Tribal Regions of ‘The North American Indian’
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The Northwest Coast, and Alaska
Although Native American peoples of today live in a very different world from that of their ancestors, contemporary traditionalists try to live according to the traditions of those who came before them. Historically, Native life was dictated by the seasons, the weather, and the Creator. Every day was singularly important.
Lifestyles and practices varied among the geographic regions of North America in the centuries before the European settlers arrived. The tribes of California lived in a variety of climates, and their daily activities in different areas reﬂected the diverse geography of their territory. Throughout California, men usually hunted and ﬁshed, and women harvested wild plants and small game. Tribes in the northwest region of California depended on salmon, but in the central region the major source of food was acorns, which were harvested in the fall. The acorns were processed into ﬂour, and then stored for later use. In the southern region, the Chumash made large plank canoes that allowed them to hunt sea mammals such as the sea lion, which was highly regarded for its meat and oil. The Tolowa people performed a ceremony when they hunted the ﬁrst sea lion of the season. Similar to hunting ceremonies of other tribes throughout the country, the Tolowas’ ceremony paid homage to the animal for giving its life to the people in order for the people to survive.Most California tribes maintained one central village surrounded by settlements. People from the settlements would visit the village for ceremonial, social, or economic reasons, and villagers ventured into surrounding territories in search of food resources or to visit the settlement dwellers.
The families usually arranged marriages between their children because marriage created economic and social ties with another group. The families of those to be married would typically exchange goods, and the wife would move to the husband’s village, where she learned the traditions of her new village from her mother-in-law. Most Plains Indian tribes pursued a nomadic lifestyle to follow the buffalo herds, their primary source of subsistence. Because of this, all their possessions had to be portable, small enough to be mounted on a travois pulled by a horse.
Men and women were equally powerful and respected in traditional Plains Indian life, each gender possessing important skills critical to the well being of the community. Early Plains Indian men are often stereotyped as having been avid warriors, but battle occupied only a small portion of their lives. One of their primary responsibilities was hunting. Small groups of hunters would leave camp on horseback to look for the buffalo herd. Not unlike Plains Indian men of today, male ancestors also had responsibilities to their children, their elders, and their community. Women were responsible for preparing and storing foodstuffs and creating clothing. The woman owned the tipi the family occupied. Women also played an important role in the spirit life of the family. Even though men and women had diffierent responsibilities, each gender was equally respected in the community. Men could excel at hunting and warfare and be recognized for their exploits, but women who excelled at creating beautiful utilitarian objects were also acknowledged for their work.
Each Plains Indian tribe comprised septic societies, groups of people who shared a common experience or talent. For the men, some societies were based on battle exploits, others on religious experiences. When a young man wanted to join a military society, he either had to be invited or had to petition to join. Young men often accompanied warriors, acting as “support.” They would bring water to the warriors, carry their goods, or hold their horses. Once a young man became part of a military society, he was required to uphold its rules and regulations. Some societies had strict guidelines of behavior. For instance, in battle, particular clothing had to be worn and a member was never to leave a comrade alone. In some societies, warriors were allowed to go into battle protected only by a knife. The success of a society member was due in large part to his spiritual conviction. Society training helped young men to mature and to become responsible to their tribes and families.Many women’s societies were based on artistic skills. Among the Cheyenne and Lakota, there were quillworker societies that taught young women the sacred art of adorning objects with porcupine quills. As in male societies, aspirants either had to be invited or petition to join. They would offer gifts to the members or sponsor a banquet to demonstrate their sincerity. Only when they were inducted were they taught the artistic skills and the meaning of sacred designs. After beads were introduced, many quillworking societies adapted their techniques while continuing their artistic traditions.
The Woodlands people lived in a climate where they enjoyed an abundance of water, game, and forest resources. Their lifestyle centered on the cycle of the seasons. In winter, the most difficult time of the year, men hunted and trapped wild game for food, clothing, and trade, while the women cared for their homes, made and decorated clothing, and prepared food. Spring was the time to ready the garden for planting squash, corn, and pumpkins. Maple trees were tapped for their sap, which was heated to make maple sugar. Summer activities included maintaining the garden, berry gathering, and ﬁshing. In the fall, the garden was harvested and wild rice collected from the shallows of the lake areas. Typically, Woodlands people harvested wild rice by
positioning their canoe under the rice stalks and gently bending the stalks over the side rail, hitting them so the rice fell into the bottom of the canoe. The wild rice was then aged, parched, hulled, and cleaned for storage.
