( – promoted by navajo)
This is another entry in my New Deal pictorial series. It just takes a roundabout route to get there.
We start a generation before the Great Depression, as Seattle photographer Edward Curtis was traveling the west for his epic photographic record of Native Americans. This may be the best known of his of his thousands of images, each contact printed from 14×17 inch glass plate negatives, and rendered in copper plate photogravure for limited edition publication:
It’s Cañon de Chelly in Navajo country near Chinle, AZ, photographed 1904. There’s a lot of controversies and opinions on Curtis’s work, which might rightly be called his mission. Or even obsession. I’m gonna add a few opinions of my own, some context, and then bring it around to the New Deal.
Note: Curtis’s pictures were all downloaded from the Library of Congress. The quality of the images provided there is inconsistent: they’re all dark (some moreso than others), and the color tone of the pictures varies from one to another. I like the sepia tones, and that’s the form they were originally published in, too. But I was a little lazy in trying to get the final appearance consistent between the pictures. I can only hope you will grant some forgiveness on that score – I didn’t equalize all the variance very well.
Chief Seattle – as is often the case, the provenance of oratory from oral-tradition language, is suspect. Tradition has passed down that he made a great speech, and there’s no readon to doubt that. But no one knows for sure what he actually said. The provenance of this photo is certain, however. It’s Seattle’s daughter, called “Princess Angeline” photographed by Curtis c. 1902. She’s the first Native American he photographed, in the city named for her father, about 50 years after he made his famous speech as a respected elder at the time of the Governor Stevens Treaties back in the 1850s. Angeline likely deserves some credit for inspiring his Curtis’s work.
Chief Seattle (1850s)
Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove, has been hallowed by some sad or happy event in days long vanished. Even the rocks, which seem to be dumb and dead as the swelter in the sun along the silent shore, thrill with memories of stirring events connected with the lives of my people, and the very dust upon which you now stand responds more lovingly to their footsteps than yours, because it is rich with the blood of our ancestors, and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch. Our departed braves, fond mothers, glad, happy hearted maidens, and even the little children who lived here and rejoiced here for a brief season, will love these somber solitudes and at eventide they greet shadowy returning spirits. And when the last Red Man shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the White Men, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children’s children think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone.
Especially that more famous speech about the Earth being our Mother. This has been attributed in the past, but debunked in a scholarly sense.
How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?
Every part of the Earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clear and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people. The sap which courses through the trees carries the memory and experience of my people. The sap which courses through the trees carries the memories of the red man.
I do know enough of the Northwest Culture, firsthand, to know that the people were/are horrified at the destruction of their watersheds, and the near elimination of the salmon, which were as central to their material culture as were the bison on the Plains. Yeah, that’s a mountain of buffalo skulls, from the days when the government was paying bounties as part of the effort to starve the Plains tribes onto reservations once the cross-country railroad was completed in 1869:
Back to Curtis: He submitted some of his early Indian photographs to a national contest and won the Grand Prize. It led to a patron’s commission from robber baron J.P. Morgan to create his magnum opus.
THE VANISHING RACE
Edward Curtis’s work has oft been criticized for not being accurate documentary work. Back then, there was a pervasive notion around that Native Americans would vanish from the face of the earth, within the lifetime of people living then. In addition to J.P. Morgan’s patronage, Curtis got renegade Republican former President Theodore Roosevelt to contribute a preface to the limited edition set of folios produced by his project:
The Indian as he has hitherto been is on the point of passing away. … It would be a veritable calamity if a vivid and truthful record of these conditions were not kept.
Mr. Curtis, because of the singular combination of qualities with which he has been blest, and because of his extraordinary success in making and using his opportunities, has been able to do what no other man ever has done; what, as far as we can see, not other man coud do. He is an artist who works out of doors and not in the closet. He is a close observer, whose qualities of mind and body fit him to make his observations out in the field, surrounded by the wild life he commemorates. He has lived on intimate terms with many different tribes of the mountains and the plains. He knows them as they hunt, as they travel, as they go about their various avocations on the march and in the camp. He knows their medicine me and sorcerers, their chiefs and warriors, their young men and maidens. He has not only seen their vigorous outward existence, but has caught glimpses, such as few white men ever catch, into that strange spiritual and mental life of theirs; from whose innermost recesses all white men are forever barred.
One can only guess what Curtis had in mind in this photograph. First, it’s important to note that it’s not a “stolen” picture. That naked man, with his bow, is clearly a willing participant in creating the image, with its shades of European Romanticism. Certainly more dream than literal reality. And naturally conjuring up that concept of the “noble savage”. Frenchman Jean-Jacques Rousseau is given credit for that phrase, though probably doesn’t rightfully deserve it. But he certainly buys into the notion of a state of primeval purity. This from his Discourse on Inequality (1754):
The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naive enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.
One should remember that the French word sauvage means wild, with entirely different connotations than its English cognate. Now, back to Curtis. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks looking through the entire archive, and it seems pretty clear he was trying to do pretty much what TR said – record stuff, as best he could, before it was lost forever. It’s manifestly clear in photographs like this little-seen one, entitled Hopi Farmers, Yesterday and Today:
And regardless what else one thinks of Curtis’s work, he was a really good portraitist, whether going for the modern (of his day) or the primeval timeless. His many, many subjects were clearly willing ones. These are not stolen images, they are given freely – Cheyenne on the left, Alaska Native (Kotzebue) on the right:
Curtis spent over two decades working on this project, roughly a generation’s time. A generation before he started, the last of the western tribes were confined to reservations with only a few renegades like Geronimo on the loose in the 1880s. “I will fight no more forever” Chief Joseph was brought to ground in 1877. Curtis tracked down some of those last leaders and photographed them as old men.
