Beyond Edward Curtis: Native lens

The Portland Art Museum's exhibition of Curtis and three contemporary Native American photographers cuts through the myth and carries the story forward

It’s been a week since I saw Contemporary Native Photographers and the Edward Curtis Legacy at the Portland Art Museum, and when I revisit it in my mind I keep going back to the corner that might be called Zig’s Indian Reservation. That’s what Zig Jackson, the Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara photographer, calls it in his sly, faux-documentary excursions into places he “shouldn’t be”.

Here we see Zig, in full headdress and also in sunglasses and sneakers, sitting on a San Francisco public bus with other commuters, all of whom seem to be staring pointedly in some other direction. Here he is, in his series Indian Photographing Tourist Photographing Indian, at the Taos Pueblo, shooting a photo of an Anglo photographer shooting a photo of a native in full regalia: the visitor has his camera pushed up close to the pueblo man’s face, as if he’s grabbing a snapshot of an exotic bird at the zoo. Here’s Zig again, at San Francisco City Hall, and in a buffalo enclosure in Golden Gate Park. And here he is, standing in his headdress on an urban grassland with a high-rise cityscape behind him and two official-looking signs to his side. ENTERING ZIG’S INDIAN RESERVATION, the big sign says, above a smaller one that lays out the fine print:


Open Range Cattle on Highway





Without Permission from Tribal Council

Zig’s Indian Reservation, it should be noted, is a movable thing, traveling with him wherever he goes, which hints both at the nomadic nature of much of America’s original native culture and at the rights that accrue with citizenship wherever the citizen goes.

Zig Jackson. "Camera in Face, Taos, New Mexico," 1992, from the series "Indian Photographing Tourist Photographing Indian." Pigment print. Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Smith Gallery © Zig Jackson

Zig Jackson. “Camera in Face, Taos, New Mexico,” 1992, from the series “Indian Photographing Tourist Photographing Indian.” Pigment print. Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Smith Gallery © Zig Jackson

I like these photos, all of them from the 1990s, because they’re very pointed and very funny, and also because they encapsulate so well what the exhibition is trying to do: to show that Native American culture isn’t just some romantic paean to a lost civilization, but a continuing reality that is right here, right in front of us and beside us and among us, evolving with the rest of us in an evolving world. It’s distinct, and the same. It’s not one culture, but many. And if the modernity of it all surprises or seems out of place to us, well, whose fault is that?

Zig Jackson. Indian on Mission Bus, 1994, from the series Indian Man in San Francisco. Pigment print. Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Smith Gallery © Zig Jackson

Zig Jackson. “Indian on Mission Bus,” 1994, from the series “Indian Man in San Francisco.” Pigment print. Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Smith Gallery © Zig Jackson

Seeing Zig’s photos I think involuntarily of the recent tragicomic dustup at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, and the pocket-Constitution-spouting armed occupiers’ stupefying insistence that they were reclaiming the land for its “original owners,” and members of the Burns Paiute tribe clearing their throats and saying, quite understandably, “Funny you should mention that,” and the long history of the federal government’s involvement, from the Trail of Tears to the railroad land grants that opened the West, in stripping the land from its original inhabitants to make way for, among others, the ranchers who are now so supposedly maligned and mistreated by that same federal government; and of the advisability, in the midst of this who’s-on-first of a stirred-up crisis, of also considering, who was here first? More to the point, who’s still here? On the reservations, yes, and the vast wide spaces like Malheur. But also in the cities, which have become in a very real sense Indian Country. Close to 40,000 Native Americans live in greater Portland and adjacent Clark County, Washington; about 102,000 Oregonians identify as fully or partly native.

Edward Sheriff Curtis (American, 1868–1952), "Storm – Apache," 1906, plate 9 from the portfolio The North American Indian, volume 1, photogravure, gift of Henrietta E. Failing

Edward Sheriff Curtis (American, 1868–1952), “Storm – Apache,” 1906, plate 9 from the portfolio The North American Indian, volume 1, photogravure, gift of Henrietta E. Failing

So maybe Zig’s movable urban reservation is no joke, after all. And maybe that’s why the museum’s reconsideration of the legacy of Curtis and his elegies to what he supposed was a vanishing race is a good idea. Contemporary Native Photographers and the Edward Curtis Legacy is co-curated by Deanna Dartt, the museum’s curator of Native American art, and Julia Dolan, PAM’s curator of photography, and the partnership works well, balancing artistic skill and a sweeping cultural idea.

Curtis’s sepia-toned photographs, which he took on his constant travels in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the process of gathering the images and information that would make up his monumental twenty-volume set The North American Indian, have become for many Americans the ultimate authority on what Native American life was and is. Curtis, who was white, sought to show members of the various tribes and nations in their original environments and original clothing, and to do so he often created something of a costume show, re-creating images of an arcadian past filled with canoes and fishes and tipis and traces of buffalo. Some of that, of course, still existed. Much of it he re-envisioned. He was a great creator of mise-en-scène, tailoring his photographs to tell small stories that were part of his larger romantic narrative of a lost way of life, a simpler and perhaps more noble existence that had been swept away by the insistent and often brutal Europeanizaton of the continent.

Edward Sheriff Curtis (American, 1868–1952), "Crater Lake," 1923, plate 463, from the portfolio The North American Indian, volume 13, photogravure, gift of Henrietta E. Failing.

Edward Sheriff Curtis (American, 1868–1952), “Crater Lake,” 1923, plate 463, from the portfolio The North American Indian, volume 13, photogravure, gift of Henrietta E. Failing.