The Woodlands people lived in wigwams and longhouses. Both structures were made from a framework of young trees that was covered with bark and thatch. Wigwams were dome-shaped and longhouses were extended rectangles. A longhouse had a central hall running the length of the interior, with separate rooms ﬁtted with sleeping platforms on each side. Several related families would live in a longhouse, an arrangement that fostered community and kinship.
—Joseph D. Horse Capture
What is Life?—Crowfoot’s last words
It is the ﬂash of a ﬁreﬂy in the night.
It is the breath of the buffalo in the winter time.
It is the little shadow which runs across the grass
and loses itself in the Sunset.
Edward Curtis’s brief expedition to the Great Plains in the summer of 1900 was undoubtedly the most profound experience of his life. That summer, Curtis accompanied George Bird Grinnell, his friend and early mentor, on a trip to Montana and witnessed one of the last great enactments of the Sun Dance. As Curtis viewed the Sun Dance—a ceremony that few whites, or natives, would see again for nearly seven decades—his vision for the grand photo-ethnographic undertaking that would become his life’s work crystallized. The small body of images he made on that summer trip, among them The Three Chiefs (p. 30), Piegan Dandy (p. 28), and Piegan Encampment (p. 29), clearly reveal that he had been touched by the magniﬁcence of the Indian nations and the overwhelming depth of their culture. These photographs formed the beginning of the vast, elegant portrait of Native American cultures that Curtis would bring to the world over the next thirty years.
During Curtis’s time, the Indians of the Great Plains lived primarily in North and South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming, a territory once traversed by great herds of migrating buffalo. Curtis was strongly attracted to the ﬁercely independent lifestyle of tribes such as the Lakota, Apsaroke, and Piegan and seemed particularly adept at transforming their dignity and pride into extraordinary photographic images.
Curtis’s photographs of Indian life on the Great Plains comprise perhaps his most popular body of work; for many people, his photographs of the chiefs and warriors, the beadwork, the horses, and the Plains landscape have come to exemplify the American Indian. However, his photographs of the Plains Indians also documented many other aspects of tribal cultural life, including hunting, warfare, vision quests, and religious ceremonies. These images remain an unparalleled vision of the strength and nobility of the Plains Indian peoples who had once held dominion over tens of thousands of square miles.• • •
The semi-nomadic culture of the Plains Indian tribes centered on the magniﬁcent buffalo that roamed the region. By the late 1890s the herds were gone and the buffalo was on the verge of extinction due to the white settlers’ careless decimation. Curtis’s photographs and his ethnographic writings clearly show that he understood the central importance of the buffalo to traditional Plains Indian culture. Dependence on the buffalo meant that entire villages and tribes moved along with the herds’ migrations. So vital was the animal that virtually no part of a slain buffalo was wasted.
The bison was not only the chief source of food of the Plains Indians, but its skin was made into clothing, shields, packs, bags, snowshoes, and tent and boat covers; the horns were fashioned into spoons and drinking vessels; the sinew supplied thread for sewing, bow-strings, and ﬁbre for ropes; the hair was woven into reatas, belts, personal ornaments, and the covers of sacred bundles.… So dependent on the buffalo were these Indians that it became sacred to them, and many were the ceremonies performed for the purpose of promoting the increase of the herds.1
The buffalo provided a rich resource for Plains Indians and created an unprecedented demand for horses and, later, guns. These additions yielded even greater prosperity as they greatly increased the Indians’ ability to track and kill the buffalo; but they also led to new intertribal conﬂicts.Many of the Indians who lived on the Great Plains at the time of Curtis’s visit had migrated there from areas east of the Mississippi, some from as far east as present-day New England. These tribes had been forced west at various times by the relentless white expansion, which reached its zenith during the 1800s. Intertribal conﬂict intensiﬁed as more tribes were pushed onto the Plains and competed for buffalo. The increased availability of horses expanded the range within which they could hunt, trade, and raid, and many tribal alliances were formed to counteract the competition for resources. Allied tribes sought to protect and expand territories and ensure superiority in warfare. The largest Plains tribes came to be powerfully and formidably outﬁtted. Allied tribes also attempted to control the ﬂow of critical goods from the East, both for their own beneﬁt and to deprive their rivals. Competition for territory and resources was a key motivation for the frequent warfare that came to characterize Plains Indian life and, at times, destroyed entire tribes.
