Edward Curtis: Re-Imagined

By Haley Rains, MA Student in Native American Studies (www.haleyrains.com)

My project consists of a series of photographs that depict present-day indigenous people in a style that mirrors American photographer Edward S. Curtis’s early 20th century photos of Native American people. I have re-imagined Curtis’s photography by exploring some of the ways he may have photographed contemporary indigenous people if he were still alive today. I have produced a series of ten photographs of contemporary indigenous people and have juxtaposed them with some of Curtis’s most famous photography – namely, photographs from his The North American Indian collection. Please see my project below:





“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.” -Edward S. Curtis



American photographer Edward S. Curtis believed, through his photography, that he could encapsulate and preserve an elusive and vanishing people—the indigenous people of North America—forever freezing them in time. Curtis believed he alone bore the responsibility of capturing photos of “real” Native American people before they all went extinct.



Curtis’s work is a microcosm of a larger phenomenon: America’s love of extinct Indians. Artists like Curtis are largely responsible for the creation—and perpetuation—of both the “Noble Savage” and “Vanishing Indian” myths. Curtis believed that “real” Indians were associated with the past, that they existed “authentically” over one hundred years ago. Native Americans today, he implied, are a degeneration of a formerly great and noble people.



What Curtis failed to appreciate, however, is the dynamic nature of Native American people and culture; Native Americans do not easily conform to any static identity (nor does any people). Native Americans are ever-changing; we did not cease to exist as a people upon the arrival of Europeans. We are perpetually evolving.



I challenge Curtis’s belief that he alone bore responsibility for the documentation and preservation of indigenous cultures; indeed, it was contemporary indigenous peoples’ ancestors who, despite facing tremendous pressure by the dominant society to abandon their cultures and traditions, retained their unique customs, stories, and languages and transmitted their cultures to the succeeding generations. In other words, Curtis did not preserve our culture: our ancestors preserved our culture.



As I photographed my subjects for Edward Curtis: Re-Imagined, they shared with me their tribes’ creation stories, they taught me their clan names, and they described to me the cultural significance of their beadwork and traditional regalia. In these moments I was truly grateful for the customs, stories, and traditions their ancestors passed on to them.



I believe self-representation in art provides a pathway to indigenous autonomy and self-actualization. That is why it is critically important that Native American people are afforded the space within which they are free to express their own values, experiences, and identities and, subsequently, position them to be received—and celebrated—by Euro-American society.



Native American people have already lost too much of their land and culture through a cruel process of colonization, forced assimilation, and oppression; in order to recover those aspects of cultural identity that have been lost by these forces, they will need to continue to assert their right to self-definition—especially as it resists the disempowering impulses of colonial forces. It should not be considered unreasonable, then, to honor the appeals of indigenous people to formulate, express, and affirm their distinct identities, instead of relying on the dominant society to shape and limit their cultural experiences for them. It is time to change and or control the narrative.



As I and other American Indian photographers, artists, writers, educators, and students follow in the footsteps of those who came before us—those generations who sacrificed, struggled, and endured—we are aware that we stand on the shoulders of giants. So many before us resisted the marginalization of our cultures and went on to shatter American culture’s glass ceilings and push open doors of opportunity for our generation’s benefit. We are grateful, and we/I intend to become role models for others within our communities, confronting and overcoming the obstacles of our own time, providing powerful models for other American Indians to dream big, ambitious dreams and to become whomever they wish to be.



My name is Haley Rains, enrolled member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and great-great-granddaughter of Melissa Haley, who was born in 1891 in the Indian Territory. Her own grandmother was a survivor of the Trail of Tears. My ancestors made the treacherous journey from present-day Alabama, Georgia, and Florida to Oklahoma as a part of Andrew Jackson’s removal policies of the 1830s. My roots run deep, and the blood that runs through my veins is the same blood that ran through the veins of my courageous ancestors. I am their legacy.

5 thoughts on “Edward Curtis: Re-Imagined

  1. Please, do NOT use Navajo deities (those two photos of individuals in ceremonial gear) to be compared with people. We wouldn’t do that to other nations’ deities – there are MANY photos of Navajo people not wearing ceremonial attire that you could have used.
    Awesome article, though.


    1. Hi, Bry. Thank you for your comment. And your point is well taken.

      I would like to clarify that both photos, the man dressed as Nayenezgani and the man dressed as Tobadzischini, the Yebichai war god, were taken by Edward Curtis in 1904. I did not photograph either of them. In addition, none of the photos in my collection are meant to be, as you say, compared to each other. My project is not an exercise in comparing different tribes. My intention in sharing both photos—indeed, all the photos I chose to share—is to emphasize the fluidity of indigenous authenticity.

      For example, Curtis implied both the man dressed as Nayenezgani and the man dressed as Tobadzischini were some of the last “authentic” Navajo Indians—modern-day Navajos being an unauthentic degeneration of the “real” Navajos who existed over one hundred years ago. I think you will agree that is a misconception we ought not perpetuate.

      Finally, the fact that Curtis’s Navajo subjects are wearing ceremonial attire is precisely why I chose those photos: one need not look like the subjects in Curtis’s photos in order to be considered an authentic Native American person. I believe that is the message we, as indigenous people, ought to reinforce. What do you think?

      Liked by 1 person

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