Selling the North American Indian:
The Work of Edward Curtis

Created by Valerie Daniels, June 2002

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Excerpts from a Typescript of a Script for the Musicale Titled "S.W. Lecture," 1911.

Now we take up the consideration of the gentle, smiling, liquid-voiced Hopi [whose] greatest religious rite is the so-called Snake Dance...

In the instance in mind I was the new member, and the priests felt that it augured well that the gods were pleased at their having taken me as one of them, when they found within a minute a large snake. Now came my first surprise. I had agreed to do without question what my brothers asked or directed, and as the first snake was taken, one of the men, who clumsily spoke a few words of English, explained that when they took with them a new brother, on capturing the first snake they wound it around his neck four times. Then my good prompter continued to explain: "Soon we will get another snake. That will be a blue racer. We will put that around your neck. Then we will get a rattlesnake, and that we will put around your neck, and that will be all." I yet have in mind a very vivid picture of that rattle-snake wound about my neck, its head extending far enough forward that I could clearly see its apparently angry expression...


...I was fortunate enough to be initiated...[in this] rite...certain parts [of which] are held in secret...[It] is a very exacting ritual of about twelve hours each day for nine days, without a written word or prompter. The ritual is learned by the young men desiring to become priests through constant attendance at different ceremonies.

A person thinking himself afflicted will send word to some priest that he desires him to give this ceremony. Then the patient calls on the members of his clan for assistance, as the expense of the ceremony is considerable. The priests and all their helpers must have certain presents, and all spectators and visitors must be fed. Goods and chattels to at least a value of $500.00 would be necessary. An important part of this ceremony is the sand paintings...These are prepared on the floor of the hogan in which the ceremony is held. The ground is first covered with a fine brown earth, and after carefully smoothing the central part, the priests begin to lay in the design. The colors are secured by grinding to a powder the different colored stones. In applying the colored powder the sand is sifted through the fingers in a fine stream, making a line, if desired, as fine as could be done with a broad pencil. On an elaborate sand picture six or eight men work from early in the forenoon until late in the afternoon.

The great event of the Yebichai ceremony is the ninth and closing night. By this time all the spectators are present, perhaps a few hundred or perhaps a thousand or more. The masked characters impersonating the different deities participate in a night-long dance. From different parts of the Navaho country groups of dancers have arrived. Each group will have their own masks and paraphernalia, and each is composed of the same number of men impersonating the same myth characters. There is great rivalry to see which of these separate teams are the best actors and dancers.

The dance is in the open between two long lines of fire. It is fall or winter, and the many spectators group themselves about these for warmth. All through the night team after team of dancers appears, and just as the dawn begins to break, one of these groups starts to give the mystic blue-bird song. This is a signal for all to disappear, as no one must remain to hear the last fragment of this song. And what a sight it is! About the fires in the cold dawn are grouped we will say two thousand people, the majority on horseback, and as the air of the bluebird song starts, one feels the movement of this great throng, and as it nears the close, they ride away into the half lights, melting, as it were, into the desert. There are no roads--no trails. They go in a thousand directions. In less than ten minutes from the beginning of the song the scene of the days of activity is but a few smoldering fires and a cloud of dust, raised by thousands of beating hoofs. They came silently from the desert and pinon and pine-clad plains, and as silently they have melted away...

Reprinted in: Gidley, Mick. Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian, Incorporated. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

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