Curtis’s photographs vividly convey the Plains peoples’ prowess as skilled horsemen, hunters, and warriors. The two primary symbols of a warrior’s wealth and status, horses and guns, often appear in his images. A system evolved among Plains Indians for measuring war honors, which they referred to as “counting coups.” Capturing horses and guns garnered distinct honors, while other honors were earned by striking an enemy. The Plains male, the archetypal Indian warrior, prominently displayed the symbols of his war honors on his person to indicate his stature. A warrior might affix painted sticks to his hair to denote the number of times he had been shot or injured, or hooves might be embroidered onto a leather pouch to indicate the number of horses he had stolen. Curtis described this in his writings.
The men wore deerskin shirts at all times when they were not about their own tipis. When the warrior had gained honors, they were indicated on the shirt he wore on special occasions, each weasel-tail, scalp, lock of hair, or feather indicating some deed of bravery.2
Warfare on the plains was a very real and deadly struggle for tribal superiority and survival. For the Plains Indian male, success in war and in accumulating material wealth was directly attributed to his spirit power, or “medicine,” on which ascendancy through tribal leadership and respect as a warrior were dependent. To a Plains Indian, possessing medicine ensured that he would kill enough game to feed himself and his family and protected him in warfare and raiding. Individuals took great care to maintain the strength of their medicine and to preserve the connection with their spiritual “helpers” through prayer and supplication.One method by which young men acquired medicine was the vision quest, a male puberty ritual involving fasting, prayer, and isolation. It was the means to acquiring both personal power and the power of perception. A vision might include dreams and songs as vehicles to illuminate meaning. Particular dreams might inform the youth of the location of an enemy camp or of enemy horses. They might reveal the number of braves in an approaching war party. The most signiﬁcant dreams were those in which a supernatural or spiritual helper appeared. The helper might take the form of a man or woman, an animal such as a snake or bird, or it might appear as a great cloud. A vision of a helper was an indication of divine or supernatural favor that could be called upon in times of distress. Sometimes the helper taught magic songs or chants designed for speciﬁc occasions, such as songs that could be sung to ensure success in battle or to bolster stealth and calmness when raiding rival camps. Receiving a vision was extremely signiﬁcant, yet not all vision-seekers were rewarded; the realization of a vision, when it occurred, could take years. Some Plains Indians lived their entire life without achieving a vision. • • •
Sadly, Curtis’s written ethnographic record of Native Americans has been overlooked in the recent assessments of his contributions, primarily undertaken by photographic historians rather than by anthropologists. This is unfortunate because his writing contains a wealth of information about the tribes he visited and often provides insights that are not available elsewhere. Curtis was particularly adept at eliciting highly personal information that individuals would not share with other outsiders. For example, Curtis describes one of Red Hawk’s visions and the signiﬁcance those visions held for the great Ogalala leader.
Red Hawk fasted twice. The second time … a voice said, “Look at your village!” He saw four women going around the village with their hair on the top of their heads, and their legs aﬂame. Following them was a naked man, mourning and singing the death-song. A few days later came news that of ﬁve who had gone against the enemy, four had been killed; one returned alive, and followed the four mourning wives around the camp singing the death song. Still later they killed a Cheyenne and an Apsaroke scout, and the two heads were brought into camp.3• • •
Plains Indians were intensely spiritual peoples. In a way that paralleled the individual’s pursuit of medicine, community religious ceremonies focused on supplication to the Great Mystery—the divine power that permeates the universe. The largest and most spectacular of these ceremonies was the Sun Dance, which had had such a profound impact on Curtis in 1900 when he joined Grinnell on a journey to the Piegan Reservation in Montana. The Sun Dance was primarily a ceremony of supplication and sacriﬁce for supernatural aid and spiritual power, but it also served as an afﬁrmation of community, demonstrating the community’s devotion to and reliance on the power of the Great Mystery. Curtis wrote extensively about the Sun Dance.
