A key example of the controlled representation of Native Americans at this time can be seen in Edward S. Curtis’s photograph In a Piegan lodge (see fig. 1), published in 1911 with other photographs of the Piegan Native American tribe in volume six of The North American Indian. The photograph depicts two men of the Piegan tribe, Little Plume and his son Yellow Kidney, seated on the ground in a lodge made of animal hide. Curtis’s description of the photograph states that the men “occup[y] the position of honor, the space at the rear opposite the entrance,” and that “In a prominent place lie the ever-present pipe and its accessories on the tobacco cutting-board.” Curtis describes the other Piegan material culture that can be seen in the image, including “the buffalo-skin shield, the long medicine-bundle, an eagle-wing fan, and deerskin articles.” The men wear traditional Native American dress and their hair is braided. There is no evidence of modern European American influence in the lives of these two Piegan men, even though they were being photographed by a European American man and certainly had contact with his society and culture.
|Figure 1 Curtis, Edward S., In a Piegan lodge, 1911; Northwestern University Library, Evanston, Illinois.|
The presentation of the photograph with the description by Curtis is anthropological in form, preserving details visually and through catalogue documentation. Curtis’s collection of Native American photographs by volume was accompanied by descriptions of the different tribes, and he “presented his photographs, notes and cultural observations as ethnographic.” This photograph is not candid, for the two men are looking at the camera, posed and dressed in more formal clothing, but there is a sense that the photograph is supposed to be representing a snapshot of Native American life; they are being photographed in their lodge, not in a studio, and it is likely that in their lives, these two men did sit in the very positions shown in the photograph.
However, the photograph is by no means a depiction of reality, and is in fact, deceitful in its presentation. In his essay, “Edward Curtis: Pictorialist and Ethnographic Adventurist,” UC Berkeley American Studies professor Gerald Vizenor writes that Curtis “paid natives to pose; he selected ornaments, vestments, and he played the natural light, tone, picturesque reflections, and the solitary nature of natives in his pictures… The aesthetic poses of natives countered the cruelties of reservations and binaries of savagism and civilization.” Thus, in many ways, this image is controlled by Curtis as photographer and self-proclaimed ethnologist. In addition to his control over the subject of the photograph and his choice of where to position the viewfinder, Curtis actually altered the original negative after it was processed to remove a key detail that otherwise presents a different representation of Native American life and culture at the time. In the original black and white negative, a clock is pictured between the two men, a clear sign that the lifestyle of the Native American men pictured was not untouched by European American society and material culture (see fig. 2). By removing the clock and romanticizing the traditional, culturally pure Native American, Curtis’s photograph represents an idealized representation of Native American people that obscures the realities of Native American life at the time, such as the harsh conditions experienced on reservations and forced assimilation in boarding schools that were a direct effect of American laws due to the advancement west by American settlers. Curtis and others at this time were documenting Native American life in order to preserve a culture they believed was vanishing with the closing of the frontier. To better understand the social and political perspectives on Native Americans at the beginning of the twentieth century, we must examine events that occurred a couple decades prior to Curtis’s photography and the influence of common, historical and deeply rooted stereotypes held by white, European Americans regarding Native American people.
|Figure 2 Curtis, Edward S., In a Piegan lodge, 1910; Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.|
To contrast Curtis’s image with one in which a clock could be represented and maintain these boundaries, photographs from Native American boarding schools, like the Carlisle School in Pennsylvania, present the “assimilated Native American.” One image in particular, from the Stewart School in Nevada, actually does show a clock in the background (see fig. 3). The notion that one had to “destroy the ‘Indian’ in the ‘race’ in favor of the ‘man,’” as Carlisle Indian Industrial School founder Captain Richard H. Pratt was known to have said, was widely believed and put into practice by boarding schools across the nation. The Native American boarding school system of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries removed “uncivilized” Native children from their tribal homelands and taught them “submission to authority” and “vocational” skills, teaching them to speak, dress and think like “Americans.” The image from the Stewart Indian School was taken sometime after the school opened in 1890 and depicts seven boys and young men working in a harness shop at the school. According to the Nevada State Museum website, school days at this boarding school “consisted of a half day in classes and a half-day of work at the school. Student work was necessary to keep the school running and staff costs down,” and this work included agricultural work, such as the harness work depicted in the photo, washing laundry, and making the uniforms students wore. These tasks are all reflective of an American society and material culture, as opposed to a traditional Native American society and material culture, which would have certainly had clothes washing, sewing and tool-making practices, but would have differed from the ways these students were taught in the boarding schools. This image shows the contrasting stereotype to the romanticized “noble savage” image depicted in the Curtis photo, and because it represents the Native American children in this photo not as “Native American” but as “American,” it was acceptable to show modern, twentieth century devices, like the clock that is visible on the wall. The clock’s active removal from the original image that Curtis took signifies a belief in American popular perceptions that Native Americans were not part of modern society unless they rejected their traditions; Native American culture in their eyes was mutually exclusive with modern inventions, like clocks, and perhaps there was even a sense that Native Americans had no sense of time or need for time, for their traditional lifestyle was lived in such a different pace from twentieth century American life. In reality, though, Native Americans had been in contact with this “modern” society for centuries, and their way of living was certainly not the static image that Americans represented in photography and in stereotypes in various mediums.
|Figure 3 Boys in the harness shop, n.d, (1890-1980); Nevada State Museum, Carson City, Nevada.|
 “In a Piegan lodge (The North American Indian; v. 06),” American Memory, Library of Congress, n.d. Web, 26 Feb. 2012.
 Vizenor, Gerald; “Edward Curtis: Pictorialist and Ethnographic Adventurist,” American Memory; Library of Congress, 2000; Web, 26 Feb. 2012.
 Lonetree, Amy, American Studies 10: University of California Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, California, Spring 2011, Lecture.
 Turner, Frederick Jackson, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” American Historical Association; Chicago, Illinois; 1893, Lecture.
 Berkhofer, Robert F., Jr; The White Man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present; New York: Vintage Books, 1978; Print, (171).
 Lomawaima, K. Tsianina; “‘You’re a Women, You’re Going to Be a Wife’”; They Called It Prairie Light: The Story of Chilocco Indian School; Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994; Print, (81-82).
 “Stewart Indian School: Early Training,” Nevada State Museum, Nevada Division of Museums and History, 2 Apr. 2003, Web, 26 Feb. 2012.
This paper was written for my History of Art and Visual Culture: American Art course at UC Santa Cruz, taught by Professor Martin Berger in Winter Quarter 2012. I would love to hear your thoughts on the paper, including comments about the subject, critiques of my analysis ,or any questions you might have. Thanks for reading!