THE BRITISH LIBRARY

American Collections blog

07 March 2011

Dusting off the DeLorean: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian

We now have over a hundred posts on this blog, and many thousands of visits; thank you all for stopping by. Team Americas will still be posting regularly, but it seems to make sense to revisit some earlier, popular posts for those who are new to the blog.  First up, a post from Carole on Edward Curtis and the North American Indian from 2010, lightly edited to avoid temporal confusion of the flux capacitor.

Bear'sbelly 

I came across a piece in the North Shore News last week on The Edward Curtis Project. It's a multi-disciplinary theatre performance and photographic exhibit by MĂ©tis/Dene playwright Marie Clements and photojournalist Rita Leistner, which premiered at the 2010 Cultural Olympiad and the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. I was struck by the enduring interest in, diverse opinions on, and responses to Curtis’s own project – that extraordinary, collaborative endeavour to document Indian cultures, which resulted in the 20 volumes of ethnographic text and photographs, and 20 portfolios of photogravures, published between 1907 and 1930, which make up The North American Indian. The project was supported by Theodore Roosevelt and part-funded by J. Pierpont Morgan. And it was thanks to the latter, and then, after his death, his son, that the Library received a full set of the publication. 

I also read not too long ago about work at Rutgers to restore Curtis’s 1914 silent film In the land of the head hunters, which features Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl) communities in British Columbia, and this project has also spawned numerous performances, events and conferences.

And of course, academic debate on Curtis and his work continues. Of the many books on the subject, I would pick out Mick Gidley’s Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian, Incorporated (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), and his edited volume Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian Project in the Field (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003), both of which are held in the BL. I would also mention Shamoon Zamir’s work on native agency in Curtis's project. Whilst we await his book on the subject, you can read "Native Agency and the Making of the North American Indian: Alexander B. Upshaw and Edward S. Curtis" in The American Indian Quarterly Vol.31 (4), 2007, pp. 613-653 (available electronically in our reading rooms).

The entire contents of The North American Indian have been digitised by Northwestern and can be viewed online. The images are also available via the Library of Congress's American Memory website, where you will also find a useful special presentation Edward S. Curtis in context. But there's nothing like seeing the real thing, and a photogravure from one of the portfolios was featured in our Points of View exhibition. It is a portrait of Bear’s Belly (Arikara), who was born in 1847 in Fort Clark (in present day North Dakota). And speaking of a warrior of the plains, I'm reminded of the BM's recent exhibition Warriors of the Plains: 200 years of Native North American honour and ritual.

[C.H.]

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