It is wild, terrifying, and elaborately mystifying. The ﬁrst time I witnessed it I sat in the hallowed lodge with my friend George Bird Grinnell, who was called the “Father of the Blackfoot people.” It was at the start of my concerted effort to learn about the Plains Indians and to photograph their lives, and I was intensely affected.4
Curtis witnessed entire tribes, thousands of individual lodges, converging for the ceremony. Then the call goes out to all neighboring tribes and thousands come to feast, give presents to the poor and form alliances with hostile tribes. Two days are taken up in forming the great Sun Dance circle, sometimes a mile in diameter. The placing of tribes and dignitaries, the herding of the common people, all this is arranged by masters of ceremony and criers carrying tufted, beaded wands.5 plains Indians undertook the Sun Dance both for the strength of the community and, not unlike the vision quest, for fulﬁllment of their personal vows. Participation in the dance was entirely voluntary, a mental vow to worship the Mystery in this manner being expressed by a man ardently desiring the recovery of a sick relative; or surrounded by an enemy with escape apparently impossible; or, it might be, dying of hunger … since some inscrutable power had swept all game from forest and prairie. Others joined in the ceremony in the hope and ﬁrm belief that the Mystery … would grant them successes against the enemy and consequent eminence at home.6
One of the most dramatic aspects of the Sun Dance involved the self-torture of young braves, beginning at sunup and lasting till sundown. In the center of the tribal circle, a “mystery tree” was secured in the ground. The Indian brave was brought out of conﬁnement and the medicine man prepared him for the test of strength. Incisions are made on each breast, the skin loosened between the parallel slits and bone skewers slipped under the strips of skin. Another set of cuts is made at the shoulder blades and another pair of skewers inserted. [The young man] is now led to the mystery tree pole as blood streams down from the cuts and placed to face the sun. Long thongs have been attached to the willowy tip of the pole and the lower ends now fastened to the breast skewers. From the ones at his back the heavy buffalo skull is suspended.7
The ceremony was accompanied by drumming, chanting, and singing. Then the circle was occupied by dancers whose presence brought the singing to a crescendo.
The young brave is moving his legs in time to the music, his body arched back in agonizing pain as the pole is bowed and the skull jerks up and down, the full strain centered on the stretched skin and ﬂesh of breast and back. Does the youth endure the torture, the physical pain and twisting of his inner pressures, until the sun has crossed over the heavens and sunk below the burning prairie? Or has the skin broken loose or the subject fainted in ignominy? That is the test. It is the supreme bending of fates to the will of man or the domination of the gods. Either a new warrior has been made or a lesser man found wanting. It is a moving spectacle, a never-to-be-forgotten experience.8
The tribes of the Great Plains were the most formidable and powerful in the United States, and they inspired Curtis by the majesty of their way of life. The great expanses of land and sky, the horses, the lodges, the stunning ceremonies—all are depicted in Curtis’s powerful Plains landscapes. His portraits of Plains Indians evoke the warriors’ emotional gravity, ﬁerce pride, and independence. Curtis would not ﬁnd a more dramatic example of the notion of the “American Indian” in his travels.
—Christopher Cardozo with Darren Quintenz
We eat the white man’s food, and it makes us soft;—Chiparopai, an old Yuma woman
we wear the white man’s heavy clothing
and it makes us weak.…
Yes—we know that when you come, we die.
The rich history and diverse cultural heritage of the California Indians have never been widely known outside the state. Today, even within California, they are still little understood. The tribes of the region tended to be small and, while the groups interacted socially and economically, they did not have the strong political organization of many Native American groups in other parts of the continent. Before the devastating incursions of Europeans and Americans that began in the eighteenth century, there were hundreds of tribal villages in this region, each generally with a few hundred to a thousand residents.
By the time Curtis reached California in 1916, he often traveled by automobile rather than train, horseback, or on foot, but the convenience of the car did little to make his work easier. Many of the tribes that survived the incursions of white settlers, especially the inﬂux during the Gold Rush era, sought refuge in the remote and inaccessible hills and arroyos throughout the region. The devastation suffered by these tribes was extraordinary, and it is estimated that the total population had been reduced from several hundred thousand before the arrival of the Spanish to some twenty thousand. Curtis’s efforts were hindered by the Indians’ wariness of whites and their physical isolation and were compounded by the linguistic differences among the splintered tribes. The numerous distinct languages and dialects he encountered made translation a continual challenge. Nevertheless, he was able to gain the trust of many tribes.
For the purposes of The North American Indian, Curtis divided California Indian cultures into three broad regions: northern, central, and what he called desert west. Though somewhat arbitrary, these divisions have been retained here for consistency. The territory the California Indians inhabited actually extended well beyond the present state borders. The climate of the northern and central regions was similar in many ways, but the arid desert west was distinctly different. These vast climatic and geographic differences were reﬂected in the varied lifestyles and cultures of the California tribes.
