Smiling Indians and Edward S. Curtis

In 1491s, Edward S. Curtis, Indian Humor, Smiling Indians, stereotypes by Adrienne K.10 Comments

Everyone knows the photographs of Edward S. Curtis–they are the “iconic” Indian pictures you see in coffee table books, on postcards, even on wall hangings at Ikea. They’re the images people most often associate with Natives: Indians on horses, Indians in headdresses, Indians riding off into the sunset never to be seen again…

At the time he was working, Curtis was convinced that the Native population was about to disappear forever, so he took it upon himself to photograph as much of this “vanishing race” as he could. He amassed an amazing body of work, but he definitely had an idea of what he thought “real” Indians looked like.

Edward Curtis is a bit of a running joke in my family, since both my sister and I focused our senior theses on his photographs. I argued that his images created a false authenticity from which contemporary Indian artists struggle to break free. It came to light later that he was a fan of doctoring images (erasing signs of “modernity”), providing costumes for his subjects, and trying to make Native peoples fit his notion of Indianess. My sister talked about those issues too, but also looked at how contemporary Natives are using the images as a way to have a tangible connection to family and ancestors, and how Native artists are beginning to reclaim the images and use them as a starting point to re-imagine Native photography.

The common theme throughout Edward Curtis’s portraits is stocism. None of his subjects smile. Ever. Check out this gallery or this gallery if you don’t believe me. To anyone who has spent anytime with Indians, you know that the “stoic Indian” stereotype couldn’t be further from the truth. Natives joke, tease, and laugh more than anyone I know–I often leave Native events with my sides hurting from laughing so much.

So in response to the sad-stoic-angry Indian images of Edward Curtis, we’ve got this awesome video by Sterlin Harjo (the man behind Four Sheets to the Wind and Barking Water) and Ryan RedCorn (the man behind Demockratees and Buffalo Nickel Creative). Simple but powerful, and showcases the diversity of Indian Country too!

I always love Native art/film/poetry/writing/anything that subverts popular narratives about Indians and calls into question all the stereotypes and preconceived notions the public holds about Native peoples, so this is right up my alley. It’s also adorable. And sports cameos by a few of my friends.

The video was produced by the 1491’s, and I highly recommend checking out their youtube channel for some awesome ndn humor. If you haven’t seen the Wolfpack audition video, you haven’t lived. 
(Thanks Sterlin and Ryan!)
  • Not excusing EC’s doctoring practices, but I do wonder what would have happened if he’d taken pictures of Native Americans smiling during that era. I’ve never seen more than a handful of pictures from that era with *anyone* of any ethnicity smiling — photography was a Very Serious Thing– so might not smiling have “othered” Natives in an additional way? What would the stereotype be now if they’d all (or mostly) been photographed smiling then? I can think of a few possibilities, but they’re not any more pleasant than “stoic,” and some of them (from my point of view anyway) are potentially more dangerous ways to be labeled.

  • Thanks for this post and that video! Very cool.

  • I think stoicism is a dangerous stereotype – I think of the way its mobilized within ‘white people’s humour’ – for example, “Oh, I was only kidding when I called you a redskin” or “I dressed up as a squaw for Hallowe’en because I thought it was funny….can’t you (and your people) take a joke?” I think stoicism can work so insidiously and the rhetoric the ‘not smiling’ supports for sure works to do an additional othering. Thanks for drawing some of these things out in this post!

  • jim

    In my book “Navajo and Photography” Chapter 4, I published some Curtis photographs of smiling people that were heretofor unpublished, precisely because they didn’t match the stoic images necessary for the time. They are warm wonderful photographs, proving Curtis, too, was a human, but subject to the dominant tropes of the time in the publishing agenda. James Faris

