Faces of the American Past

NATIVE NATIONS: FIRST AMERICANS AS SEEN BY EDWARD S. CURTIS Edited by Cristopher Cardozo. Little, Brown and Company 160 pp., $60

THE defining icons for the American West of the 1990s may be the U-Haul, the computer modem, and the espresso machine. On the move, electronically linked to global data and markets, and fueled by trendy beverages, modern westerners are looking to the future. Even the cowboys. Even the retirees. Even the windsurfers.

If it's thought about at all, the past is seen as somehow separate and maybe irrelevant. This summer, there was a flurry of interest in the 150th anniversary of the Oregon Trail, which opened the floodgate of wagon-train immigration. But by the time a handful of wagons recreating the six-month trip from Missouri rattled to the end of the trail recently, the news was only fit for the inside pages.

Which is why a new and stunning book of photographs taken by Edward S. Curtis in the late 19th- and early 20th centuries is so important. It reminds us of what was here when the first Americans of European descent showed up and of what was lost in the settling process. ``Native Nations'' is a sampling of the 20-volume work of perhaps the best chronicler of native Americans.

Produced over a 30-year period beginning in 1898, these photos are now reproduced using a new printing technology called ``stochastic screening.'' The result is far superior to earlier reprints of Curtis's ``The North American Indian,'' which included more than 2,200 photogravures and a thousand pages of text.

What's most impressive is not the technology, however, but the people Curtis recorded at the edge of an era that was virtually over. There is a dignity, a grace, and intelligence here that the recent revisionist images in print and on film can never match.

And that's because the men, women, and children pictured by the man they called ``shadow catcher'' were witness to a time of radical change in the West. They were the artists and warriors, the tribal and spiritual leaders, and the everyday villagers.

Curtis was a driven man who hauled his heavy equipment from southwestern villages to the Alaskan territory. He once wrote: ``The passing of every old man or woman means the passing of some tradition, some knowledge of sacred rites possessed by no other; consequently the information that is to be gathered, for the benefit of future generations, respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost for all time.''

He won the support of President Theodore Roosevelt and wealthy industrialists like J. Pierpont Morgan, but the work broke his health, his marriage, and bankrupted him.

In 1906, ``T. R.'' described Curtis as ``both an artist and a trained observer, whose pictures are pictures, not mere photographs; whose work has far more than mere accuracy, because it is truthful.''

In recent years, some observers (including native American critics) have complained that Curtis's work is stereotypical or staged. But this is not a universal judgment.

George P. Horse Capture, whose great-grandfather is pictured in the book, says ``the Indian photographs taken by Curtis are classics in every sense.'' Mr. Horse Capture, who lives on the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana and is a leading scholar of native American art, describes the time years ago when he first saw his great-grandfather's likeness.

``The world stopped for several moments as I peered at my direct blood ancestor,'' he writes in the forward to ``Native Nations.'' ``He was handsome and strong. His classic tribal hairstyle, clothing, and proud bearing marked him as a leader of the A'ani. He was free from restricting complexes; his moccasins were firmly planted on the earth.''

``I thought, `So that's what you look like,' '' he continues. ``We have legends of many of these great men, but we have never actually seen them. The Curtis images record their beauty and power, and no more will we have to deal with abstract words to describe them. They are here in all their glory and I was so grateful to be in their presence. As I stood there, my chest began to swell with a strange and new feeling. For the first time, I felt fierce pride at being an Indian, an A'ani.''

There was also a more permanent impact from seeing these pictures of the Nez Perce, the Mohave, the Kalispel and Jicarilla and Apsaroke, the Kwakiutl and Zuni and Assiniboin. ``Strengthened and armed by the confidence instilled in us by the works of E. S. Curtis and a few others,'' Horse Capture writes of his generation, who learned little of their heritage in public schools, ``many of us moved beyond our previous restrictions and became successes in the professions or other chosen fields.... We set forth, each in our own way, to use this new knowledge to help overcome the perennial racism that infests our country.''

WHEN I look at these photos I think not so much of the past, but of contemporary native American writers I have been reading and of Indians I have met in the course of my work as a journalist.

In ``Fools Crow,'' novelist James Welch (who is of Blackfoot and Gros Ventre descent) gets to the heart and soul of Indian life in the 1870s in a way no non-Indian writer or films like ``Dances With Wolves'' ever could.

Leslie Marmon Silko (who grew up on the Laguna Pueblo Reservation) hauntingly tells a mythic tale of American history - past and future - in ``Almanac of the Dead.'' In ``Medicine River'' and more recently ``Green Grass, Running Water,'' Cherokee writer Thomas King portrays contemporary Indian characters - especially their wry humor - with exceptional skill.

I think, too, of journalist Debra Thunder in Caspar, Wyo., who speaks so softly one has to strain to hear, but whose writing about contemporary Indian issues is as powerful as her name. Or of Ron Pond, also very soft-spoken, who works to keep tribal culture alive among young people on the Umatilla Reservation in Oregon and is a spiritual leader (and a baptized Presbyterian) who conducts healing ceremonies.

And I remember the three Arapaho-Shoshone children who came out to investigate Monitor ``shadow catcher'' Bob Harbison on the Wind River Reservation this past summer.

Debra Thunder goes back to this reservation frequently. She stays close to her grandmother, who reminds her of her ancestors' worth and of her true legacy - separate from the circumstances many native Americans now find themselves in.

George Horse Capture makes an important related point about the people Edward S. Curtis pictured, the people whose trust Curtis won. And this is that ``the ultimate beauty ... lies not only with the photographic genius of E. S. Curtis, but also and perhaps most importantly within his subjects.

``The native beauty, strength, pride, honor, dignity and other characteristics may have been captured by photographic techniques,'' he asserts, ``but they were first an essential part of the people.''

In other words, Curtis was capturing for all time and people - especially modern, busy westerners - far more than shadows.

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