During the several years Curtis spent doing ﬁeldwork in California, he lived with and studied more than ﬁfteen northern and central California tribes and six tribes from the desert west. Curtis delicately pieced together a coherent ethnographic study from many sources, and the three volumes and portfolios of The North American Indian dedicated to the California Indians give us an excellent understanding of these tribes and their histories.• • • Tribes of the desert west inhabited some of the most arid territory in the United States, extending from the Mojave Desert to west-central Nevada, and included the Cahuilla, Diegueños, Pavisto, and Chemehuevi. They migrated with the seasons, moving from barren mesas, desert lakes, and dry canyons to the more hospitable mountainside forests of the Sierra Nevada. The tribes of the desert west moved in familial bands between seasonal camps to harvest resources that became available in different areas at different times of the year. They foraged nuts, seeds, and roots; hunted small game and birds; and ﬁshed. Although their material culture was limited by their need for travel, the severity of their environment, and the scarcity of natural resources, these tribes possessed a rich spiritual culture with strong mythological and religious traditions.
The northern and central California Indian tribes enjoyed a more temperate climate than those of the desert west. Tribes in the central region, among them the Pomo, Wintun, and Yokut, tended to settle in coastal areas or along inland waterways, where food was readily available and abundant. Northern tribes, including the Hupa and Yurok, also lived on the coast or near inland rivers in northern California. Some tribes, such as the Klamath, settled as far north as Oregon. The abundance of resources in these regions allowed the northern and central tribes to settle in relatively permanent villages, which tended to be small and isolated. Wooden plank dwellings provided the principal source of shelter, and the people subsisted primarily on the abundant supply of ﬁsh and seasonal harvests of fruits and vegetables.
The reduced pressure for subsistence made it possible for the northern and central California Indians to develop a more elaborate and complex social and material culture than their desert neighbors. They were skilled basket makers; in particular, Curtis spoke of the Pomo women as the most skilled basket makers in North America, and he photographed California basketry more extensively than that of any other area.Tribes of these regions also created intricate ceremonial regalia and fashioned other artifacts of wealth. They had an elaborate system of assigning speciﬁc values to various items that they bought, sold, and traded as currency. This currency system held particular importance in California Indian culture, as material wealth was the primary determinant of an individual’s stature. The Indians believed objects of extraordinary wealth possessed an element of spirit, and especially sacred were regalia and obsidian blades. Obtaining wealth and maintaining the status it brought were central to California Indian thought and consciousness, and individuals undertook mental and spiritual preparations for attaining wealth that were similar to the dreaming or visioning found in other Native American cultures.
Wealth was the indispensable foundation of chiefship, or rather, chiefship inevitably followed the possession of wealth. The rich men did no labor, such as driving deer or building ﬁsh-weirs, but spent their time in the house making arrows and ceremonial costumes, which they sold at high prices.1Ceremonies, feasts, and dances could only be held with the inclusion of ceremonial regalia owned by wealthy individuals. Among the most precious of the highly valued ceremonial regalia were headdresses and costumes made with red woodpecker scalps and white deerskins. Assembling the hundreds of scalps and several skins that some pieces required was difficult and tedious work, but the effect was striking. When used in public ceremonies, the pieces were dazzling; the Indians prized them for their rarity and beauty as much as for the great wealth they symbolized.
Equally rare and valuable were the large, oblong obsidian blades so prized by these tribes. A blade’s desirability depended on its size, craftsmanship, and color. In general, larger blades were worth more, and some were several feet in length. They were red, black, or green, red being the most precious. The more perfect and regular the blade’s shape and detail, the greater its value; artisans carefully and deliberately chipped each one into an oblong form. Rarely displayed, the blades were usually seen in public only during feasts or dances.• • •
California Indians had little, if any, intertribal political organization; similarly, within individual tribes, social cohesion was loose and informal. This tribal structure, coupled with a general absence of either a history of or an instinct for warfare, made these tribes especially vulnerable to the white incursions. Curtis wrote about the devastation he witnessed ﬁrsthand.
While it is not the purpose of these volumes to dwell on the wrongs [done to] the Indians, in the present instance it is impossible to avoid this distressing subject entirely.… The conditions are still so acute that, after spending many months among these scattered groups of Indians, the author ﬁnds it difficult to even mention the subject with calmness.2
It is not mere coincidence then that the great Ghost Dance religion of the 1880s found ready acceptance among California Indians. The Ghost Dance was the most signiﬁcant and widespread of the Native American revitalization movements that emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the all-pervasive devastation the California tribes suffered played a crucial role in the importance of the Ghost Dance in the region. Even though the American government began suppressing the Ghost Dance in the early 1890s, its lasting signiﬁcance is evidenced by Curtis’s record of its continuing inﬂuence several decades later. Not only did it prevail in various California tribes, but also in tribes as distant as the Sioux in the Great Plains and the Cheyenne in the southern Plains.
