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The Dichotomy of Twenty-First Century Native American Depictions: Edward S. Curtis’s Altered Piegen Lodge Photograph

In the early twentieth century, American anthropologists and photographers were scrambling to document the “vanishing race” of Native Americans who had endured centuries of struggle against European imperialists and settlers and whose culture was already imbued with the culture of white, European America. Those photographing Native Americans at this time presented idealized, romantic, static images of a people who in reality were experiencing a complex social, political and economic transition. Native American culture at this time was not the same as Native American culture before European contact, but nevertheless, anthropologists attempted to capture the romantic ideal of the “noble savage” and preserve the very culture that society at the same time was attempting to eradicate through assimilation. Thus, Native Americans at this time were not depicted as real, individual beings facing these complex factors, but were depicted as either representative of a culture that was believed to be disappearing or as the assimilated American Native, dressed in European-style clothing with short hair. Attempts were made by photographers, such as Edward S. Curtis, to avoid presenting reality—that there was no longer a Native American culture untouched by European contact, nor was there such thing as a fully “Americanized” Native American without any ties to cultural heritage.

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.[1] 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.”[2] 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.
The World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois, in 1893 provides prime examples of American values and perceptions around the turn of the century. At the exposition, American industrial and technological accomplishments were showcased and celebrated alongside “living history” displays, which consisted of Native American people in traditional dress, representing the “vanishing race” that Frederick Jackson Turner discussed in a lecture he delivered at the exposition titled “The Frontier Thesis.”[3] Turner claimed in his thesis that the frontier was closed, and this notion was widely received and already exemplified by the exposition itself—technology and industry were the new frontier, and the old, closed frontier was embodied in the romantically static representation of Native Americans on display there.[4] They were “history” in the eyes of American society at this time. To European Americans, Native Americans were people with a present that existed only in relation to the past, and they certainly had no future. Turner discussed in his thesis how actions taken to fulfill manifest destiny (the idea that westward expansion, including the taking of indigenous lands, was an inherent, God-given right of the American people) represented progressive waves of social evolution that occurred each time the frontier was pushed farther west. A “closed” frontier meant the west had been entirely occupied, and more importantly in his view, “civilized.” To Turner, Native Americans were merely a feature of the frontier landscape, and with its closure, they too were vanishing under the heels of progress. Turner acknowledges that “Long before the pioneer farmer appeared on the scene, primitive Indian life had passed away,” pointing to the influences of European culture on Native American lifestyles, but he assumes that this meant that Native Americans and their culture would vanish completely as American society continued to progress. The notion of Native Americans retaining their cultural heritage and simultaneously participating in American society was not part of the American perception of Native American people. There existed two dominant stereotypes of Native Americans at this time: the noble savage, whose lifestyle was vanishing with the frontier and who would soon only exist in the photography and anthropological record; and on the other side, an assimilated Native American, who has forgone all of his ties to Native American culture, who speaks only English, wears only American clothing, and practices Christianity. This assimilated Native American could be pictured with a clock, but not the traditional Native American. Thus, Curtis removed the clock from the photograph because it presented a more complex idea of Native American life, in which it was possible to retain both a cultural heritage and live in modern American society. This option was never presented to Native Americans, and the either-or situation was reinforced by the dichotomy of photographic representations.

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.[5] 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.”[6] 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.[7] 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.
The legacy of these two stereotypical representations of Native Americans in photography can still be seen today. Most Americans still think initially of Curtis’s traditional, static and “noble savage” depiction of Native Americans, even while at the same time acknowledging that it is a stereotype that is not based in reality. The cultural heritage that exists in that photograph is real, but the clock was real, too. Today, Native Americans still struggle against the dichotomy of representation that was placed upon them more than one hundred years ago and seek to put the clock back into the image, to present reality, even if it does not fit into a neat category that syncs with dominant perceptions.


[1] “In a Piegan lodge (The North American Indian; v. 06),” American Memory, Library of Congress, n.d. Web, 26 Feb. 2012.

[2] Vizenor, Gerald; “Edward Curtis: Pictorialist and Ethnographic Adventurist,” American Memory; Library of Congress, 2000; Web, 26 Feb. 2012.

[3] Lonetree, Amy, American Studies 10: University of California Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, California, Spring 2011, Lecture.

[4] Turner, Frederick Jackson, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” American Historical Association; Chicago, Illinois; 1893, Lecture.

[5] 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).

[6] 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).

[7] “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!