Edward S. Curtis in Context Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian -- Home Page

Oglala War-Party Edward Curtis: Pictorialist and Ethnographic Adventurist

Gerald Vizenor
Professor, American Studies, University of California, Berkeley
October, 2000

Edward Curtis presented his photographs, notes and cultural observations as ethnographic. He argues against those detractors who petitioned the government that he was not a trained ethnographer, and that his work was not decisive. Three generations later the native heirs choose his photographic images for reasons other than the politics of the social sciences. Perhaps natives praise the visual analogy. Curtis pictures may, in fact, be the choice of more natives than any other photographer. This association, in my view, is aesthetic, not ethnographic.

Why would natives pose to create a portrait simulation, a pictorialist image not their own, for photographic adventurists who later nominate their pictures as the real, and the ethnographic documents of a vanishing race?

Perhaps for the money and tricky camera stories.

Why, several generations later, would natives embrace these romantic pictures as real moments of their own cultural memories?

Perhaps the images are a sense of presence, a visual analogy. Or, perhaps it is a cult of native remembrance. "In photography, exhibition value begins to displace cult value," wrote Walter Benjamin in Illuminations. "But cult value does not give way without resistance. It retires into an ultimate retrenchment: the human countenance. It is no accident that the portrait was the focal point of early photography. The cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead, offers a last refuge for the cult value of the picture."1

Richard Kearney argues in The Wake of Imagination that the "human ability to 'image' or 'imagine' something has been understood in two main ways throughout the history of Western thought." The first is a " representational faculty which reproduces images" of some reality; the second is a "creative faculty which produces images" that stand alone. "These basic notions of imagination" refer to "everyday experience" and "artistic practices."2

Absence and Presence: Representation of Natives

The modernist constructions of culture, with natives outside of rational, cosmopolitan consciousness, are realities by separation, a sense of native absence over presence in history. The absence of natives was represented by images of traditions, simulations of the other in the past; the presence of natives was tragic, the notions of savagism and the emotive images of a vanishing race. The modernist images of native absence and presence, by creative or representational faculties, are the rational binary structures of the other, an aesthetic, ideological, disanalogy.

The distinctions and discrepancies of pictorial, ethnographic, and detractive visual images of natives are not easily resolved by cultural evidence, censure, or the politics of identity. Crucial to the resolution of these vagaries of photographic esteem is a visual method of interpretation; a choice of metaphors and visual reason that does not separate natives as the other in an eternal academic disanalogy.

Edward Curtis created pictorialist images of natives, but most of the interpretations are ethnographic. The creation of visual images, in other words, is represented by linguistic authority. Pointedly, photographic images are bound by the structure of language. Barbara Stafford argued in Visual Analogy that language is a "godlike agency in western culture," and to free "graphic expression from an unnuanced dominant discourse of consumerism, corruption, deception, and ethical failure is a challenge that cuts across the arts, humanities, and sciences."3

Analogy is an active, aesthetic, creative connection in the visual arts, and in the sense of natives, analogy is a desire to achieve a human union in visual images, rather than a cultural separation in language. Analogy absolves the distance and discrepancies of pictorialist and ethnographic pictures of natives by restoring a sense of visual reason.

Analogy "demands that we take seriously the problem of correlation," wrote Stafford. Analogy "is central both to ancient religions and to a modern anthropology of the senses." Analogy is a creative, visual process, but it was "supplanted by the elevation of atomistic difference: the obsession with unbridgeable imparity and the hieratic insistence on insurmountable distance between the material and spiritual realms." Analogy "has the virtue of making distant peoples, other periods, and even diverse contemporary contexts part of our world." Stafford wants to "recuperate the lost link between visual images and concepts, the intuitive ways in which we think simple by visualizing."4

Science and Ethnology

Consider the learned theories and studied pictures of natives as the "hieratic insistence" on disanalogy. Ethnology, for instance, became a sacred association in the studies of native cultures. William John McGee, the "ethnologist in charge" at the Bureau of American Ethnology in the late nineteenth century outlined the goals of this agency in this way:

"Ethnologists, like other good citizens, are desirous of raising the Indian to the lofty plane of American citizenship; but they prefer to do this constructively rather then destructively, through knowledge rather than ignorance, through sympathy rather than intolerance," wrote McGee. Ethnologists "prefer to pursue in dealing with our immature race the course found successful in dealing with the immature offspring of our own flesh and blood." 5

Curtis announced similar racialists notions that natives were comparable to children. The notion of natives as immature was a common theory of evolution at the time. Many scientists were involved in a harsh debate of monogenism, a single origin, and polygenism, many origins; these notions of creation were used to explain distinctive native cultures, and native resistance to cultural dominance.