Although it was originally established in the 1870s, interest in the Ghost Dance was rekindled in the 1880s through a Paiute Indian prophet named Wovoka, and it quickly spread among Indians of the western United States. About 1888 [Wovoka] announced that he had received a revelation promising a complete change of conditions, the elimination of the white race, the recovery of the Indian land in all its former abundance of buffalo, the return of the dead. In short, a new world was imminent, and the people must prepare for it by appropriate dancing.3
Wovoka traveled extensively, preaching and performing miracles; his teachings spread to distant tribes through messengers, travelers, and apostles. For many Indians, the Ghost Dance brought a much-needed message of hope and a chance for cultural and spiritual renewal. The great popularity of the Ghost Dance and the widespread uprising it triggered caused a powerful backlash from the whites. Memories of the Ghost Dance were still fresh at the time Curtis visited the California Indians in the early 1900s. His photographs indicate an acute awareness of the impact its suppression had on their culture. Most of the traditional costumes are gone; a sense of defeat and resignation can be seen in some of the images. While his portraits from this region may seem less dramatic, they possess a rare power and a quiet, subtle beauty that clearly reﬂect the life Curtis encountered among these people.
—Christopher Cardozo with Darren Quintenz
The SouthwestIn the summer of 1900, Curtis made his first independent, self-financed trip into the field. For this important trip, he chose to photograph the Hopi, Navajo, and Apache of the Southwest. From 1900 to 1925 Curtis would study and photograph the various tribes of the Southwest more frequently than those of any other area. He ultimately devoted more volumes of The North American Indian to the Southwest than to any other region.
The Indians of the Southwest lived primarily in Arizona and New Mexico, although their presence extended into parts of Texas, California and northern Mexico. Because of the scarcity of native vegetation and game and the sporadic availability of water, the tribal peoples of the Southwest, by necessity, became largely dependent on agriculture for their subsistence. As their reliance on agriculture grew, the Indians of the Southwest adopted an increasingly village-oriented culture. In fact, some of their villages and pueblos have been inhabited continuously for hundred of years, making them among the oldest permanent settlements still in use in North America today.One of the reasons Curtis was drawn to Southwest Indian tribes initially was that they afforded him an unusual glimpse into pre-white Indian life. In the early 1900s, many people still lived in traditional ways, strongly tied to their ancient culture and religious traditions. Curtis was also fascinated by the strong relationship Southwest Indians had with their ancestral land, which in both its physical and metaphysical manifestations was at the center of their history, tradition, and beliefs. Virtually all practices revolved around it.
Curtis’s immersion in the landscape and cultures of the Southwest Indian is clearly evident in the photographs he made in the region. These images, and the written records of the Southwest that Curtis produced over several decades, mirror his deep understanding of the unique geocultural interplay of people and place.
The Northwest Coast and Alaska
And when the last red man shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall become a myth among the white men, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe; and when our children’s children think themselves alone in the ﬁeld, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the pathless woods, they will not be alone.—Chief Seattle
Although Edward Curtis formally began his thirty-year odyssey of studying and photographing Native Americans in the summer of 1900, he ﬁrst made photographs of Indians in his adopted Paciﬁc Northwest several years earlier. A professional studio portrait photographer by training, Curtis was also an avid outdoorsman and amateur landscape photographer. It was while pursuing these latter activities in the Puget Sound area surrounding Seattle that he began to photograph Native Americans and their daily life.
He apparently started this work without a great deal of speciﬁc ethnographic intention, yet several of his early Native American images won multiple awards. The most acclaimed—Homeward (p. 172)—won both national and international accolades. This early success undoubtedly earned the Northwest Coast peoples a special place in Curtis’s heart.The Northwest Coast volumes of The North American Indian included tribes from Washington, British Columbia, and southeast Alaska. Curtis studied many of the Salishan tribes from the Washington Coast, including the Cowlitz, Quinault, and Upper and Lower Chehalis. Farther north, in British Columbia and southeast Alaska, he studied the Kwakiutl, Nootka, and Haida. The tribes of the Northwest Coast had the most elaborate and sophisticated material culture of any Curtis visited. He felt that, of all the cultures he had encountered, the peoples and customs he found there were the least tainted by European inﬂuence.