One of the “good guys” on Western Indian policy of the post-Civil War days was John Wesley Powell. Powell is most famous for being one-armed and commanding the first boat trip down the Colorado River. He was also the first head of the US Geological Survey. His survey expeditions throughout the West were unique in that he went without military escort, and learned to speak some of the native languages himself. This from Joseph Hillers, from Powell’s 1872 field season. These people were the real deal in terms of being sauvage (in the French sense). Living on the north rim of the Grand Canyon, they’d had very little contact with Europeans.
Powell was a correspondent with, and colleague of William Henry Morgan (he’s a topic for another day, all in himself). Morgan, exchanging letters with missionaries from around the globe, “discovered” that matrilineal descent was the practice of most aboriginal cultures. Powell took those ideas and helped craft a public policy to obliterate indigenous culture in favor of assimilation. Key policy points were extinguishing native languages, with all the culture contained therein, and getting rid of matrilineal extended family organization and property inheritance. The Indian Boarding schools played a central role in that process.
Perhaps the best known of those Indian Schools is Carlisle, in Pennsylvania, founded in 1879. That’s an arriving student, and after he’d been “trained” at Carlisle. The thing that’s always impressed me about this one is that they even made his skin lighter. Carlisle was founded by Col. Richard Pratt who is oft-quoted as saying:
A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that … has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.
Below are the students at Fort Spokane Indian School. The picture was taken in 1904, the same year Curtis took the picture at Cañon de Chelly, found above the fold in this diary.
And so the various Indian Boarding schools in the U.S. and Canada did their work. There’s currently a “Truth & Reconciliation” kind of restitution process underway in Canada. The U.S. might be well-served to do the same. It irks me a bit that they’ve never digitized the evidence in the US, and put it online to show what happened. I sat and cried at things I saw in the Archives: Children being taught to iron cotton shirts, brand cattle, sit on chairs fer chrissakes! Not depicted, but attested to innumerable times: Beatings for speaking their own native language with their own siblings. And, as I’ve already mentioned, this started a full generation before Curtis started taking pictures like this one (Navajo):
It’s not like their own cultures didn’t know how to take care of themselves. Northwest coast is of the longhouse tradition, built facing the water, home of the salmon. Big canoes for travel, fishing and even whale-hunting (as above).
And the War Department’s gonna train kids from Tulalip (a Puget Sound tribe) to work in a sawmill? Like they ain’t been raised to know more about woodworking than their teachers and commanding officers would ever know?
They were supposed to be raised away from their own dances and songs, too, not just their languages.
Most of ’em didn’t go home for the summer either. Often they were hired out as servants or laborers instead. The schools put them to work, too, planting crops for their own meals. (Spokane 1900)
Like Native people hadn’t known how to feed themselves till the missionaries and soldiers showed up to teach them:
Oh yeah. They were supposed to abandon their religion, too.
THE NEW DEAL
Like I said at the beginning, this diary’s an entry in my New Deal series. You’ve now been through several screens of pictures and chatter, but not a hint of New Deal. Here’s where it ties in. I’ve been trying to get a grip on how issues of race and gender played out in the 1930s WPA. I was finding very few blacks showing up in the pictures of work crews and all. There were a few – it was an all-Black labor force that restored Booker T. Washington’s DC home for the National Park Service, for example. And there was a Harlem branch of the Federal Arts Project.
Then, suddenly I found a bunch in education. Some really touching stuff of elderly former slaves learning to read, and the like. That was in adult education. Then there was vocational education, which ignited a few synapses and got my imagination in gear:
Looks a lot like “training activities at the Indian Boarding schools:
And, when it comes right down to it, women of all stripes got steered in similar directions for work as domestic servants. This is WPA vocational education, too:
Nevermind that many of ’em would be in wartime defense factories a few years later, this was about all they were allowed to learn about (plus typing and sewing).
ROSIE THE RIVETER
So, we look though all these various training pictures, and it appears the lesson to all is to keep the head bowed, and gaze cast downwards, and subject yourself to someone superior. This from the great Dorothea Lange, photographer with the New Deal FSA. Your tax dollars at work (Clarksdale, MS.)
Then there’s a war, and there’s the Tuskeegee Airmen:
Then there’s a war and there’s Rosie the Riveter (this rare color pic from 1943):
Then there’s a war, and suddenly it’s a national treasure that the Bureau of Indian Affairs didn’t succeed in suppressing native languages and cultures after all. In addition to the celebrated Navajo Code Talkers (here), there were Choctaw and Comanche Code Talkers, too:
The thing I like about Rosie, and the airmen, and the code talkers – all ’em got to hold their heads up high, be proud of doing their best, of contributing to an effort bigger than themselves for the “common good”. The thing I don’t get is why these qualities are mostly drawn upon only for the jingoism of war. Not even that with George “Let’s Go Shopping!” Bush.
Denver & Rio Grande RR, WWII
How come people – all of us – don’t get to matter all the time? Power’s one of those things needs exercising; something we all need to do, one way or another. If it’s been Wall-E world for awhile, it’s gotta stop.
Inspiration is a funny thing. I knew about Curtis’s work, and had researched pictures of the boarding schools in the National Archives years ago. (Damn them for not putting most of that stuff online yet, inviting you to Maryland to do your own research and pay for copies!) Looking at those women getting trained by the WPA to be domestic help was the starting point for this essay.
Previous entries in the series: