Selling the North American Indian:
The Work of Edward Curtis

Created by Valerie Daniels, June 2002

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GENERAL INTRODUCTION


White River - Apache

THE task of recording the descriptive material embodied in these volumes, and of preparing the photographs which accompany them, had its inception in 1898. Since that time, during each year, months of arduous labor have been spent in accumulating the data necessary to form a comprehensive and permanent record of all the important tribes of the United States and Alaska that still retain to a considerable degree their primitive customs and traditions. The value of such a work, in great measure, will lie in the breadth of its treatment, in its wealth of illustration, and in the fact that it represents the result of personal study of a people who are rapidly losing the traces of their aboriginal character and who are destined ultimately to become assimilated with the "superior race."

It has been the aim to picture all features of the Indian life and environment-types of the young and the old, with their habitations, industries, ceremonies, games, and everyday customs. Rather than being designed for mere embellishment, the photographs are each an illustration of an Indian character or of some vital phase in his existence. Yet the fact that the Indian and his surroundings lend themselves to artistic treatment has not been lost sight of, for in his country one may treat limitless subjects of an aesthetic character without in any way doing injustice to scientific accuracy or neglecting the homelier phases of aboriginal life. Indeed, in a work of this sort, to overlook those marvellous touches that Nature has given to the Indian country, and for the origin of which the native ever has a wonder-tale to relate, would be to neglect a most important chapter in the story of an environment that made the Indian much of what he is. Therefore, being directly from Nature, the accompanying pictures show what actually exists or has recently existed (for many of the subjects have already passed forever), not what the artist in his studio may presume the Indian and his surroundings to be.

The task has not been an easy one, for although lightened at times by the readiness of the Indians to impart their knowledge, it more often required days and weeks of patient endeavor before my assistants and I succeeded in overcoming the deep-rooted superstition, conservatism, and secretiveness so characteristic of primitive people, who are ever loath to afford a glimpse of their inner life to those who are not of their own. Once the confidence of the Indians gained, the way led gradually through the difficulties, but long and serious study was necessary before knowledge of the esoteric rites and ceremonies could be gleaned.

At times the undertaking was made congenial by our surroundings in beautiful mountain wild, in the depths of primeval forest, in the refreshing shade of canon wall, or in the homes and sacred places of the Indians themselves; while at others the broiling desert sun, the sand-storm, the flood, the biting blast of winter, lent anything but pleasure to the task.


By The Sycamore - Apache

The word-story of this primitive life, like the pictures, must be drawn direct from Nature. Nature tells the story, and in Nature's simple words I can but place it before the reader. In great measure it must be written as these lines are --while I am in close touch with the Indian life.

At the moment I am seated by a beautiful brook that bounds through the forests of Apacheland. Numberless birds are singing their songs of life and love. Within my reach lies a tree, felled only last night by a beaver, which even now darts out into the light, scans his surroundings, and scampers back. A covey of mourning doves fly to the water's edge, slake their thirst in their dainty way, and flutter off. By the brookside path now and then wander prattling children; a youth and a maiden hand in hand wend their way along the cool stream's brink. The words of the children and the lovers are unknown to me, but the story of childhood and love needs no interpreter.

It is thus near to Nature that much of the life of the Indian still is; hence its story, rather than being replete with statistics of commercial conquests, is a record of the Indian's relations with and his dependence on the phenomena of the universe --the trees and shrubs, the sun and stars, the lightning and rain,--for these to him are animate creatures. Even more than that, they are deified, therefore are revered and propitiated, since upon them man must depend for his well-being. To the workaday man of our own race the life of the Indian is just as incomprehensible as are the complexities of civilization to the mind of the untutored savage.

While primarily a photographer, I do not see or think photographically; hence the story of Indian life will not be told in microscopic detail, but rather will be presented as a broad and luminous picture. And I hope that while our extended observations among these brown people have given no shallow insight into their life and thought, neither the pictures nor the descriptive matter will be found lacking in popular interest.