Early in the nineteenth century many "critics began to question the monogenetic assumptions, set forth in the Bible, that all mankind shared the same origin," wrote Robert Bieder in Science Encounters the Indian. "Increasingly they began to explain Indians' recalcitrant nature in terms of polygenism. To polygenists Indians were separately created and were an inferior species of man."6

Natives were first simulated as savages in the common cultural binaries of savagism and civilization. Then, by chicanery, federal treaties, and military means natives were removed to reservations and nominated the vanishing race at the end of the nineteenth century.

American civilization was a cultural manifest and a religious covenant over bogus savagism. The "Indian was the remnant of a savage past away from which civilized men had struggled to grow," wrote Roy Harvey Pearce in Savagism and Civilization. "To study him was to study the past. History would thus be the key to the moral worth of cultures." American civilization progressed from "past to present, from east to west, from lower to higher." Pearce pointed out that those "who could not journey to see Indians in person could see them pictured in numerous collections of Indian sketches and portraits."7

Influences on Curtis

Edward Curtis was born in Wisconsin in 1868. Naturally, he grew into the literature of natives. He likely read dime novels, captivity narratives, and the sensational newspaper stories of the evanescence of the transient savages. As a young man he must have seen sketches of natives and reproduction of portraits by George Catlin and Charles Bird King. Curtis was curious, no doubt, and eager to understand the history and literature of his time.

Curtis opened a photographic studio in the early 1890s. It was at the same time that natives lost their land, human rights, a sense of presence, and were pictured as the tragic cultures of a vanishing race. Sitting Bull had been shot by soldiers, and then, two weeks later, hundreds of Ghost Dancers were massacred by Seventh Cavalry soldiers on December 29, 1890, at Wounded Knee. Curtis was a man of nature, a mountaineer and adventurist, but surely he could not have been unaware of newspaper stories about these native miseries. His first pictures must have drawn him into many conversations about natives. Curtis was motivated, after all, to pursue a photographic record of the last natives, and he did so with romantic, pictorial images that ran against the popular notions of the savage.

Many American newspapers created and promoted stories of savagism and the vanishing race. The Civil War, and later the telegraph, changed journalism and the way news was reported. Press associations and "cooperative news gathering" were inspired by the telegraph. War "increased newspaper readership and stimulated new competition between urban newspapers," observed John Coward in The Newspaper Indian. Editors "discovered that they could increase their profits when they published stories about major battles," including, of course, conflicts with natives.8

Journalists, at the time, were too close to the western adventures of the army, and many thought that native cultures "could be easily known and explained by simple observation," noted Coward. "The 'vanishing Indian' theme was especially popular in the nineteenth century, when native cultures did seem to be fading before the westward rush of white settlement." Clearly, "newspapers played a major role in creating and maintaining popular Indian identities in the nineteenth century." The press, however, was not alone in the promotion of the savage. George Catlin and many other artists, hundreds of photographers, politicians, and an entire cultural system created the image and historical idea of the tragic savage at the vanishing point.9

Sitting Bull, the Lakota healer, for instance, was known largely through simulations and "newspaper representations," especially in the sensational stories on the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The New York Times raised a catch question about Sitting Bull: Was he "an extremely savage type, betraying that bloodthirstiness and brutality for which he has so long been notorious?" That savage image of a native humanist was created by strangers. "The Sitting Bull of the papers and the man himself were often worlds apart."10

Curtis created his picture The Vanishing Race, in 1904. The photogravure, published three years later in the first of his mighty twenty volume set, The North American Indian, depicts a column of natives lost in the shadows, a sentimental evanescence.

"The thought that this picture is meant to convey is that the Indians as a race, already shorn of their tribal strength and stripped of their primitive dress, are passing into the darkness of an unknown future," Curtis wrote in the caption to The Vanishing Race. About the same time he wrote in Scribner's Magazine that the "relationship of the Indians and people of this country is that of a child and parent. We will stand convicted for all time as a parent who failed in his duty." He declared that natives were "being ground beneath the wheel of civilization, and though we may be able to justify our claims that advancement and progress demand the extermination of the Indians, we can scarcely justify the method used in this extermination."11 Curtis, of course, would always be the master of the pictures.

Remarkably, this haunting photograph, The Vanishing Race, was created less than a decade after he first aimed a cumbersome view camera at Princess Angeline, the native daughter of Chief Seattle. "I paid the princess a dollar for each picture made," wrote Curtis. "This seemed to please her greatly and with hands and jargon she indicated that she preferred to spend her time having pictures made than in digging clams."12

Curtis as Pictorialist

Curtis paid natives to pose; he selected ornaments, vestments, and he played the natural light, tone, picturesque reflections, and the solitary nature of natives in his pictures. The pictorial images of pensive warriors are simulations of the real; transmuted in visual analogies. The aesthetic poses of natives countered the cruelties of reservations and binaries of savagism and civilization.

