Selling the North American Indian:
The Work of Edward Curtis

Created by Valerie Daniels, June 2002


Mr. Curtis's Account of an
Alaskan Tribe

IN THE LAND OF THE HEAD-HUNTERS. By Edward S. Curtis. Illustrated with photographs by the author. Yonkers, N.Y.: World Book Company.

EDWARD S. CURTIS has for many years been identified with the North American Indians. To them and their customs and languages, he has given the study of a lifetime, living as friend and brother with the men of different tribes, permitted to watch them in their everyday life as well as in the exercise of their ceremonials. He has talked with the old men of the elder days, he has hunted with the young men, and sat around the fire in the circle of the peace pipe, listening to the gossip of the tribe.

His magnificent work on the red man, brought out under the auspices of the late J. Pierpont Morgan, is unique. Nothing like it has ever been attempted by any other historian of Indian life. In addition to the text, a series of wonderful pictures has saved to us forever the outward aspect at that vanishing race, vanishing at least so far as its peculiar organisation goes, for the Indian who survives is the Indian who takes up the white man 'e civilization, and lives in the white man's way.

This great work is, however, only accessible in libraries to the general public. It has been Mr. Curtis's hope to present the Indian's story in a more popular format, to supplement his great historic and pictorial work with a series of stories that will tell how the Indian lived in the earliest times that are reachable through research and legend, and to continue the presentment down to the present.

Two volumes of this popular edition of "Indian Life and Indian Lore" are now published. The first, "Indian Days or the Long Ago," set back in the years when the western tribes knew little save hearsay of the paleface, seeks to show how varied was the Indian life, how tribe differed from tribe in language, manners, and appearance, and tells much of the sign language that allowed communication between different nations, as well as of the religious ceremonies, the hypnotic powers of the medicine men, and other details little known to us, whose chief concern with our red brother for over 600 years has been to shove him backward over the western rim of the world.

The second volume in this interesting series, "In the Land of the Head-Hunters," takes us to Alaska.

The book is told in what seems to be the declamatory style at the Indian bards, and entirely from the Indian viewpoint. In a short space it covers the adventures of the young son of a mighty chief at the time when explorers like Peres, Cook, and Vancouver were first venturing along the Alaskan shore. We see him first as he goes through his period of fasting and vigil to propitiate the gods and to prove his own manhood. We overlook his meeting with the bride-to-be, who must however, be won in a wild battle. Later, the home life of the two in their tribe, the attack from their enemies, ending in the girl's recapture, and various thrilling scenes and adventures are described, including a first view of the strange paleface in their huge "canoe."

Intermingled with thread of the story are chants, such as this one sung by the men as they pass from hand to hand a pawn in a game of chance:

Hi, yu, hi, yu,
Here and there, here and there,
This hand, that hand,
Right hand, left hand,
Which hand?

There are also descriptions of the dances, some of them the wild and terrible war dances among the heads of their enemies. Mr. Curtis tells us that head-hunting was common along the Pacific coast from the Columbia River to the Arctic, and in Volumes IX and X of "The North American Indian" he has much material on this subject.

The present story owes its origin to a moving-picture scenario, and the suggestion to put the material into a book came from the author's friend and co-worker, Robert Stuart Pigott. Possibly many will think it better if the work had been done in a more historical and less declamatory manner, but the aim of the series is distinctly popular, and the romantic form into which the material is cast, with the resonant sentences giving it something of the saga quality, is likely to gain a wider audience than might be obtainable for a simple narrative. So far as the information goes, the reader may be certain that it comes from an expert in, no less than a lover of, his subject.

There are a great many of Mr. Curtis's entrancing photographs in the volume.

* This review of In the Land of the Head-Hunters appeared in The New York Times on March 28, 1915

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