelt himself, who said against all evidence that Curtis presented that his account was “highly improbable.” What he meant is that the nation needed Custer as a hero—and not Curtis as a truthteller.
Curtis’s good friend and for many years chief Indian informant, Alexander Upshaw, a Crow who went to the Carlisle Indian School and married a white woman, the man who had worked the Custer battlefield and talked with Curtis and the scouts endlessly, died under questionable circumstances in a jail cell in the wake of this work.
Curtis lived to old age, but died almost destitute, his thousands of photographs and the first movie ever to feature an all-Indian cast mortgaged to the Morgans and others to keep him alive and taking pictures. Scrambling among the assimilationists and fighting against and trying to avoid the purists, Curtis, and before him his great friend, Alexander Upshaw, paid steep prices. But their work survives—and so, against all odds, do the Indian peoples they celebrated.
Alvin Josephy on Curtis: http://www.americanheritage.com/content/splendid-indians-edward-s-curtis
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