Edward Curtis lived a most fascinating life. An early photographer, he mastered this new medium and established a studio in Seattle. He became fascinated with the lives of Native Americans – their food, housing, spirituality, clothing and art. Timothy Egan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times and author of six books, examines this amazing man and his efforts to chronicle Indian people in his new book “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis.” Around 1904 Curtis began his masterpiece “The North American Indian.” More than just a photo book, it contained writing that chronicled the lives of the people. Divided into numerous editions, the last was released in 1930. Curtis rubbed elbows with the very wealthy, but he often struggled financially and died broke. He was showered with acclaim by the press and academicians, while his marriage fell apart because he spent so much time on the road for business. Producing his book series was expensive. J. Pierpont Morgan, a major industrialist who was among the wealthiest men of his era, bankrolled the undertaking. Egan pens an intriguing passage of the first meeting of the two men, when Morgan initially turned Curtis down. He changed his mind when Curtis produced some of the amazing photos of Native people he had taken in the Northwest.
Numerous excerpts in the books are from correspondence Curtis had with friends and associates. Notable among these are Edmond S. Meany, a professor at the University of Washington, and Frederick Webb Hodge, a top official of Indian affairs at the Bureau of Ethnology who served as editor of the book series. Chapter one, “First Picture,” provides some background on Curtis, his childhood in the Midwest and his introduction to photography. It introduces the last surviving child of Chief Seattle, an elderly woman that the local whites called Princess Angeline. Curtis talks her into allowing him to photograph her around the shack where she lived along Seattle’s Waterfront in the 1890s. As his career advanced, Curtis began rubbing elbows with some of the most powerful people in the United States. One chapter shows how he met President Theodore Roosevelt and became a friend of the family. Historical accounts are not always truthful. Those who prevail in a struggle often control how history unfurls. Curtis finds this out while in Montana doing research, some 30 years after the Battle of Little Big Horn occurred in 1876. While interviewing Natives who served as scouts for Custer, he learned that the official story of the battle is quite different from the Native Americans accounts. His plan to include this in his book runs up against some political pressure.
Curtis became close with the men who worked with him on his expeditions into Indian Country. Alexander Upshaw was a Native guide and translator on his payroll. Curtis called him his “great and loyal friend.” Upshaw was in the early wave of Native youth who were sent to boarding schools. He went to Carlisle, a well-known institution back east. The book examines how Upshaw struggled to be a Crow Indian and operate in a white world, one in which he cut his hair short and wore the white man’s clothes. He also married a white woman, with whom he had three children. Egan tells of Upshaw’s role in this new society, describing how others unfairly labeled Upshaw and all Indians: “A man? He couldn’t go into Billings, a proper citizen window-shopping with his wife and three children, without somebody sneering or shouting at him. A man? He had just helped to lead a highly successful scholarly expedition; he had been crucial to the reconstruction of the Battle of the Little Bighorn; he had annotated and explicated the story of his people; and yet he was still a red monkey in a white man’s shoes.” Chapter 15, “Second Wind,” finds Curtis in California in the 1920s. On this adventure he is joined by his daughter Florence, then 23. Most of the tribes in the Golden State had been reduced to very small numbers.
In a letter to Meany, Curtis describes his outrage at how these Natives were treated, with women raped, men killed or forced into slavery, the people starved, treaties broken after gold was discovered. “Thus the Indians became a people without even camping places which they could call their own. No story can ever be written which can overstate the inhuman treatment accorded the California tribes.” In 1923 Curtis helped found the Indian Welfare League. He joined with artists, lawyers and museum curators in one of the few times he engaged in a political or social cause. They provided legal services to tribes and got involved in the issue of citizenship for Indians. That same chapter covers his journey into Oklahoma, which had been used as a relocation center for tribes from around the nation. While the Native population in Oklahoma was quite high compared to other states, Curtis found these Indians very detached from their culture and traditional ways. He especially noted the Osage and the great wealth they had accumulated as a result of oil being discovered on their land. The men had chauffeurs to drive them around in new cars, while the women employed poor whites to be their housekeepers. Egan also examines some other projects Curtis did with Indians, most notably the movie “In the Land of the Head Hunters.” Filmed with members of British Columbia tribes, the movie was released in 1914 to much critical acclaim. Ultimately Curtis became physically and mentally spent. In his latter years he had food and shelter because his daughter and son-in-law paid for it. He died broke, alone and largely forgotten. Bravo to Tim Egan for this reminder of who the man was and the role he played in chronicling American history. Egan will discuss his book at the main branch of Tacoma Public Library at 7 p.m. on Nov. 8 at the Costco in Issaquah at 1 p.m. on Nov. 17.