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Questioning the Native American image 

Walk through The Master Prints of Edward S. Curtis at George Eastman House and you will find beautiful prints with compelling subjects. But beware, you’re not supposed to like this work too much.

            It was nearly a century ago that Curtis (1868-1952) began a project that would take him 30 years to complete. The Seattle photographer wanted to preserve what was left of American Indian culture.

            “There won’t be anything left of them in a few generations,” he wrote to a friend. “I believe I can do something about it. I have some ability. I can live with these people, get their confidence, understand them, and photograph them in all their natural attitudes.”

            Curtis set out to document the lives of every Indian tribe west of the Mississippi. The 69 images on display are a tiny fraction of the almost 40,000 photographs Curtis shot of Native Americans. (This particular set of prints is unique in that it was chosen by Curtis himself. The prints are shown as he mounted them.) He also made field recordings, with phonograph equipment, of over 10,000 songs, stories, and language samples.

            Curtis raised money for his project by publishing a 20-volume set of his images titled The North American Indian. (There is a set on display in a case.) And in 1914 he made, and lost money on, a feature length film, In the Land of the Headhunters, parts of which are also on view.

            But, despite Curtis’ Herculean efforts and the resulting documentation --- nothing else comes close --- the prevailing attitude is that it is wrong to aestheticize anthropological subjects, and Curtis was careless in the way he went about his anthropology.

            There is no doubt that Curtis was guilty as charged. The men and women before his camera were in some ways treated like objects. Most of them are removed from the context of their daily lives. In images like Chief Joseph --- Nez Perce, 1903, Bull Chief, 1905, and Weasel Tail, 1900, the subjects are dramatically illuminated and posed against neutral backgrounds. Often the native dress is inaccurate in terms of time.

            Curtis is said to have perpetuated the myth of the noble savage. Yet, in his work, Curtis captured something essential about the humanity of these people. Their seriousness and their dignity comes through. Where else but a Curtis show are you going to see a haunting photograph like Geronimo, 1905? And, in many of the photographs that were taken in the field, it is the lives of the Native Americans that are illuminated as they are shown weaving and making pots or doing a Buffalo Dance or a Hopi Snake Dance (both 1904).

            There is a series of prints depicting Indians in masks that is particularly fascinating, because of the way in which the masks transform the wearer. I can’t imagine any photographer finding a better way to document Basket Cap Masker (Zahadolzha) --- Yebichai, Navajo, 1904, or A Mask --- Yebichai, Navajo, 1904, and the others in this series.

            Before mounting the exhibition of Curtis’ work, the Eastman House formed an advisory committee, including Peter Jemison, site manager of the Ganondagan State Historic Site; Jaré Cardinal, board president of the Native American Cultural Center in Rochester, and others to shape the dialogue and programming around the show. One result of their work is Indian Art/Facts, a companion exhibition of work by contemporary Native American artists.

            Some of these contemporary works are politically charged, some suffer from the same self-indulgence present in so much of contemporary art. Particularly striking were some modern-day images of Native Americans --- Wonderful Woman, Man with Mask (both 1998), and others --- that looked a lot like those of Curtis. I usually don’t put much faith in artists’ statements, preferring to let the work to speak for itself, but this piqued my curiosity.

            The photographer, Joe Martin Cantrell (Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma), wrote: “So Edward S. Curtis’s work was attacked by the Army of Political Correctness because he set things up, used incorrect props, and generally did not seem to worry overly much about anthropological accuracy. I don’t care one whit. It is too easy for some self-serving contemporary critics to disparage his work by THEIR standards while ignoring the monumental body of work Curtis accomplished, the hundreds of Indians who have a face for us because he passed their way. My hat, eagle feather and all, is off to him.”

            I couldn’t have said it better.

            Among the most striking works in Indian Art/Facts are two large pieces by Oscar Arredondo (Aztec).

            To create Welcome to Cleveland, Home of the… (2000), a series of ink drawings, Arredondo took the grinning caricature face of the Cleveland Indians’ mascot and turned the tables on just about everyone else. In a wonderfully offensive series of stereotypes, we see white folks symbolized by a KKK member, Germans as a smiling Hitler mascot, a drunk Irish mascot, etc. Anyone who believes the use of Native Americans as mascots is harmless is invited to substitute their own ethnic group and see how they like it.

            On another wall is a gigantic (over 30-feet-long and still not finished) mixed-media collage, A Mile in My Moccasins (1995-present). Arredondo has assembled a literally endless collection of items demonstrating the use of Native Americans in popular culture. Every stereotype is here in comic books, posters, fashion layouts, mascots, toys, dolls --- anything and everything to do with the appropriation of Indian cultures.

            Taken together, these items bolster the idea that Native Americans were far more useful to non-native Americans as an image than as a reality. Wipe them out, then romanticize and exploit them in every possible way that will bring in money.

            Viewers may see another irony: While Curtis is criticized for making documentary works too artistic, contemporary artists get little criticism for making art that is heavily weighted toward the documentary.

The Master Prints of Edward S. Curtis and Indian Art/Facts continue through August 25 at George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, 900 East Avenue. Museum hours: 10 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. Admission: $6.50, $5 for seniors and students, $2.50 for ages five to 12. Info: 271-3361.


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