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, 1911-12.

My greatest desire tonight is that each and every person here enter into the spirit of our evening with the Indians. We cannot weigh, measure, or judge their culture with our philosophy. From our analytical and materialistic view-point, theirs is a strange world. Deity is not alone in a supreme being after their own image, but rather is everywhere present--world or universal voice, universal spirit. I want you to see this beautiful, poetic, mysterious, yet simple life, as I have grown to see it through the long years with the many tribes.

Toward that end let us close our eyes for an instant, and in that flash of time span the gulf between today's turmoil and the far-away enchanted realm of primitive man. We have entered what is to us a strange land. Man and nature are one, and atune. All about us are the mysteries of the Infinite. We wander through the forest, and the murmur of the pines is the voice of the tree people, who speak to us. The waving of the grasses in the mountain meadow brings its response, and when we look into the limpid pool we see mirrored there the high-flying birds and drifting clouds. They also possess a soul, and touch our hearts. Far away on the mountain-side we see the elk, the deer, and the bear, and from the somber forest depths comes the call of the wolf, and our related hearts are touched. Let us turn our eyes from the sky and the mountains, and look to the lowly things. The earth and the pollen upon the breezes are the parents of all that springs from the soil. The smallest of the animate and inanimate, even the pebbles at the brookside and the insect beneath our moccasined feet, are scarcely less important than the King of Birds, the eagle. The winds of the east, the west, the north, and the south, are personified and deified. When we feel the breath of the South upon our faces we say, "You of the spring and summer, give us a good day." And when we hear the thunder of the west roll up the valleys and across the mountains, we cry out, "O, ye Nation of Thunderers, withhold your anger!" And when the cold breezes of winter sweep down upon us, we shrink and say, "You Mysteries of the North, you have defeated the South, and soon the chilly snows will be upon us." Truly it is a strange hand to which we have for a minute journeyed, and now we must return to more material things. When we start to unknown hands we naturally study, even if but hurriedly, the country and the people which we propose to visit. Tonight we go to the hand of the Indian, and as in other travels, let us glance at the scope of the subject.

First, what is the Indian? The American Indian is one of the five races of man, and of this race there are [more than] fifty linguistic stocks in North America. When I say stocks I mean just that--languages fundamentally differing. Of dialects there were at the time of the discovery fully one thousand in North America. We must not lose sight of the ethnological importance of the American Indian, and we must keep in mind that they represent fully seventy-five percent of the world's languages...

Passing linguistic groups, let us glance at the life and manners. We have natives of the sub-tropics dwelling beneath the waving palms in the hand of perpetual warmth, and, to the contrary, natives of the Arctic directing their frail skin craft among the dangerous ice-bergs. And between these extremes are countless tribes, all, according to habitat, differing in culture.

The first and greatest problem before all human beings is that of food, and naturally the culture of any group is largely determined by this. Students of primitive religion will tell you that the question of food is the first thought in the majority of religious systems. This admitted, let us take a broad glimpse at it in relation to the Indian...

We pass from the proud, buffalo-hunting Indian to the less favored. We had the strictly sed sedentary Indian, dwelling in stone or less substantial, but permanent homes, living largely from cultivated crops. We had tribe, hike the Yuma, living largely from cultivated crops...on streams filled with fish easy of taking; we had tribes living in the inhospitable desert, who depended largely on plant seeds roots, insects, and small game; we had natives hike those of souhern California, who took wild fowl in countless numbers; and also those depending on salt water fish. This was particularly so of the north Pacific coast natives, who had such vast quantities of salmon. Some of the tribes of this region secured muh food by the capture of whale, and still others by the capture of seal. And the last important item I will mention was without question of the greatest value to the largest number of natives, it being the many varieties of shellfish. Originally all Indians were without doubt coast dwellers, and shellfish was naturally the principal food. It was taken without implement or ski,, and cooking was not absolutely necessary. I have asked you to take this broad glimpse at the Indian subject, that you may have firmly in mind that we cannot refer to the Indian as a unit, as is often done, but rather we must in a measure consider each group a a subject unto itself.