"In terms of pictorialist aesthetics, posing contributed positively to the final image," observed Christopher Lyman in The Vanishing Race and Other Illusions. "In terms of ethnography, posing did 'injustice to scientific accuracy.' "13 Curtis paid natives to pose and dance in several simulated ceremonies, but he may not have understood the actual tricky scenes. The Navajo Yebechai Prayer [film by Curtis], for instance, was reversed by native dancers to protect their sense of the sacred. Curtis, however, was never at the actual ceremonies. He staged the dances out of season. "Navajo sensibilities" clearly were not his "primary considerations." Curtis used "not only 'phony' costumes, additions, and poses," observed James Faris in Navajo and Photography, "but indeed, in some cases actual phony Navajo."14

Curtis is lauded as a pictorialist, but not favorably reviewed as an ethnographic photographer. Yet his pictures are rarely mentioned in historical references to the pictorialists, or Photo-Session, at the turn of the twentieth century in New York City. Curtis was not of the salons or societies that established the aesthetic, pictorial arts of photography; his focus was more ideological, a photographic rescue artist. He posed as an ethnographer out to capture the last images of a vanishing race. To do this, of course, he paid for native poses, staged, altered, and manipulated his pictures to create an ethnographic simulation as a pictorialist. Clearly, he was an outsider, too far removed from the photographic salons to court or count on ready shows and reviews that had instituted pictorialist photography. Curtis, moreover, had received a five-year endowment from the financier John Pierpont Morgan to produce twenty volumes of The North American Indian. The project actually lasted more then twenty years.

John Tagg asserted in The Burden of Representation that photography was rather "common as to be unremarkable" in the late nineteenth century. Pictorialists reacted and sought "to reinstate the 'aura' of the image and distinguish their work aesthetically from that of commercial and amateur photographs." He argued that the revolution was not pictorialist, but a new means of political control. "It was no longer a privilege to be pictured but the burden of a new class of the surveilled," wrote Tagg.15

Curtis created simulations of surveillance, the pictorialist pose of ethnographic images. He removed parasols, suspenders, wagons, the actual traces of modernism and material culture in his pictures of natives. Curtis was a pictorialist, but his removal practices were ideological, a disanalogy. He created altered images of the vanishing race at the same time that thousands of native scholars graduated from federal and missions schools. Luther Standing Bear had returned to the reservation as a teacher. Charles Eastman returned as the first native medical doctor on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Curtis may have noticed native survivance, but he was dedicated to pursue pictures of a vanishing race.

"Curtis was concerned about criticism of The North American Indian by professional ethnologists," noted Christopher Lyman. "He explained away their skepticism, however, as a reaction to inflated accounts of his work in popular press." Curtis "was selling images to a popular audience whose perception in 'Indianness' was based on stereotypes."16 He was motivated to remain in the favor of ethnologists.

Oglala War-Party
Oglala War-Party

Curtis created the picture, Oglala War-Party, at a time when natives were starving on reservations. Surely he was not insensitive to the adversities or natives, but his pictures reveal only the simulations of the vanishing race. He paid natives to pose as warriors at a time when their rights were denied, and their treaties were scorned and evaded by the federal government. Curtis was a dedicated pictorialist, but miscarried the ethics of his situation on reservations. Yes, he was indeed answerable for his time with natives, not by historical revisionism, but because he boldly advanced his career in the presence of native torment and worried hearts.

Lyman noted that Curtis, "like that of most people of the period, seemed preoccupied with images of Dakota 'hostility.' The caption for Oglala War-Party explains, 'Here is depicted a group of Sioux warriors as they appeared in the days of intertribal warfare, carefully making their way down a hillside in the vicinity of the enemy's camp.' " Curtis created a simulation of a native absence and an ethnographic presence.

Oglala War-Party
In a Piegan Lodge

The photogravure In a Piegan Lodge, published in The North American Indian, was retouched by the crude removal of a clock. The original negative pictures the clock in a small box on the ground between two natives. Curtis removed the clock to save a simulation of traditional authority. The picture with the clock has a curious elegance and inspires a visual analogy. The retouched photogravure without the clock is fakery and disanalogy.17

Dino Brugioni outlined "four distinct kinds of faked photographs" in Photo Fakery. The first two are the removal and insertion of details, and the other two are photomontage, and false captions. Curtis was clearly a photographic faker by his removal and insertions of details, and by false captions.