Curtis was so fascinated by Northwest Coast cultures that he chose the region as the basis for a feature ﬁlm, the ﬁrst ever done on Native Americans. The ﬁlm, In the Land of the Headhunters, preceded Robert Flaherty’s famous Nanook of the North by a decade and was a ground-breaking contribution to the nascent ﬁeld of visual anthropology. Although Curtis’s 1914 ﬁlm was a critical success, it did not fare well at the box office. Rather than bolstering the funding for The North American Indian as he had hoped, the ﬁlm project actually put Curtis further in debt.• • •
The topology and climate of the Northwest Coast were unique among the regions Curtis visited. Rugged mountains that often ran to the sea combined with high levels of precipitation to create lush, dense forests and numerous rivers and streams. The environment also yielded an extraordinary abundance of both food sources and raw materials for housing, clothing, and canoes—the basic necessities of life. This bounty, in addition to the dense vegetation and rugged terrain, meant that the tribes rarely ventured far inland. Concentrating their villages and their daily activities at or near coastal waters, Northwest Coast tribes relied heavily on ﬁshing for subsistence; they also hunted waterfowl and other game, including seal, bear, and elk. Various plants and roots that grew freely along the coast supplemented these primary food sources.
This wealth of natural resources reduced the demands on time and energy that native peoples had to devote to meeting subsistence needs. The Northwest Coast tribes were thus free to develop their material and ceremonial cultures to a degree that was matched by very few, if any, other tribes. For example, they developed carved objects such as masks and totem poles that are as spectacular as they are complex. Curtis was obviously fascinated by what he found along the Northwest Coast, and he documented the elaborate cultural systems with their many ceremonies and rituals as well as the intricate and complex material culture of many tribes in the region.These hardy, sea-going people had developed the ceremonial life until it was a veritable pageant. It is, perhaps, safe to say that nowhere else in North America had the natives developed so far towards a distinctive drama.… No volume of the series has required an equal amount of labor in the collecting of data.… The pageant-like ceremonies of the life, their great canoes and ocean-shore homeland, have afforded rare material for pictures.1
During the winter months, when less outdoor work was undertaken, Northwest Coast Indians used the additional time to create the extraordinary carvings, weavings, and weaponry for which they are known. They placed these objects prominently throughout their beautifully constructed villages and their magniﬁcent wooden lodges. Their tradition of highly stylized and elaborate craftsmanship was also evident in the ancient regalia the tribes displayed and wore during ceremonial dances. Curtis made these observations about the Kwakiutl:
Their ceremonies are developed to a point which fully justiﬁes the word dramatic. They are rich in mythology and tradition. Their sea-going canoes possess the most beautiful lines.… In their development of ceremonial masks and costumes they are far in advance of any other group of North American Indians.2• • •
The potlatch was one of the most widespread, dramatic, and important ceremonies of the Northwest Coast and served a variety of religious and social purposes. Individual guests and entire tribes, from both neighboring and distant areas, attended these extraordinary ceremonies. Officially, the potlatch was performed to honor the dead, but a central part of the event involved the host giving gifts to his guests. A potlatch took enormous preparation, and people sometimes spent years acquiring the wealth necessary for the event. A host would work endlessly so he could present his most distinguished and honored guests with appropriate symbols of his generosity.
Northwest Coast societies were intensely attuned to hierarchical social standing, and the potlatch played a critical role in creating, affirming, or changing the social standing of both the host and guests. The generosity the host displayed could greatly enhance or diminish his social rank, as he presented gifts to his guests according to their established social standing and his personal relationship with them. Guests receiving unusually generous gifts became more esteemed; those receiving less signiﬁcant items might lose status in the eyes of others. By being so generous in his material dispensation, occasionally to the point of ﬁnancial ruin, the host sought to gain respect, admiration, and status; but he also expected to be similarly reimbursed at subsequent potlatches performed by others.
