By Kay James ‘16
Edward Curtis’ photographs from the North American Indian exhibit are on display in the Clark Humanities Museum as part of the Core I curriculum. Above: Vash Gon - Jicarilla. Right: Ogalala War-Party. Photos by Nicole Zwiener ‘16
The most recent iteration of Core I has generated a new awareness of “modern and progressive issues;” one key component of this year’s Core syllabus is the “Edward S. Curtis and ‘The Vanishing Race’: Ethnography, Photography and Absence in The North American Indian” exhibit in the Clark Humanities Museum. The exhibit serves as an on-campus response the to the continuing “Vanishing Indian” myth in American culture that positions Native American people and cultures as exotic figures in a distant past that have no place in contemporary society — a widespread attitude that is used to justify modern-day forms of erasure and violence.
One flyer for the exhibit explains that “Curtis’ project may be seen as both a response to the historical violence against Native Americans,” as Curtis himself viewed the project, “and as representational violence in its furtherance of the myth of the ‘vanishing race.’” In this way, the exhibit promotes a reflective interaction with the materials that expands upon the analytical frameworks gained through Core.
Because of the trend towards more abstract and theoretical approaches in the classroom, Professor Ken Gonzales-Day, curator of the exhibit, explained why “Edward S. Curtis and ‘The Vanishing Race’” is a crucial component of this year’s Core I syllabus.
“I and the Core I faculty selected the Curtis materials because they tie into Core I’s theme of violence,” Professor Gonzales-Day said. “And as a professor in the Art Department, I wanted to be sure new students were given the chance to see and explore actual historic works as a part of the curriculum.”
Besides Curtis’ prints, the exhibit also features a variety of books and cameras that belong to both Professor Gonzales-Day and the Honnold-Mudd Library. Professor Gonzales-Day said that “they were included to direct students to a wider array of topics and issues than can be addressed in a single lecture or exhibition.” Thus, these additional materials provide both a technical and ethnographic context to Curtis’ work.
Upon entrance to the exhibit, visitors are introduced to a short biography of Curtis, the primary photographer, himself. Born in 1868, Curtis had a prolific career profiling Native American culture, including forty thousand photographs, one thousand audio recordings and a twenty-volume publication titled “The North American Indian.”
Materials and interview transcripts published by Curtis and his associates emphasize his search for “authentic” representations of Native American culture prior to interaction with European settlers. In a 1911 lecture, Curtis stated that “the student [of settler-oriented ethnographic research] knows that it is useless to talk with [Native American] men less than sixty years old” due to the gradual disappearance of what he deemed “racial characteristics.”
Accompanying texts within the exhibit describe how Curtis, when disappointed by the “inroads” European culture made into Native American societies, “brought clothing, jewelry and rugs” to construct a fabricated sense of authenticity. One caption titled “Objectification or Resistance” describes how blankets were also a common theme in Curtis’ work.
“In some cases, it was employed to mask modern day clothing. In others, it was used by Native Americans to resist the camera’s gaze.” Descriptions such as these help to “reframe a number of the debates that have surrounded [The North American Indian] from its beginning over a century ago,” as described in the exhibit’s flyer. Thus, acts of resistance are still present within the collection, hidden within the prints themselves.
Curtis’ desire for authentic representations in his North American Indian publication is not particular to his time, but is rather an ever-present theme in mainstream American culture. By hosting “The Vanishing Race” exhibit, Core I faculty members say they hope to highlight the representational violence that persist in our “histories of the present.”
Professor Gonzales-Day concluded by stating that “all the prints are from Special Collections at Honnold/Mudd, and part of the idea [for the exhibition] was to show first-year students the types of resources they can work with, explore and learn about in a way that few other places can.” If any student is interested is using the prints for future research, he or she can e-mail Special Collections at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Although the exhibit is targeted towards first years enrolled in Core I, all students, faculty and staff are invited to view the exhibit. The Clark Humanities Museum, located on the second floor of the Humanities Building on Scripps’ campus, is open to visitors from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 1:30 to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.