Wednesday, July 12, 2017
A book I read this summer that totally fascinated me.
Review - about four pages in length
Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher:
The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis
Certainly I do not consider myself to be an academic. And it was only in my retirement that I discovered the joy of reading. Most of my reading has been confined to history and biography – my belated attempt to come to a greater understanding of the world I live in and the role significant individuals have played in making it so. In doing this I made many new "friends". How fascinating to discover the contributions of people I had never heard of before. – particularly the photographer of Native Americans,Edward Curtis. (I like to blame my paucity of intellectual education that when I grew up in Texas we neither had kindergarten nor 12th grade.
Having grown up in Texas with many trips through the Indian country of the Southwest, I should have known of the work of Edward Curtis. I feel fortunate therefore that I chanced upon Egan's portrayal of Edward S. Curtis'' lifelong devotion to documenting the lifestyle of over 80 Native American tribes and respect for Curtis. With no academic training beyond the sixth grade, he toiled for some 54 years to produce the definitive 20 volume set of books entitled "The North American Indian". Working on this masterpiece from 1898 to 1929 he worked with luminaries including financier JP Morgan and President Theodore Roosevelt while enduring not only hardships but extreme poverty and jail in commitment to his cause.
Knowing that many (primarily in my own family) do not have the luxury of time to read the book, I want to share a bit of Egan's book from when Curtis began the project in 1898 until his death in 1952. I hope my writing conveys the fascination of his work and the exciting experiences he had.
It was in '98 that Curtis joined the “climber of an impossible peak,” "Bird Grinnell. That Grinnell? Yes George Bird Grinnell founder of the Audubon Society, and considered the world's foremost expert on Plain Indians. He traced his ancestry to the Mayflower. He knew George Armstrong Custer. He had grown up with people like Cornelius Vanderbilt. He counted among his best friends an ambitious young politician, Theodore Roosevelt, just gearing up that summer to run for governor of New York. Ten years earlier Grinnell and Roosevelt had founded the Boone and Crockett Club devoted to preserving wildlife in order to have the opportunity to shoot it later. Oh. and it was "Dr. George Bird Grinnell, a PhD from Yale, though Curtis could call him Bird. Please."
"Near the end of the Blackfeet summer, Curtis told Grinnell his mind was set. He would embark on a massive undertaking, even bigger than Bird's and suggested: a plan to photograph all intact Indian communities left in North America, to capture the essence of their lives before that essence disappeared 'the record to be of value to future generations must be ethno- logically accurate......What's more, after recording the song of the Sun Dance, Curtis further expanding the scope and ambition: he would try to be a keeper of secrets – not just as a a photographer but a stenographer of the Great Mystery. And did the Edward Curtis, with his six grade education, really expect to perform the multiple roles of ethnographer, anthropologist and historian? He did. What Curtis lacked in credentials, he made up for in confidence.– the personality trait that led him to Mount Rainier's summit. Bird loved the Big Idea.
The New York Herald stated "The most gigantic undertaking since the making of the King James edition of the Bible. The real Savage Indian is fast disappearing are becoming metamorphosed into a mirror ordinary uninteresting imitation of the white man is probably safe to say Mr. Curtis knows more about the really in than any other white man
SAYS CUTLER THROUGH MEN'S LIVES AWAY:
The headline was the least of it the story reported that Curtis had proof that Custer "had unnecessarily sacrificed the lives of the soldiers to further his personal end, and that he could've won the battle with little loss of life I know it is unpopular to criticize military, Curtis said but the Indians who were with him felt that tilted his judgment was flawed. When the wise old Indian warriors that were in this fight are ask what they think of Custer's course in the battle they point to their heads and say,' he must have been wrong up here'.