Though the treatment accorded the Indians by those who lay claim to civilization and Christianity has in many cases been worse than criminal, a rehearsal of these wrongs does not properly find a place here. Whenever it may be necessary to refer to some of the unfortunate relations that have existed between the Indians and the white race, it will be done in that unbiased manner becoming the student of history. As a body politic recognizing no individual ownership of lands, each Indian tribe naturally resented encroachment by another race, and found it impossible to relinquish without a struggle that which belonged to their people from time immemorial. On the other hand, the white man whose very own may have been killed or captured by a party of hostiles forced to the warpath by the machinations of some unscrupulous Government employe, can see nothing that is good in the Indian. There are thus two sides to the story, and in these volumes such questions must be treated with impartiality.

Nor is it our purpose to theorize on the origin of the Indians--a problem that has already resulted in the writing of a small library, and still with no satisfactory solution. The object of the work is to record by word and picture what the Indian is, not whence he came. Even with this in view the years of a single life are insufficient for the task of treating in minute detail all the intricacies of the social structure and the arts and beliefs of many tribes. Nevertheless, by reaching beneath the surface through a study of his creation myths, his legends and folklore, more than a fair impression of the mode of thought of the Indian can be gained. In each instance all such material has been gathered by the writer and his assistants from the Indians direct, and confirmed, so far as is possible, through repetition by other members of their tribe.


The Fire Drill - Apache

Ever since the days of Columbus the assertion has been made repeatedly that the Indian has no religion and no code of ethics, chiefly for the reason that in his primitive state he recognizes no supreme God. Yet the fact remains that no people have a more elaborate religious system than our aborigines, and none are more devout in the performance of the duties connected therewith. There is scarcely an act in the Indian's life that does not involve some ceremonial performance or is not in itself a religious act, sometimes so complicated that much time and study are required to grasp even a part of its real meaning, for his myriad deities must all be propitiated lest some dire disaster befall him.

Likewise with their arts, which casual observers have sometimes denied the Indians; yet, to note a single example, the so-called "Digger" Indians, who have been characterized as in most respects the lowest type of all our tribes, are makers of delicately woven baskets, embellished with symbolic designs and so beautiful in form as to be works of art in themselves.

The great changes in practically every phase of the Indian's life that have taken place, especially within recent years, have been such that had the time for collecting much of the material, both descriptive and illustrative, herein recorded, been delayed, it would have been lost forever. The passing of every old man or woman means the passing of some tradition, some knowledge of sacred rites possessed by no other; consequently the information that is to be gathered, for the benefit of future generations, respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost for all time. It is this need that has inspired the present task.

In treating the various tribes it has been deemed advisable that a geographic rather than an ethnologic grouping be presented, but without losing sight of tribal relationships, however remote the cognate tribes may be one from another. To simplify the study and to afford ready reference to the salient points respecting the several tribes, a summary of the information pertaining to each is given in the appendices.

In the spelling of the native terms throughout the text, as well as in the brief vocabularies appended to each volume, the simplest form possible, consistent with approximate accuracy, has been adopted. No attempt has been made to differentiate sounds so much alike that the average student fails to discern the distinction, for the words, where recorded, are designed for the general reader rather than the philologist, and it has been the endeavor to encourage their pronunciation rather than to make them repellent by inverted and other arbitrary characters.


A Noonday Halt - Navaho

I take this opportunity to express my deep appreciation to those who have so generously lent encouragement during these years of my labor, from the humblest dwellers in frontier cabins to the captains of industry in our great commercial centres, and from the representatives of the most modest institutions of learning to those whose fame is worldwide. Without this encouragement the work could not have been accomplished. When the last opportunity for study of the living tribes shall have passed with the Indians themselves, and the day cannot be far off, my generous friends may then feel that they have aided in a work the results of which, let it be hoped, will grow more valuable as time goes on.

EDWARD S. CURTIS.

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