Now I will return to the thought passed a minute ago--that of Indian religion. We have caught a glimpse of the many sources from which food was had, and now we must fix in our minds that while the fundamentals of their religious thought are broadly alike, the details are determined by the surroundings. The agricultural Indians have their God Father and God Mother of the Growing Things, but the game hunters would know nothing of such divine rites, but would supplicate those who control the game of the forest and plains. The whaling tribes would invoke those of the Infinite who controlled the storm of the ocean and the life of its waters; and so we might go on for the whole evening. There seems a broadly prevalent idea that the Indian lacked a religion--This erroneous impression was perhaps fathered by our own presumption in considering our reaching out to the Infinite to be religion, and the Indian's like act to be heathenism. Rather than being without a religion, every act of his life was according to divine prompting. True, the gods bore strange names, but the need was as great, the appeal as devout.

The pictures which I am to show you tonight deal largely with the devotional and ceremonial life, and were selected with the dual purpose of being instructive and giving pleasure as pictures.

As to the music, each number has been composed by Mr. Gilbert to accompany a definite series of pictures. As basic material he has used largely phonographic records made of the Indian songs and chants, the effort being to produce music which would be truly primitive, harmonizing with the pictures and expressing the composer's interpretation of them.

(Talk on Dream of Ancient Red Man)
The scene opens with an aged man sitting on the banks of a mountain stream. We presume him to be watching the ribbonlike, endless flow of water, dreaming of the days of the past. He thinks of himself as a proud young man, and the second picture shows him as a magnificent youth with two companions on a high cliff overlooking the home camp...Next we see in motion picture a war-party riding away. Then a small group of the warriors on a high hill-top, they have travelled far, and are looking down upon the camp of the enemy. It is a magnificent, statuesque, starlight picture. Now our group is seen riding rapidly to the attack, followed by a night picture of the enemy's camp, as the invaders see it from the distance. The wild ride and rush at the close of the attack, a picture of vigor and atmosphere. Then we have a scene of action, but free from strife. It is the tribesmen riding out to greet the returning victorious warriors. Our old man's mind travels as through the many incidents of life, and he sees before him the burial scaffold on the hilltop, and he knows that there rest many of his old companions, and that soon he too will have journeyed on to the after world.

(Talk on Hunka Ceremony)
The Hunkalowanpi ceremony is an important one with the Sioux, and in slightly varying forms and under different names exists with many of the buffalo hunting tribes...

(Palm Canyon and Cactus Pictures)
The Indians of the Palm Canyons belong to the Yuman stock, and live in the region of the wonderful palm groves Of southern California. They depend largely on the fruit of the palm for food, and this tree, which is of such great value to them, they invest with personality, believing it to possess a soul. I first saw these wonderful palm canyons at the end of a long, hot August day...

(Apache Talk)
The Apache, our next group to treat, is in many respects noteworthy. His birthright was a craving for the warpath, and his cunning beyond reckoning. His character is a strange mix ture of savagery, courage, and ferocity, with a remarkable gentleness and affection for his family, particularly his children. They have made so much of a fighting record, that to the majority the name stands for savagery alone. Yet they have a mythology and theology rich to imagery and strong in its concepts. Their Genesis is particularly poetic, and their pantheon includes the gods of the sky, of the earth, of the elements, gods of intellect and oratory, and the Goddess of Fecundity and the Goddess of Purity, in whose honor young girls at certain ceremonial occasions wear a white shell fastened in the hair, as an emblem of virtue...

(Hopi Talk)
Now we come to the Stone House or Hopi people. Their homes are high perched on the mesas of the desert. One feels that it is a land of mystery. Everywhere about is heard the droning chant of the priest and priestess...