"Photography transcends natural boundaries and verbal language and is probably the most important vehicle for advancing ideas, and ideals, throughout the world," wrote Brugioni. "When a photo is manipulated in any way, truth is compromised; when truth is compromised, distrust begins. Distrust produces a lack of faith in the media," he noted, but photography "has always been manipulated."18

Curtis created the pictorialist scenes of what he believed to be a vanishing race, and yet he understood that the captured images, not the actual natives, were aesthetic simulations.


  1. Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 225, 226. Benjamin pointed out that "as man withdraws from the photographic image, the exhibition value for the first time shows its superiority to the ritual value."

  2. Kearney, Richard. The Wake of Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 15. "The imminent demise of imagination is clearly a postmodern obsession," wrote Kearney. "Postmodernism undermines the modernist belief in the image as an authentic expression. The typically postmodern image is one which displays its own artificiality, its own pseudostatus, its own representational depthlessness."

  3. Stafford, Barbara Maria. Good Looking: Essays on the Virtue of Images (The MIT Press, 1996), 5. "In most American university curricula, graphicacy remains subordinate to literacy. Even so-called interdisciplinary 'visual culture' programs are governed by the ruling metaphor of reading," wrote Stafford. "Consequently, iconicity is treated as an inferior part of a more general semantics."

  4. Stafford. Visual Analogy, 51, 61.

  5. Hinsley, Curtis M., Jr. Savages and Scientists: The Smithsonian Institution and the Development of American Anthropology, 1846-1910 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981), 287.

  6. Bieder, Robert E. Science Encounters the Indian, 1820-1880 (Norman: The University of Oklahoma Press, 1986), 11, 12. "But if the Indian were an inferior species of man, what then was his fate? Would the effect of the environment be the same on the Indian as it had been on European man? Were Indians capable of further progress, or had they reached the limits of their potential?"

  7. Pearce, Roy. Harvey Savagism and Civilization: A Study of the Indian and the American Mind (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 49, 110.

  8. Coward, John M. The Newspaper Indian: Native American Identity in the Press, 1820-90 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 16, 17, 20.

  9. Coward. The Newspaper Indian, 34, 229.

  10. The New York Times. July 10, 1876. Quoted in John M. Coward, The Newspaper Indian, 159, 190.

  11. Lyman, Christopher M. The Vanishing Race and Other Illusions: Photographs of Indians by Edward S. Curtis (New York: Pantheon Books, in association with the Smithsonian Institution Press, 1982), 79. Lyman cited Edward S. Curtis, "Vanishing Indian Types: The Tribes of the Northwest Plains," Scribner's Magazine. June 1906. President Theodore Roosevelt and other government agents expressed similar racialist views about natives. Curtis, it should be remembered, was beholden to Roosevelt for his letter of introduction to John Pierpont Morgan.

  12. Gidley, M. Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian, Incorporated (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 21. and Edward S.Curtis: Photographer of the North American Indian by Victor Boesen and Florence Curtis Graybill (Dodd, Mead & Company, 1977), 15.

  13. Lyman. The Vanishing Race and Other Illusions, 65.

  14. Faris, James C. Navajo and Photography (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996), 108, 114, 115, 116. "Curtis tells us he staged the Nightway photographs not because he was there at the wrong time of year but because of the resistance to his photography--a rather minor logistical matter," writes Feris. "The type of resistance is never explained in detail, though we can probably assume it came from assimilationist bureaucrats (Navajo and non-Navajo) who resented Curtis's emphasis and manipulation to achieve some representation of 'aboriginality."'

  15. Tagg, John. The Burden of Representation (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), 56, 58, 59. "What Walter Benjamin called the 'cult' value of the picture was effectively abolished when photographs became so common as to be unremarkable; when they were items of passing interest with no residual value, to be consumed and thrown away," wrote Tagg.

  16. Lyman. The Vanishing Race, 78.

  17. Lyman. The Vanishing Race, 86,106.

  18. Brugioni, Dino A. Photo Fakery: The History and Techniques of Photographic Deception and Manipulation (Dulles, Virginia: Brassey's, 1999), 17, 202. "After the turn of the twentieth century, heavily manipulated photos were produced to create supposed intrinsic and artistic values," wrote Brugioni. "The photomontage was used as an important propaganda weapon both for and against Nazi Germany. Communists and other nations often rewrote history by removing people and events from photos, despite the fact that copies of the original photos were usually available throughout the world."

This essay is based on a presentation at a seminar on Edward Curtis at the Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, California, October 6-7, 2000.

Edward S. Curtis in Context Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian -- Home Page