In the 2000 film, Coming to Light: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian, many present-day Native Americans were interviewed in regards to Curtis and his work. It has deeply affected modern day tribal members. Some treasure the images and recordings as reminders of their ancestors while others want references to that time to be over. One of the people interviewed about the images remarked that “the world came alive again when viewing them.” During that period in history Native Americans could be thrown in jail for wearing their traditional clothing, speaking their language, and practicing their rituals.
The film points out that the audio recordings that survive preserve the language and songs of the tribes. When Curtis played the recordings back to tribal members right after he recorded them, they were awestruck at hearing the sounds coming out of “the magic box”. Native Americans were forced into giving up their language and assimilating. As one tribal member said in the film, “if you don’t speak, you are lost.”
At first Curtis felt the Native Americans had to assimilate or they would be economically destroyed. As he continued to work on the project, he changed his way of thinking. He became more aware of the fragility of the native people and their way of life. Living in California in his later years, he heard how the Native Americans in that state in particular were mistreated. Some thought that he should have shown the struggle for life many Native Americans were going through but that was not the purpose of his project.
There is controversy surrounding the work of Curtis. Some think the photos were staged and that they degraded and dehumanized the people into mere caricatures. Some think he dressed the people portrayed in a certain way; others say they actually dressed in the clothing they wished to be photographed in. Oftentimes they are portrayed wearing traditional clothing that had been outlawed for them to wear. In Geronimo’s case, he is pictured wrapped in an Army blanket because that is all the white man gave him.
There are inaccuracies in some of his films and still photos. Coming to Light points out that Curtis wanted to film the Navajos doing the Yébîchai ritual – a nine-day ceremony that combines religious and medical observances. It was not the time of year they normally did the dance but they made the masks as Curtis had requested. When they did the dance, they actually performed it backwards. Another instance of inaccuracies is in a photo of Crow warriors. There were no Crow warriors after 1876 and even when they were present, they did not ride horses or go out when there was snow on the ground as the photograph shows.
Curtis is accused of cutting out parts of pictures, such as a small alarm clock between the two people pictured in In a Piegan Lodge, but professional photographers commonly crop parts of their pictures out. An analysis of the photos showed that there was something in the photo that did not seem to belong only 4% of the time. In contrast, 40% of famed anthropologist Franz Boas’ photos contained things inconsistent with the subject matter.
Critics have pointed out the lack of the person’s name in many of the titles on the photographs. Some tribal members were very protective of their names and did not want to disclose them. The absence of names was done out of respect for the people photographed. Other tribes Curtis photographed, such as the Apsaroke, were less sensitive about their name being in the title. Curtis paid all of his subjects and offered them a cyanotype print of the photos. It was a collaborative, creative effort.
Some have questioned why he did not focus on how poorly the tribes were being treated. He maintained that that was not the goal of this project but he did seem to take up their cause very late in his career. In 1923 he helped found the Indian Welfare League. This group of artists, museum curators, and lawyers formed to help find work and legal services for the tribes. They also became involved in getting citizenship for Native Americans. Curtis, however, was of two minds on this topic – he scorned Washington experts but also scolded the native people about not pitying themselves too much.
Photos by Edward S. Curtis in this article are from the following source: http://curtis.library.northwestern.edu/index.html