  • OT

    Really, did you even look at your second link? Indians smiling on several pictures on the first page. Did you click on the families section–the Noatak family is certainly smiling. Yes, photography was a serious thing, something you were doing for posterity and something that cost a lot of money to do, not the snapshots of today. Curtis not only spent the money to make the photographs, he paid his sitters well. His goal was to photograph the American Indians in the way they were before the white man came. When he modified a photo, and there’s only one that we can find, it was to remove a clock. It’s not hidden and Curtis didn’t try to find it. When Curtis talked of the “Vanishing Race” he was talking about American Indian culture being overrun by white culture. He strongly supported the return of the Sundance which congress had outlawed and he testified before congress in support of Navajo’s and Hopi’s being allowed to continue to practice their religious rites and ceremonies–which were also under threat. Curtis was the first white person to tell the story of Custer from the side of the Indians who were there–and for his trouble he was vilified by much of the press and sued by Custer’s widow. Curtis and his view of the North American Indian may not have been everything that today’s ethnographer or tribe member could wish for, but he was well ahead of his time, a true friend to those he photographed, and he created a valuable set of writing, over 10,000 recordings of songs and voices and more than 40,000 photographs of North American Indians that we wouldn’t have without him. This didn’t come for free it took 30 years of his life, cost him his wife, bankruptcy and a total breakdown. I respect the man despite his flaws. You don’t have to, there’s always someone writing something wrong somewhere on the internet.

  • Stumbled across your blog while searching for a way to put words to my reaction to this blog post:

    I immediately recoiled at the idea of a parent encouraging their kids to “play Indians” and especially at the quote “and who better to share an Indian Headdress than the moccasin lady herself”… who as far as I can tell is a white lady. Following your blog and thankful for someone who is better at voicing their views than I am.

  • LOL, wow, OT seems heated… Funny, just got done reading a paper written by a friend on this topic – the doctoring of photos by Curtis. :) I remember that at least one other doctoring of photos includes adding face-paint effects after the picture was taken… something about women and white linear face paint? Wasn’t necessary, but it helped create the look?

    As for the process of achieving the look before the picture was taken, I think its pretty safe to say that a lot of the subjects didn’t walk around with their most expensive regalia looking sad all the time… there is a huge level of production in the photos to be acknowledged.

    I am thankful for the pictures of my relatives from back in the day, but the pictures certainly do cater to the story-line of a preserved and yet vanishing race… all photographers operate on stories they are trying to portray and that seems to have been the theme of the day… ‘documentation’ & ‘preservation’ before gone…

    Have we moved from those themes yet? At what point are we no longer vanishing?

    Its a hard theme to shake even today is the point, and it personally can have this effect of making us look back at Grandpa and Grandma’s picture and say “At that point, was a real traditional Indian’, when there is a lot that you don’t see in the picture.. Maybe Grandma went to school, or was wearing stockings, or was developing some new basket technique, or that’s not even how the dress is supposed to be worn, or whatever… and maybe it makes it hard to see the things that we’ve carried on for what they are… and how we’ve carried them on… they haven’t simply vanished… I think its important to look at those photos knowing such things, lest we fall into those story lines provided for us rather than by us.

    Back to Curtis… personally, I wish he would have recorded the names of all the people he photographed… my grandma is circulated as ‘Hupa Woman’ on everything from calendars to mugs to t-shirts, random places on the internet, and its an odd detachment to not have her name associated with her picture… She was a very important woman, and it feels like her story is lost within the picture by just that part of not having her name attached… her identity subsumed by the dominant story-line in a different way via anonymity…

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  • Not all the photos are sad, and while it may be true that Curtis had the Natives “dress up” for their photos, I still believe they’re priceless.
    Look at those faces. No costume can hide the wisdom & honor in those eyes.
    These people intimately knew their Creator and thereby became a great and fearless people, full of life, wisdom & humor.
    I, for one, am glad to have these photographs available, if for no other reason than to appreciate how beautiful & mighty they were – and still are.
    Loved the “Smiling Indians” video, by the way.
    After watching that, I rest my case.

  • woah I think Michelle kind of missed the entire point of the blog. Way to play into the noble savage stereotype. Maybe you should read more of this blog. “Wisdom and honor”? “Beautiful and mighty they WERE” ? seriously. this is not what the goal of this blog is at all. She is pointing out that broad sweeps that generalize a group as being noble, close to nature, and now dying away is wrong. People are people, some are more attuned to nature, some are less. Some are great dancers, some are not. Some are great orators, some are not. Not all Aboriginal people are great and fearless, nor are they all drunks. THOSE ARE DAMAGING STEREOTYPE.

    /end rant