Hunter S. Thompson can have his motorcycle gangs. The subjects of photographer Edward S. Curtis' portraits of American Indian life, circa early 20th century, are far more savage than any rowdy biker:
Plains Indian braves stand shirtless, their hair coiffed into elaborate Mohawks and plaits. A weary Apache leans against a tree trunk, a cool customer swathed in a blanket and fabric wrapped around his head like a primitive bandana. One photo shows a band of Indians sitting astride hardy ponies lined up outside a modest teepee camp like cyclists awaiting the beginning of the Sturgis rally. Another picture captures psychedelically painted medicine men performing an elaborate -- and likely forbidden -- religious ceremony.
Thompson, a writer, perfected immersion journalism, but Curtis, a photographer, practically invented it, spending the better part of two decades commanding an entourage of wagons -- containing photography equipment, supplies, tents, a cook, and a field ethnographer -- that traveled from the Great Plains to the American Southwest, through California, to the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, documenting more than 40,000 people from 80 tribes for a 20-volume compendium funded by J.P. Morgan.
"He was driven and passionate, and he was sincerely fascinated by Native American cultures, which he believed were dying out," says Rhodes College professor Dee Garceau-Hagen, who collaborated with Memphis Brooks Museum's chief curator Marina Pacini on the exhibition "Edward S. Curtis and the American Indian," now showing at the Brooks.
This exhibition provides a rare opportunity to view Rhodes' set of American Indian photographs, which were donated to the college by Robert and Anne Riley Bourne in the late 1990s. They're displayed alongside three additional Curtis images from the Brooks' permanent collection.
According to Garceau-Hagen, Curtis, who worked on the project from 1907 to 1930, was a "romantic racist" influenced by stereotypical ideas -- typical of the times -- that endorsed social Darwinism and scientific racism and assumed that heredity and race determined character and ability.
"Curtis' images of American Indians focus on a primitive past, what Susan Sontag called 'a mournful vision of loss,'" she says. "He saw the past as more compelling than the present, and he very deliberately ignored changes [occurring] on the reservations. Indians were entering the wage-based economy as loggers, fishermen, domestic servants, fruit pickers, and ranchers. Indian youth were taking up basketball and football with enthusiasm. In fact, the 1904 national women's basketball championships, played at the St. Louis World's Fair, were won by native students from Fort Shaw Indian School. They were evolving and adapting, but they were not losing their Indian identity."
Garceau-Hagen compares Curtis' image of Gambler, an Indian photographed in traditional regalia in 1900, with another picture of Gambler from William Farr's book, The Reservation Blackfeet 1882-1945: A Photographic History of Cultural Survival. In the second image, snapped by an unidentified studio photographer in 1912, a dandified Gambler, his shorn hair carefully slicked down, wears a three-piece suit in sharp juxtaposition to Curtis' earlier pose. While the latter portrait is more realistic, it's the former that's been superimposed on our collective memory.
"The Sioux warrior became the prototype for the image of the Indian in the American mind," says Garceau-Hagen, describing the iconic image of a chief wearing an eagle-feather war bonnet. "More than anything," she notes, "my intent is to dislodge the stereotype of American Indians as people whose traditions don't change. Native cultures, like all cultures, evolve in response to new circumstances. Change doesn't mean loss of cultural identity. It's a tremendous disservice to Indian people to view Curtis' photos without some counterperspectives."
Garceau-Hagen recruited 14 students to research Native American history for the photos' captions and the show's brochure. "I wanted to put Curtis' images in dialogue with the actual history of American Indian people in the early 20th century and with contemporary native voices," she says, "so I also put out an APB on a list-serve that deals with Native American history. I got a range of responses, which were incorporated into the exhibit labels.
"Some people see Curtis' photos as a cultural resource -- many people were confined to reservations, where traditional ceremonies were prohibited," she says. "Others resent how Indian culture became commodified. They see Curtis as a colonialist whose vision of Indian people as 'primitive others' justified marginalizing them.
"My dream," Garceau-Hagen concludes, "is that people will come away with new perspectives on both Curtis and American Indian people."