1908 - 1909
He was presenting "The Story of a Vanishing Race" a picture opera. This touring spectacle was a uniquely Curtis hybrid. The visuals were slides from the photographer's work over a 15 year span. He had painstakingly hand colored the slides, so that rock walls at sunset in Canyon de Chelly had an apricot glow, and the faces shot at the magic hour in New Mexico gave off a rugged blush. Using a stereoptican projector or magic lantern as it was called Curtis supplemented these stills with film and music .All of these images buttressed the story narrated by Curtis himself, about an epic tragedy: the slow fate of the people who had lived fascinating lives long before the grandparents of those in the Carnegie box seats sales from old Europe to seize their homeland. What made the entire experience more memorable was the music inspired by the recordings of Indian songs and chants to that Curtis had brought home on his wax cylinders. The whole of it was a visual feast of the aboriginal as the critics called it, created by a most American artist at the height of his fame.
1922 – 1927
The California of the 1920s was perhaps the most fertile place on earth to grow a life in a state the size of Italy with climate often compared to a soft caress, live barely 3 billion people. In the California of the 1920s it was easier to find fake Indians in Hollywood than real ones in the land of their ancestors. When the Spanish sent missionaries in the 1700s, Indians numbered about 300,000 in the state. They lived in extended clans, grouped into more than 100 distinct tribes none very big. They were sustained by acorns and game in the Napa Valley, salmon and berries around the Golden Gate, deer and roots in the Central Valley. They were as varied as the terrain. By 1848, when the American flag replaced those in Spain Russia Mexico and the Bear Flag Republic, the Indian population was about 100,000. Over the next 10 years the high of swift mortality wiped out 70,000 natives. What remained of the first residents in California scattered to isolated pockets of the state. The elimination – an indirect biological war – had been so systematic and complete that in 1911, newspapers around the world trumpeted a major discovery: an Indian named Ishi was found near the slopes of Mount Lassen. The last surviving member of the Yahi tribe was short, tangled – haired and middle-age, spoke a language no one could understand. His name meant “man”in the Yana dialect, and he was heralded as the last "primitive" Indian in the state.
From Montana they cross the Canadian border into Alberta seeking the last tribes in Canada. The tribes were spread over an enormous expanse of tableland at the foot of the Rockies. Reaching them, getting their stories and taking their pictures was akin to going into an area the size of Germany and looking for a handful of old ethnic – Polish families.
"The five civilized Tribes of Oklahoma are so much civilized, so white, they will be impossible while the wealthy Osage are not only becoming civilized but wealth gives them a haughtiness difficult to overcome." The Wichita were another kind of problem. It was a problem, this business of civilized Tribes and tribes grown rich from oil discoveries on tribal lands. The Wichita were another kind of problem. Mormon and Baptist missionaries had been all over them, and as a result, many tribal customs were now banned as pagan rituals. Their practice could mean a sentence to hell. "Couldn't even take a picture one of their grass houses.
No tribe in the country and fallen so far as the Comanche. Once as masters of an enormous swath of flatland, they forced Texans to retreat behind settlement lines and Mexicans to run at the sight of them. Indians from other tribes would slit their own throats before allowing themselves to be take prisoners by a Comanche.
The book on the Alaska natives, looked to be an easier production. There remained one chance for redemption: to finish on a high note in the far north. Alaska had held a special place in Curtis's heart ever since he sea journey there with the Harriman expedition of 1899. He was 31 that, still on the boyish side of manhood. The gimpy-legged graybeard of 1927 who made plans for the final field trip of the North American Indian was broken, divorced, he year shy of his 60th birthday. He had a lifelong nicotine addiction as well as assorted grumpy complaints about his bad fortune at this stage of life. The joy for Curtis was the first assistant, his daughter Beth who would finance the trip with money from the studio and from her husband Manford Magnuson. For much of her life she had dreamed of spending time in the wild with her father. Daughter Florence had gotten to experience him in action in California.
Curtis had last plied these northern waters 28 years earlier. That ship was stocked with liquor, cigars and a canteen of costly preserved foods . Rail barron Edwsard H. Harriman had spared no expense for the passengers. By contrast the Victoria carried working stiffs – fisherman, bound for seasonal job with the salmon fleet, Argonauts still chasing a strike in goldfields that had played out years earlier. Nome was a dump. What it been in 1910 the largest city in Alaska territory with a population of nearly 15,000, was now a few hundred slope-shouldered souls in a hand-me-down town.