(Talk on Snake Dance)
The Hopi's greatest religious rite is the so-called Snake Dance. Strictly speaking it is not a dance, but rather a dramatic...rite, in fact, a dramatized prayer. Time is lacking to fully describe the ceremony, consequently I will try to show you its thoughts, and then outline both the esoteric and public rites...Let me remark that the Hopi Snake rite is but one of the countless forms of snake worship existing among primitive people. Practically all the Pueblo tribes of the United States know it in some form. In the Rio Grande region it became a part of their phallic ceremonies. The Hopi in their highly dramatized form of snake veneration, have developed a beautiful rite passing beyond the mere worship of the reptile, in that the snakes are but messengers to the divine ones. It is a ceremony lasting nine days and nights, participated in only by the priests of the Snake cults, assisted by their brothers of the Antelope order. The priests of the Snake order live quite apart from the tribe during the ceremony, sleeping in the kiva or on its top. Food is brought near and placed on the ground. Then, when its bearer has disappeared, the men come out and carry in it.
(Personal Note)

(Talk on "Evening in Hopi Land")

INTERMISSION (five minutes with house lights--then two minutes interlude with house lights off.)

(General words on plains pictures)
We now journey from the delights of Hopi Land and the desert, to the far northern plains, where we see glimpses of the vigorous and picturesque hunting tribes.

(Words on coast Indians)
From the proud natives of the plains we will go to the coast tribes of the Pacific.

(Talk "On the Shores of the North Pacific")

(Talk on Jocko Set)
The coming dissolving series opens with a quiet camp in the mountain forest...

(Talk on Kutenai Pictures)
Now we have a characteristic glimpse of the Kutenai, the canoe Indians of the Mountain Lakes. Their very picturesque canoe was different from any used by the other American natives, being a framework of wood with a covering of elkhide. The opening picture is a night scene on the forested shores of a mountain lake...

(General reference to Pueblo people and their life)

(Talk on "By the Arrow")
"By the arrow I make my vow" is the thought in the coming dissolving view. In the first scene we have the striking figure of the priest against the sunlit sky, holding the arrow to the dying day. The theme of picture and music is the rigor of declaration and devotion. This sunset changes to one of our blanket wrapped priest with arrow high held to the starlit sky, a powerful figure of invocation. Then creeps on gray dawn. As the sun appears our priest has again thrown off his robe, and stands imploring the spirits of the east and the newborn day.

(Signal Fire Talk)
We now have the dissolving musical effect "The Signal Fire to the Mountain God," bringing to us the impressive devotional hours of a priest of the Tanon people...

(Navaho Talk)
The last group of the evening will be the Navaho. This very interesting tribe is the second largest in the United States. They, like the Apache, belong to the Athapascan stock. There is a vast difference in their characteristics. The Apache were warriors to a degree unparalleled, while the Navaho were noticeably lacking in the war spirit...The Navaho were when first observed a seminomadic people depending partially on agriculture for food, and partially on game. For some reason they seemed to possess the shepherd instinct as no other tribe of North American Indians. They are strikingly independent, and ask little but to be left alone. Of course, as we take it upon ourselves to be our brother's keeper, we cannot permit that, but from the fact that they are so broadly scattered, our paternal influence is not deeply penetrating, and these desert people are yet delightfully themselves.

(Canyon de Chelly Talk)
Our coming dissolving series is a journey through a remarkable canyon in the Navaho country --Canyon de Chelly, pronounced by the Navaho, Tisay--the Canyon of the Divine Ones. To the Navaho it is the rift in the earth from which the gods emerged to direct and teach men. The echoing walls send back voices from those who no longer walk the earth, as it is not alone the home of the gods, but of the prehistoric people...I have made many journeys through this miles-stretching amphitheater, have travelled and camped there during every one of nature's moods, have ridden its long miles through the hot summer sun; and during the bitter snow of winter, have seen it lashed with the fury of the sand storm, and its floor a rushing, devouring freshet torrent. In the coming dissolving series I desire to give a slight impression of its mysterious depth...

(Talk on "Sunset in Navaho Land" and "The Vanishing Race")
DISSOLVING SERIES ("Sunset in Navaho Land" etc.)

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

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