For the last fifteen years I have been photographing and sharing stories from indigenous communities in the United States. Since 2012, Project 562, has allowed me to do this work with folks from all over Indian Country and so far I’ve been to about 400 tribes. In the next couple of years I hope to complete my mission. Because of my dedication to photographing Native Americans, some people call me “The Modern Day Curtis”.
Each time I hear that, I want to throw up.
Curtis was funded by J.P. Morgan to photograph “the vanishing race”. This photographic “hired gun” was the original Indian mis-appropriator, notorious throughout Indian Country for artificially representing his subjects with objects and apparel belonging to different tribal regions. He’d instruct his subjects to stand away from modern infrastructure, aiming to capture their “savage” qualities and lifestyles.
He titled his images as “Indian #3” , “Chumash woman”, and “Headhunter”. He described his images as though the people in the photos didn’t have names, as if they weren’t worthy of distinction.
To his credit, I can appreciate that Curtis was bold and committed. He gave up everything— his home, his wife, his family, all to photograph Native people. In some cases his work has been meaningful to people I know in various Native communities. A friend told me that elders of her tribe were able to source Curtis’ images of a ceremony, and repatriate that element of the ceremony back into their community. Weavers have told me that they look at basket images in his photos and are able to draw inspiration from them. Carvers have used his images in their approach to carving canoes. In these ways, Curtis’ work has played an important role in the reclamation of Native American culture. Let’s acknowledge that this is only necessary because our culture was purposely attacked and in some cases eradicated.
The danger in “Curtis’ Legacy”, despite its incidental (and unintended) cultural preserve, lies in his lasting effects on our collective consciousness. If you Google “Native American” right now you will find a historical Curtis image, a stark contrast to Googling “African American” or “Asian American”, in which you will find a contemporary image. His images have imprinted our minds; we think that the “Curtis Indian” is what “Real Indians” are supposed to look like. This is damaging in so many ways; and Native American scholars such as Dr. Stephanie Fryberg and Dr. Adrienne Keene have written extensively about the ongoing harm from the leathered and feathered stereotype caused by these dated and in many ways inauthentic images. In everyday life, what happens when Native kids can’t relate to or meet others’ expectations of “real Indian-ness”? How can we be seen as modern successful people when we are still viewed as a one dimensional stereotypes? How do we strengthen our nations and lobby for sovereignty when most of people don’t understand basic indigenous identities, concepts, and life experiences?
It’s perplexing: we know on the whole that, offered as real, Curtis’ work is damaging to modern indigenous people and to the understanding and connectedness we all deserve, and yet we continue to perpetuate the harm. In the service of art?
My fine-arts career was launched years ago at The Seattle Art Museum where I exhibited a series called “We Are One People”, a photo narrative of members from Coast Salish Tribes in Washington State.
These portraits were put in the same gallery with Curtis images and considered a fitting contrast to the Curtis narrative. After the Seattle Art Museum, the exhibit traveled to several other high profile museums. Since then, dozens of museums have asked me to do some variation of that same show. I have been given no choice but to do my best to decline graciously and explain that the bodies of work I’ve created deserve to stand alone (while trying not to come off as an egotist); or to put it plainly, I explain that my work has value without needing to be contrasted to a dead white man’s perspective and creativity. I’ve been to museum board rooms, armed with statistics and facts that explain Curtis’ harmful impact. I connect them to other Native photographers’ work. Inevitably, the institution’s leaders will murmur that their patrons want to see his work on the walls, and that their hands are tied. In fact, I decided to publish this piece because the entire city of Seattle is celebrating the The Curtis Sesquicentennial Celebration, as if it isn’t enough to celebrate him every one hundred years, it needs to be done every fifty.
Curtis’ photography continues to sell at high end auction houses for astronomical amounts and those sales profit his foundation, and to my knowledge, none of that money makes its way back to Indian County in an impactful way. Meanwhile, indigenous photographers such as Thosh Collins, Nadya Kwandibins, Ryan Redcorn, and Will Wilson are yet to have stand alone exhibitions at The MET or be represented by blue chip galleries in Chelsea, or become staff photographers at The New York Times, or to be able to present our peoples photographically in National Geographic (because non-Indian photographers such as Aaron Huuey get that job). Recently, Josue Rivas participated as a Magnum Fellow and realized the inadequate representation of indigenous photographers in these elite photo spaces, and launched Natives Photograph, the New York Times wrote an article about it.
Books about Curtis, some of which have been NYT bestsellers, aren’t concerned about the ways in which the Curtis legacy impacts Native people.
The lack of representation/consumption can raise a question if work that I offer is seen as good or worthy, or if the continuing preference for his vision is just the manifestation of the racist construct we live under.
Without having the answer to that question, I do know that the indigenous image, the profit and aggrandizement from the indigenous image, and the consumption of the indigenous narrative have remained in the control (and bank of account) of non-indigenous people.
Until we start seeking and appreciating different images of indigenous peoples as wonderful, creative, transformative, contemporary human beings — the narrative will stay the same. The dehumanization of Indian people will continue. We saw this in mass media’s depiction of the peoples at Standing Rock. We see it in our intolerable achievement gaps with our students. We see it in the brutal life expectancy of Native populations.
And earlier today, as I wrote this post, a curator called me and asked, “have you ever heard of Edward S. Curtis…?”
Matika Wilbur (Swinomish and Tulalip) is one of the nation’s leading photographers, based in the Pacific Northwest. She earned her BFA from Brooks Institute of Photography where she double majored in Advertising and Digital Imaging. Her most recent endeavor, Project 562, has brought Matika to over 300 tribal nations dispersed throughout 40 U.S. states where she has taken thousands of portraits, and collected hundreds of contemporary narratives from the breadth of Indian Country all in the pursuit of one goal: To Change The Way We See Native America
This article originally appeared here