Thursday, March 10, 2011

Ryan Red Corn and Sterlin Harjo's SMILING INDIANS

People in the children's literature world love to use photographs taken by Edward S. Curtis. They believe his photos to be authentic portrayals of Native life. They're invariably reproduced in a sepia tone, which adds to their perceived authenticity.

The thing is, they aren't authentic. They're staged, and in many instances, he used props, too. If an individual didn't have "Indian" things, Curtis provided them. That isn't a good thing... The props were not specific to the tribe of the person in the picture. There's a little bit of info about the authenticity of Curtis's work on the website for the Hearst Museum. Some years back, I read Christopher M. Lyman's The Vanishing Race and Other Illusions: Photographs of Indians by Edward S. Curtis, published in 1982 by Pantheon. The Library of Congress includes Lyman's book on its page about Curtis. The annotation says:
Lyman critiques Curtis's pictorialist, romantic, and idealized images of Native people because they obscure a drearier, more desperate reality. Curtis is also criticized for editing "modern" elements, such as alarm clocks and automobiles, from the views and for his use of props and costumes. Lyman exposes various misrepresentations in Curtis's depictions, as well as in other photographers' work of indigenous people, with many photographic examples.
It is that imagery that Ryan Red Corn and Sterlin Harjo address with their video, Smiling Indians, below. 

If you're an author, or an editor in a publishing house, and you're thinking about using Curtis's photos, think again. Do you want to contribute to the misinformation captured in his photos? Of course, I hope your answer is a resounding "No!"