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  • Tim Greyhavens

New Book about The North American Indian is Filled with Data and Facts


Herman Cohen Stuart, Unraveling Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2023.

Since the rediscovery of Edward Curtis's work in the 1970s, scholars, collectors, and others have published at least 65 English-language books about the man and his work. This number doesn't include books in other languages, dissertations, and dozens of articles in photographic, historical, and cultural journals. There's no exact count, but a conservative estimate is that at least two million words have been published about Curtis and his photography.


With so much already written, is there anything new about Curtis that hasn't already been said? In his new book, Dutch scholar Herman Cohen Stuart soundly demonstrates there is. He's taken a stimulating approach centered around a detailed factual analysis of the photographs and text in Curtis's twenty-volume masterpiece. In doing so, he helps us understand various components of Curtis’s work in the context of The North American Indian (NAI) as a whole.


Why is this important? Cohen Stuart is the first scholar to thoroughly analyze all 4,956 pages of the text in addition to the 2,234 photogravures in each set. While others, especially Shamoon Zamir and Mick Gidley, have written about the importance of using the text in combination with photos, Cohen Stuart has cataloged every instance of keywords such as "vanishing," "primitive," "modern," and many others. More importantly, he has examined these words in context with the writing surrounding them.


For example, he found that while the word "primitive" appeared 291 times in the NAI, Curtis used it with two different meanings. One was the commonly understood definition of "undeveloped" or "simple." However, another meaning meant "original," as in "characterized by simplicity." Cohen Stuart found both definitions in Webster's 1913 dictionary, indicating both were commonly used during Curtis's time. His analysis suggests that Curtis intended the second definition far more often in his writing.


Cohen Stuart also definitively answers the question about Curtis eliminating any instances of modern life in his photos. Some authors have pointed to a photo in which an alarm clock was erased from a scene as proof that Curtis purposely refused to see Native Peoples in their contemporary surroundings (see Zamir, chapter 4 for more about this). By carefully examining each photograph in the books, Cohen Stuart found clear examples of Western clothing in nearly 19% of all NAI photos. In other photos, he points out Western-style homes, horse-drawn carriages, and even automobiles.


Two pages from Unraveling Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian
Two pages from Unraveling Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian, showing the number of Western influences pictured in each volume.

In fact, He shows that, rather than trying to hide Western influences, Curtis included photographs showing them in all twenty volumes. One especially interesting image from volume 17 shows a Santa Clara Pueblo man prominently wearing a Teddy Roosevelt button.

A large part of the book is devoted to exploring various themes in Curtis's photographs. After carefully studying every plate in the books, Cohen Stuart assigned fifteen different categories to the photos. Among the topics he explores are everyday people (individually and in groups), natural surroundings, religion and ceremony, arts and crafts, housing, food supply, "martial spirit," and "the vanishing race."


For each of these, he created a graph that indicates how many photos in each volume show a particular theme (some have multiple themes). He concludes from his analysis that "the" North American Indian did not exist. Instead, Curtis's photographs clearly show that despite decades of federally directed warfare and programs of forced assimilation, Native Nations and Peoples throughout the West were persisting and still honoring their traditional cultures and practices.



Two pages from Unraveling Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian.
Chapter 4 of the book presents a thorough look at various themes seen in Curtis's photographs.

The book expands upon Cohen Stuart’s 2016 PhD dissertation from Radboud University in the Netherlands. Understandably, that work is in Dutch (with a brief English summary at the end), and it has not been easily accessible other than to those who are fluent in Dutch. As a non-Dutch speaker, I can't say how closely the book follows that document. Nonetheless, the fact that other scholars critiqued his research as part of his dissertation defense certainly adds strength to his assertions in this volume.


Overall, the book is filled with valuable details and analysis not found anywhere else. However, it is not without some flaws. More than anything else, it suffers from mediocre printing. When you first pick up and open the book, it has the feel and appearance of being a reprint of an early twentieth-century work. Every page is filled to the margins with text and images, leaving your eyes and brain with no space to rest after being confronted with page after page of statistics and graphs. Further, the reproductions of Curtis’s photographs, all in black-and-white, are often dark and murky. This is especially unfortunate for those images that have callout details showing modern elements often overlooked in Curtis’s photos. Many times, it is very difficult to see the details because of the less-than-ideal printing.


Unfortunately, the book also is quite expensive given its size and print quality. It's available on Amazon, Google Books (with an extensive preview), and through Cambridge Scholars Publishing. The latter is the least expensive of the three, even with shipping costs from Europe.


Regardless of its these issues, this book should be highly valued by Curtis scholars and collectors, as well as historians of Native cultures. There is a wealth of revelations and details in its pages, but the reader should be prepared to take a lot of notes to grasp their full value.



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Notes

Shamoon Zamir, The Gift of the Face: Portraiture and Time in Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian. Chapel HIll: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

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