“The Indian as he has hitherto been is on the point of passing away,” states US President Theodore Roosevelt on Oct. 1, 1906. “It would be a veritable calamity if a vivid and truthful record of these conditions were not kept.”
Those words appear in the foreword in The North American Indian, a 20-volume series of text and photographs by American artist and photographer Edward Curtis.
This encyclopedic body of work – published over a 23-year period (1907-1930) – contains over 2200 photographs that capture the disappearing way of life of the American Indian.
The McCord Museum hosts an exhibit of 30 of these photos entitled Edward Curtis: Beyond Measure. Over a 27-year period, between 1900 and 1927, Curtis traveled the United States and Canada west of the Mississippi and took over 40,000 photographs of the Aboriginal Peoples living there.
This modest, yet captivating selection is a blend of portraits (close-ups and full-bodied shots), landscapes and lifestyle details, featuring cultural rituals and daily activities. Collectively they offer the contemporary viewer a glimpse into a vanishing world that existed 100 years ago.
Boasting a keen eye, Curtis – known as the Shadow Catcher – captures the moment with extraordinary intensity and meticulousness.
His subjects are poised and regal. They include aging chiefs, proud warriors, female beauties and hopeful youth.
The landscapes provide us with an understanding of the expansiveness of the American Plains home to the Ogalala, Piegan and Atsina, the ruggedness of the Southwest where the Apache and Navaho lived and roamed, and the rocky high country inhabited by the Apsaroke
Details of a traditional lifestyle depict a group of Flathead Natives performing a war dance, a Wishham fisherman standing next to a raging river dip-netting for salmon, and an Apsaroke woman collecting firewood outside her teepee on snowy winter’s day.
Though Curtis often staged and retouched his images, his idealized visions still provide us with an exceptional document of the fading Aboriginal world.
The exhibit’s lead-off photo is entitled “The Vanishing Race – Navaho, 1904” and depicts a single line of riders moving into darkness. The path they are traveling is narrow and the lead riders are already mere outlines as they move toward an unknown future.
Yet viewing “Kutenai Duck Hunter, 1910” portraits a silhouetted hunter in his canoe in the rushes on a lake waiting for the fowl to come into range. It is an activity that is still valid today, especially for the Cree during Goose Break.
The breathtaking vista depicted in “Cañon de Chelly – Navaho, 1904” was shot in northern Arizona and looks like it comes straight out a John Ford film. In the foreground seven horsemen and a dog transverse a barren desert landscape with huge buttes dominating the background.
The portrait of “Two Strike, 1908” is an extraordinary image. Featuring the wizen countenance of this Brulé Elder (born in 1821), the photograph highlights the deep crevices that line this 87-year-old man’s face and is a testament to the things he has witnessed throughout the 19th century.
In sharp contrast stands “Apache Babe, 1903” featuring a smiling infant with eyes full of hope, who is strapped into a wooden back carrier. The image underlines the universality shared by all infants regardless of race, ethnicity or background.
A wall text by sociologist and artist Guy Sioui Durand, a member of the Huron-Wendat community, provides this exhibit with an invaluable dimension.
“Although they evoke an internalized exodus, these images resonate so much with current Native resurgency’s voices and rhythms that the ‘eye hears’ them loud and clear.
“They carry a hopeful message from tribe to tribe because these photographs perennially reveal the indomitable peoples who still inhabit this yet untamed North America.
For those are will not be visiting Montreal in the next five months, you can go the McCord’s website and see this wonderful collection online. Though the images are small compared to the 11×14 images hanging on the walls at the museum, they still convey the message that Curtis wanted the world to see.
Edward Curtis: Beyond Measure at the McCord Museum until Nov. 18. Info: mccord-museum.qc.ca