Edward Sherriff Curtis spent more than forty years photographing and documenting the Native peoples of North America, taking more than 40,000 photographsand amassing a staggering archive of documentarymaterial about North American tribes and social groups. While many books have explored the artistic value of the images he created, The Many Faces of Edward Sherriff Curtis assesses his contributions to the field of anthropology.
Curtis began documenting the Native peoples of North America in 1889. By this time, the U.S. government had pushed most Native Americans onto reservations and seemed determined to destroy their cultures and social organizations by forcibly removing their children to government boarding schools, by depriving them of the right to speak their languages and practice their religions, and by carving up tribal lands into ever smaller portions and giving away sizable pieces to non-Natives. Curtis believed that his generation might be the last to see and hear these Native people in the flesh.
Scholars Steadman Upham and Nat Zappia examine eighty of Curtis's portraits within three contexts: the Native American in U.S. history, the history of Native peoples worldwide during the same period, and the individual subjects, whose portraits are arranged from youngest to oldest. Within the larger arena of U.S. and world history, the gravity, determination, humor, and dignity of Curtis's portraits become vitally clear. The people he photographed were, in many cases, suffering degradation and hardship, but their faces speak of purpose and hope. More than seventy years after Curtis created his last photograph, these portraits speak not of the "vanishing Indian" he believed he was documenting for posterity but of the resilience of entire nations, which persist and even thrive in difficult circumstances.
The Many Faces of Edward Sherriff Curtis is a book for our time. Its clear assessment of the past, its striving to bring forth images and words too long out of the public eye, and its message of endurance bespeak the future of Native peoples worldwide.
Steadman Upham is president and professor of anthropology at the University of Tulsa. Nat Zappia is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Santa Cruz.