Despite the attention given to status, potlatches also served a ritual function. Many Northwest Coast Indians believed that once a spirit passed from the living it could only be happy, or taste life again, through human memory. Among the Cowichan of Vancouver Island the potlatch in honor of the dead assumes a form in which the deceased is represented as actually presiding over the celebration. The head of a family prepares effigies with rolled blankets and dresses them in the clothing of the deceased member or members of the family whom it is desired to honor.3 By remembering the dead and honoring them in living ceremonies such as the potlatch, the people believed the dead could receive what they most needed. The potlatch host anticipated his own need for human remembrance after death, and the gifts from the potlatches functioned to perpetuate the host’s own memory by serving as reminders of him and his generosity.• • •
Northwest Coast tribes traced their ancestry through membership in clans and societies, and winter ceremonials provided a time for communities to gather to remember ancestors and tribal history. The characteristic gesture of the dancers is pointing the right foreﬁnger to the zenith as a reminder that their prototypes fell from the sky, and, as they perform, the spectators think reverently of their ancestors.4
During these ceremonies, people performed dances and songs and displayed their most important ceremonial objects. Masks, special blankets, tools, and weapons often carried representations of the animals, stories, or ﬁgures historically associated with groups to which individual participants belonged. Chilkat blankets, in particular, were magniﬁcent and intricate pieces of ceremonial regalia that were created with exceptional artisanship. They were woven with crests that represented the owner’s heritage and were usually fringed. When worn in ceremonial dances, the blankets’ crests and ﬁgures acquired an animate and symbolic life; through movement, the imagery on the blankets came to life and expressed and affirmed the clan’s identity and history.• • •
Shamanism, a mystical practice that mediates between the worlds of spirits and the living, was a pivotal part of Northwest Coast culture. Shamans courted, controlled, and acquired power from spirits, and they were respected and feared as the most powerful members of the tribe. They performed rites to bless hunters and ensure their safety and success, but shamans were also healers. The people thought that when the uninitiated or untrained had contact with the spirits, or with places or objects of great power, the result could be physical or spiritual harm. They also believed that evil spirits were the cause of sickness. The power shamans received from spiritual and supernatural helpers largely determined their effectiveness in curing illness, and they received compensation when a patient was successfully helped or healed.
Thus, a certain Clallam man, already in his prime, was traveling about in search of supernatural power, and one day as he approached a pond he saw an enormous cloud of mosquitoes hovering over the water and darkening the sun.… It occurred to him that this might be the manifestation of some spirit, and he went forward.… Instantly the mosquitoes covered his body.… Gradually he revived, and he made his way home, certain that he had been granted the power to draw blood with his lips from the bodies of the sick and thus expel disease.5
Shamans were also capable of using their powers for harm. Sometimes a shaman would be blamed for the illness of an individual. Occasionally, rival shamans battled or dueled one another, which could have fatal results.• • •
Curtis’s ﬁeldwork for The North American Indian came to a close during the summer of 1927, when he spent the season with the Eskimos of subarctic and arctic Alaska. Curtis had ﬁrst traveled to Alaska in 1899. When railroad magnate and amateur explorer E. H. Harriman organized an expedition of scientists, naturalists, and friends to study and explore the still-remote Alaskan territory, Curtis was invited to be one of the expedition’s two photographers. It was on this trip that Curtis met George Bird Grinnell, and the friendship they formed in Alaska led directly to Curtis’s watershed experience on the Great Plains of Montana less than a year later.
Below the Arctic Circle, the Eskimos of King Island, Little Diomede Island, and Cape Prince of Wales hunted throughout western Alaska, from Bristol Bay to Norton Sound and across the Seward Peninsula. Above the Arctic Circle, the Nakoaktok and Kobuk lived and hunted from Cape Lisburne to Camden Bay. Eskimos rarely settled inland, almost always inhabiting permanent coastal and island villages.The Eskimos, of necessity, were seafaring peoples, constructing hand-powered kayaks and canoes to hunt at sea. Seals, walrus, and whales were tremendous resources and provided important sources of fat, bones, meat, and organs. Throughout the region, the people dried, smoked, and cured sea mammals to be stored and used as food during the winter. The hunt for these animals was dangerous but thrilling and rewarding. Only the most adept hunters could safely pilot their vessels through the arctic waters and ice ﬂows to secure food.
Curtis noted that the distinguishing characteristic of these peoples was their adaptability, for they would not have survived in, much less settled in, an area of such severe climate if they were not. Their sophisticated ability to cure and work skins into parkas, boots, and mittens was unparalleled anywhere in North America. The Eskimos were also brilliant makers of equipment, since hunting was an unforgiving pursuit in arctic and subarctic conditions; their kayaks, ﬁshing hooks, spears, and traps were all ingeniously contrived and the hunting weaponry exceptionally deadly.• • •
In many ways, Curtis’s return to Alaska provided a ﬁtting end to The North American Indian. It brought a sense of closure to the project, but it also must have helped him put his thirty-year odyssey into perspective. As he stated in the introduction to volume twenty
Great is the satisfaction the writer enjoys when he can at last say to all those whose faith has been unbounded, “It is ﬁnished.”6
—Christopher Cardozo with Darren Quintenz