Frustrated that he could find it no one to take him to native villages, Curtis purchased a boat of his own, the Jewel Guard, 40 feet long, 12 at the be with sails and an an engine for windless days. It came with the skipper, a Swede called Harry the Fish. On June 28 they sailed for Nunivak Island a distance of about 300 miles – the four of them. On the island more than any other time other in the field, his pictures showed smiles! Native children, native women native elders exuding a deep beauty. Their nose rings and chin piercings were dazzling little orbs of jewelry sparkling in the sunlight. Think of it, he wrote, at last, and for the first time in all my 30 years of work with the natives, I have found a place where no missionary's work."
.But a day later they found the scene of squalor and grim faced toil among 300 and so Yuk'ip Eskimos. What struck the Curtis party was the filth of the people. They smelled as bad as they looked, reeking of rotten seal meat, smoked fish and sea detritus. I have not seen all the world's dirty natives but I can't say that no human can carry more sales than those here. Living as they do in mud and damp, it is estimated that 75% have tuberculosis.
Arriving in Seattle he was approached by two uniform Sheriff's deputies and several operatives of the Burns Detective Agency. "We have a warrant for your arrest." He was thrown in a cell with other unfortunate. His divorced wife Claire Curtis had gotten wind of her ex-husband's pending arrival and stated she was owed $4400 in unpaid alimony since 1920.
1927 – 1932
The judge summarized the Curtis defense. "Do I understand that you will receive no money for this lengthy project?" Curtis nodded, his eyes misted. "I work for nothing". Flabbergasted, the judge said. "Then why are you doing it?" "Your Honor, it was my job… The only thing I could do that was worth doing. I was duty-bound to finish.
He had two volumes to go. The book on the Indians of Oklahoma would be most difficult to write. In my lifetime, I've seen no group of Indians not influenced by Christianity.
Curtis felt he had done a fair job of making something from nothing. He printed alphabets, pronunciation guides, many full pages of sheet music of native songs and he tried, once again to correct misconceptions, about spiritual life with several pages devoted to a forceful defense of the Peyote society. The missionaries who describe the Peyote ceremony as "devil worship" and "drug–eating debauchery" had completely missed the point. In fact many Christian converts took Peyote in a ritual that lasted from dust till dawn, a mind altering way to connect to the creator. As Quanah Parker, the last chief of the wild Comanche had said in defense of the hallucinatory experience of Indian worship: “The white man goes into his church and talks about Jesus but the Indian goes into his tipi and talks to Jesus."
1932 – 1952
In October 1932, Clara Curtis climbed into a rowboat near her sister's home in Puget Sound. In the chop of the sudden breeze fell overboard into the 42° waters and drown.
In 1936 Curtis stated, "Yes I am certainly broke. Other than that, I am not down and out." He had two daughters and a son nearby in Southern California and a fourth child in Oregon. He kicked around many a gold seal, scraping high mountain ground in the Sierra Nevada until dark. In the trough of the depression, Curtis was living and to mouse but good luck struck when Cecil D DeMille began filming a variety of Westerners in 1936 he asked if Curtis could help with photographic stills, camerawork and logistics.
E. S. CURTIS, INDIAN-LIFE HISTORIAN, DIES
on October 19, 1932, Curtis died of a heart attack. He was 84. It was a national curse, it seemed once again, to take as a life task the challenge of trying to capture in illustrated form a significant part of the American story. The Indian painter George Catlin had died broke and forgotten. Matthew Brady, the Civil War photographer who gave up his prosperous portrait business to become a pioneer of photojournalism, spent his last days in a dingy rooming house, alone and penniless. Curtis took his final breath in a home not much larger than the tent he used to set up on the floor of Canyon de Chelly.