It is increasingly popular, but not entirely fair, to dismiss Curtis’s art as colonialist and paternalistic. He certainly was feeding a mythology. But he was also providing a corrective to an earlier notion of the Indian as villain and savage, as the enemy of civilization. Some of his work, especially from the earlier years, falls into suspect ethnographic territory: the presentation of native “types,” for instance, stripped of their names and any personal identity. Yet he spent years traveling among the Indian nations, and working with the people in them, and building friendships: people cooperated with him on his project. And as time went on his work became a little more attuned to what actually was as opposed to what he imagined it to have been: His subjects got names; they wore contemporary clothing. The trick is to understand who Curtis was and what he did in the light of his times, and to appreciate his accomplishments, and to understand what’s missing or misleading from his view of Native American life.

Color, for one thing. Curtis presented his world in a mythic sepia gauze, a nostalgic longing for the never-was, like gazing back at Camelot through the mists of Avalon. Jackson countered with the grainy black-and-white of cinema verité, a style that underlines its own myth of unadorned veracity.

Wendy Red Star, "Apsa’olooke Feminist 3," 2015. Courtesy of the artist.

Wendy Red Star, “Apsa’olooke Feminist 3,” 2015. Courtesy of the artist.

Wendy Red Star looks at those Curtis browns and sees a world blanched of its natural hues. Red Star, the Portland artist of Apsa’alooke heritage, counters with some big, gorgeous color murals that dominate one section of the exhibition. In the most prominent, she stretches out on a modern white sofa in her living room while her daughter sits smiling on the floor in front of her, surrounded by cloth dolls. Both are dressed in brilliantly colored and decorated traditional costume. Bold geometric blankets are draped over the sofa, and an almost psychedelic zigzag pattern shoots like lightning across the wall. It’s a great big shout of We Are Here. She responds to Curtis’s portraits of depersonalized ethnic “types” with some silhouette portraits in white, taking out the details of the actual people entirely. And on one wall she creates a large game of sorts, a map that marks the borders of the Crow Reserve and delineates topographical features. On a table to the side is a scramble of colorful scraps. An explanatory message is on the wall:


Crow/Apsa’alooke women have always dressed in brilliant colors. Edward Curtis did not capture the vibrancy of the cultural tradition. Reinvigorate these images by giving them their color back.

Go ahead. Grab a scrap. Fill in the blanks. Another step closer to the real deal.

Will Wilson. "Eric Garcia Lopez, Citizen of Tarasco First Nation, Dancer, Dancing Earth, Indigenous Contemporary Dance Creations", 2012, from the series "Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange." Archival pigment print from wet plate collodion scan. Courtesy of the artist © Will Wilson

Will Wilson. “Eric Garcia Lopez, Citizen of Tarasco First Nation, Dancer, Dancing Earth, Indigenous Contemporary Dance Creations”, 2012, from the series “Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange.” Archival pigment print from wet plate collodion scan. Courtesy of the artist © Will Wilson

Diné artist Will Wilson, the third contemporary photographer in the show, plays around with popular culture images with some large black-and-white digital prints, including his 2013 portrait of Eric Garcia Lopez, who looks like a native Lone Ranger, mask painted around his eyes and stubble on his chin, but in fact has entirely different cultural underpinnings. Wilson takes reality a step further with several very large panoramas of landscapes in Indian country. Wide and vast and rugged and seemingly pristine, they also have a sci-fi tint, a something-strangeness, a something-gone-wrong. In one, two men by a mudflat are wearing gas masks, like giant insects skimming across the terrain. In another, climbers somewhere in the Southwestern mountains are wearing masks, too; in a third, 360 Degree Vision, a man on the rocks is wearing vision goggles. The panoramas are from a series called Auto Immune Response, and they reflect the high incidence of diabetes and other autoimmune diseases among Native American populations.

Wilson links that at least partly to environmental degradation: “We’re canaries in the coal mine, so to speak,” he says. He cites high uranium buildup from development of the atomic bomb and Cold War era uranium mining on the reservations, when Indian miners were unprotected and would come home covered in dust. And that got me to thinking again about the Malheur occupation, and the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion of which it was a part, and the rebellion’s latest conspiracy theory that the federal government is “stealing” land in the West so it can sell the uranium rights to the Russians. And yes, that’s nuts, but like a lot of myths, it’s taken hold. And of course in their arguments about who owns the West the conspiracy theorists never mention the tribes or their interests, because in the conspiracy theorists’ minds the tribes pretty much don’t exist, or at least don’t matter. That got me to thinking how, in places like Malheur, the federal government that once led the charge to disenfranchise and even annihilate American Indians has become a partner with the tribes, protecting their interests against throwback private militants stuck in their own overly romanticized mythology who want to claim the land as their own. And that leads back to an old, old story of marginalization and neglect, a story whose back these artists, who are very much involved in the here and now, are attempting to break.

Edward Sheriff Curtis, "Black Eagle, Nez Percé," 1911, photogravure, from The North American Indian.

Edward Sheriff Curtis, “Black Eagle, Nez Percé,” 1911, photogravure, from The North American Indian.

Because like the story of America, the story of Native America is far more complex than that, and it has roots, but it’s contemporary, and it’s future, and once upon a time Edward Curtis was riding the crest of it, but it was always more complex than his camera and mind recorded, and like life everywhere, it’s moved on. Zig Jackson’s reservation keeps shifting, shifting, shifting, and its members shift with it. The story isn’t over. The story keeps on keeping on.

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