Book Reviews

Timothy Egan
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt - Buy Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher on Amazon

Curtis had pulled his punches with Custer, and kept his views to himself about the brutal mistreatment of the Navajo…Even in his description of the Cheyenne, aside from the account of the Sand Creek massacre, he’d shown restraint. But—damn all!—he would not hold back on the Nez Perce. If a reader could look into the face of Chief Joseph, could hear the story of the long retreat, the broken promises, the imprisonment in Oklahoma, the decimation of a superior band of human beings, and not feel some anger, then Curtis would have trouble living with himself.

from  Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher

 

It is unlikely that you have never seen a “Curtis Indian”—one of those striking, black and white, or sepia portraits of Native Americans created in the early part of the twentieth century by Edward S. Curtis.

Timothy Egan, author of the National Book Award-winning The Worst Hard Time, has written a fast-paced biography of Curtis that also eloquently and movingly relates the systematic destruction of the cultures of the people who once occupied this country.

Curtis came out to Seattle from Minnesota at a time when the city was in its raw and ungainly adolescence. Within a decade the city grew from 10,000 to nearly 100,000, and would double that within another ten years. A man of enormous energy, ambition, and confidence, he quickly learned photography and set up a studio. Within four years, he had moved from a homesteader’s shack on Puget Sound to a large gracious home in Seattle, and had become a celebrity in the Northwest for his portraits.

As his business was prospering, he took a photograph of the 80-some year old daughter of Chief Sealth (Seattle)—“To look at the face and not see humanity is to lack humanity,” states Egan.

What started as a commercial venture for Curtis became a life passion: to create a proposed 20-volume photographic record of the North American Indian cultures. His goal, he said, was that he “wanted people to see human beings in the faces of Indians, and he wanted those faces to live forever.” His task would take on a heightened urgency as he realized “the subject was dying.”

He was able to secure financial backing for his project from mega-financier J.P. Morgan, but the attitudes toward Native Americans were still far from enlightened (Theodore Roosevelt: “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”)

He was told not to get “political” in his project—addressing injustices and broken treaties. This became more and more difficult as he uncovered the extent of the injustices and the vast number of broken treaties, and when he met the aging Chief Joseph and studied the dying Nez Perce, and found in them a culture superior in many ways to his own, he had to speak out.

Curtis’s passion would drive his life, eventually consuming him, his business, and his marriage, but through this passion he captured the souls of dying cultures, and faces that would live forever.

 


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (February 15 - March 14.) Reprinted with permission.

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