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Review

Edward S. Curtis, Above the Medicine Line: Portraits of Aboriginal Life in the Canadian West

By Rodger D. Touchie

November 4, 2013

Review By David Mattison

Of all the dozens of professional photographers who have directed their cameras at North America’s first human settlers, no name is more synonymous with the words Indian and photographer than that of Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952). During the first three decades of the 20th century he embarked upon and completed, at great personal and financial sacrifice, a photographic and ethnographic documentation project of selected North American Aboriginal populations. His often truly magnificent photographs, along with oral testimony, including transcribed songs he had recorded on wax cylinders, from village elders and others, was supported by the writings of explorers and ethnographers. Sold by subscription as collector tomes, Curtis’s life work was published between 1907 and 1930 in a series of 20 volumes simply titled The North American Indian (NAI). Each volume was accompanied by a portfolio of photogravure plates. The Northwestern University McCormick Library’s set, completely digitized and freely available online there and through the Library of Congress (photographs only), comprises 1,506 photographs in the volumes and 722 portfolio photographs. On April 10, 2012, a complete subscription set of the NAI was auctioned at Christies New York for $2.88 million, double the previous record from seven years ago. The 20-volume set originally sold for between $3,000 (1907) and $4,200 (1924).

Touchie intended his work to fill a gap in the Curtis literature by concentrating on Curtis’s years in British Columbia and Alberta. Around two thirds of the book covers BC, chiefly the coastal communities, and Alberta First Nations. During part of his time in BC in the early 1910s, Curtis also created the first motion picture centred around an Aboriginal population. The Kwakwaka’wakw people starred in a melodramatic screenplay titled In the Land of the Headhunters which premiered in Seattle and New York in December 1914. This film has its own incredible history and was restored and re-released twice (1974 and 2008) after a print was first located in 1972. The remainder of the book serves as an introduction to Curtis the man, the photographer, and his remarkable legacy, the fruits of which he never lived to enjoy since the project essentially left him financially ruined, divorced, and at odds with his brother, Seattle photographer Asahel Curtis (1874-1941), who also worked in BC and much earlier in Alaska and the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush.

Touchie’s book, a fairly handsome and heavy (for its size) presentation due to glossy paper stock, is not intended as an academic or scholarly reassessment of the Curtis legacy. In some ways, though Ralph Andrews’s focus was different, Touchie’s analysis and admiration of the Curtis legacy, which has also undergone a new appreciation by some BC First Nations, reminded me of Andrews’s book Curtis’ Western Indians (1962). I found myself often wondering about the dates of certain events and wished for a life chronology, including when each NAI volume was published. Touchie addresses the difficult linguistic issue of First Nations names by including a table of past and present usages for each of the BC and Alberta populations visited by Curtis. While the index enhances the utility of his slim volume, the bibliography, which includes selected Websites (one containing a detailed chronology), only covers works referenced by Touchie. Although he reproduces many Curtis images and through captions places them within their NAI context, there is no real comparative analysis of Curtis’s work against that of other amateur and commercial photographers who were also documenting First Nations cultures in BC and Alberta.

Edward S. Curtis, Above the Medicine Line: Portraits of Aboriginal Life in the Canadian West
By Rodger D. Touchie
Vancouver: Heritage House Publishing, 2010. 191 pp. $24.95 hardcover