The Many Faces of Edward Sherriff Curtis: Portraits and Stories from Native North America
November 4, 2013
Review By Mick Gidley
I must declare an “interest” in this book. Its pictorial dimension consists of reproductions of superb sepia prints made from original glass negatives sold to the Capital Group Foundation by James Graybill, grandson of their maker, Edward S. Curtis. In the autumn of the millennial year, some of these prints were exhibited for the first time at Claremont Graduate University (CGU) (see Edward S. Curtis: Contemporary Prints from Original Edward S. Curtis Glass Negative Plates, published in 2000 by CGU’s Galleries and Special Exhibition Programs). And, in celebration, cgu hosted a wonderful symposium at which I was privileged to speak, and during which participants were treated to a fine, festive meal at the home of the then cgu president, Steadman Upham, senior compiler of Many Faces.
As was the case for the original CGU exhibition, there is no doubt that Many Faces deserves commendation for its efforts to grant access to material that would otherwise be lost to sight in the darkness of a vault, to enhance Curtis’s already formidable photographic reputation, and to foster interest in the cultures of Native American peoples. There is much about the efforts of Curtis and his team still to be discovered by scholars: it would be good, for example, to have a much more detailed chronology of the years, or the parts of years, that Curtis, E.A. Schwinke, Edwin Dalby, and others spent on the coasts of British Columbia, when they both collected data and made films and photographs (see Bill Holm and George Irving Quimby, Edward S. Curtis in the Land of the War Canoes [Seattle, 1980]). And there is much information that scholars have already uncovered that should be more widely known.
But Many Faces goes only a little way towards meeting these needs. It has two main elements, the visual and the verbal. The visual consists mainly of a wonderful array of portraits of eighty Indian individuals, broadly arranged by age, from the youngest, “Apache Babe,” through a series of proud youths and such images as “A Young Mother – Taos,” to the steady gazes of such mature figures as “Cheyenne Woman” and “A Zuni Governor,” until our eyes come to rest on the faces of venerable figures, including “Chief Joseph – Nez Perce” and “A Southern Miwok Woman.” Most of these images – like the few landscapes and depictions of everyday activities presented to set the scene, as it were – were originally printed in the pages of the monumental twenty-volume text, accompanied by twenty portfolios of large-size photogravures, that Curtis published as The North American Indian (nai) (1907- 30). These are now readily available on the web at the American Memory site and in the Taschen book entitled The North American Indian: The Complete Portfolios (Koln, London, New York, 1997). However, some appear for the first time, including a haunted-looking young woman whose portrait is given the quizzical title “Unknown – Selawick Girl?” and an arresting likeness of the aged Angeline, daughter of Chief Sealth, or Seattle, from whom the city took its land and name. The latter, like others here, is a variation of a well-known Curtis portrait captured at the same time. It is a pity that the compilers of Many Faces do not distinguish these “new” images from those already in circulation. Nevertheless, visually this is a rich collection that gives both a sound representation of Curtis’s style as a portrait maker and – except for being relatively sparse in its reproduction of Plains portraits and very weak on Northwest Coast peoples (to whom Curtis himself devoted considerable effort) – adequate coverage of the many indigenous culture areas and pop ulations of western North America. And in beauty of presentation it rivals the various Curtis volumes produced in recent years by Christopher Cardozo, such as Sacred Legacy (New York, 2000).
The primary verbal element of Many Faces – the reproduction of myths and stories from nai – exhibits similar virtues and drawbacks to the visual dimension: this is wonderfully engrossing stuff, but the compilers have not identified from which volumes individual items were taken and, since a number of anthologies have been published to circulate material extracted from nai, including my own The Vanishing Race: Selections from the North American Indian (Seattle and London, 1976, 1987), it would have been helpful to know something of their more recent publication history. On the other hand, except for a discernible bias towards the mythology of California Indians, understandably beguiling as such stories are, the selection is taken from a goodly number of the original twenty volumes, most of which have a section set aside for myths and tales. Thus we get fascinating origin myths, accounts of the exploits of legendary warrior figures, and, as should be expected, quintessential Trickster tales featuring Coyote in all his deviousness. From the Northwest Coast there is an exciting Bella Bella Grizzly Bear story and an Aesopian Clayoquot fable entitled “Why Wolves Do Not Eat the Stomach of a Deer.”
This mythopoetic material is printed exactly as it appeared in nai and, of course, it is immensely valuable, but this should not lead us to share the compilers’ unproblematic view of it. They claim that, because it was recorded phonographically it did not rely “on potentially inaccurate translation and transcription” (40), as though we are being granted unmediated access to an indigenous essence. But it was transcribed and translated – however beautifully – by the North American Indian project, especially the principal ethnologist William E. Myers, who (rather than Curtis) was the main writer of the word text of nai. (For more on Myers, see my Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian, Incorporated [New York and Cambridge, 1998], and for other writers of nai, see my Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian Project in the Field [Lincoln, NE and London, 2003]). As many authorities on ethnopoetics have been concerned to inform us, translation – across languages, between different cultures, between the oral and the written – is hugely problematic (see, for example, Brian Swann’s recent compilation Voices from Four Directions: Contemporary Translations of the Native Literatures of North America [Lincoln, NE and London, 2004]). The North American Indian is no exception. That said, it is good to have these stories in easily accessible book form. But it must also be regretted that, in marked contrast to the situation for their original readers, we are given no contextualizing information other than the name of the people from whom the material was collected.
The other verbal aspect of Many Faces consists of the essays provided jointly by the compilers. These are characterized by a tendency towards assertion rather than evidenced argument, at both macro and micro levels. At the macro level, they do contextualize the North American Indian project – but only in the most general terms, by invoking the historical sweep of colonialism worldwide, by outlining US policies towards indigenous peoples, and by giving a brief retel ling of the ethnological endeavours of the Curtis team. Here, in contrast to their view of the mythopoetic material, they do mention that Curtis’s photographs have been the subject of some controversy, and, while it would have been better to have a thorough airing of their reasoning rather than mere statement, I accept their ultimate estimation that his images are cultural artefacts of immeasurable value. The portraits especially – though always freighted with the ideology of conquest and sometimes framed to transpose their subjects into a dreamtime beyond the machinations of history – can grant an almost uncanny sense of an individual’s ontological presence, and, as Upham and Zappia imply, they frequently intimate the capacity of embattled cultures to endure.
At the micro level, there are several points that, given more space, I would dispute, but there is one that must be mentioned because it has inflected the very title of the book: the spelling of Curtis’s middle name, which was the maiden name of Ellen Sherriff, his mother. Upham and Zappia correctly print it with two rs, whereas many previous writers – including Curtis’s daughter Florence Curtis Graybill, in the title of her book with Victor Boesen, Edward Sheriff Curtis: Visions of a Vanishing Race (New York, 1976) – give it only one. (I confess that, on checking, I find that I have been inconsistent myself.) Documentary evidence for their view exists, including a family tree in the family Bible inherited by Curtis’s niece, but it is typical that Upham and Zappia offer only a footnote acknowledging James Graybill as their source. Many Faces is a beautifully designed coffee table book; increased rigour could have turned it also into a contribution to knowledge.