Remembering Injustice in Indian Country

Personal Writings

cp06003vRock Creek  While in the trailer last week, I had finished the recent volume by Timothy Egan, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher:  The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis, then by happenstance “my friends at BCGEU” in Canada had given me a copy of the recently published The Inconvenient Indian:  A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King at the Rock Creek Rendezvous, and by some magical coincidence that seems to lie somewhere between fate and destiny, my daughter, Dine’ gave me a commemorative photo album of Polaroid pictures of the rendezvous whose cover was the 1905 picture “Entering the Badlands” by of course Edward Curtis.   Not sure what that all means, but I’m smart enough to realize that at this point, it’s a sign of something, and I should go with it.

            Though the books were as different as night and day in many ways; Indian country might be seen as their common thread running between them.

Curtis for over a century has been recognized as one of the magisterial photographers of Indians across North America.   Egan’s framework was a riches-to-rags story of an obsession that consumed Curtis’ life and career as he sought to record in twenty volumes the past and sometimes the present of tribes and bands of Native Americans and first Canadians across North America.  His signal accomplishment over decades was the completion of this twenty volume photographic and anthropological tour de force on Indians throughout North America.   Egan paints a story of both success and lack of appreciation for the task from institutions throughout the country.   Much of Curtis’ field work was finally underwritten by the legendary cutthroat financier J.P. Morgan during a time of Morgan’s late career that Egan describes as largely consisting of collecting art and mistresses across several continents.   Before one can finally say that at least there is one good thing Morgan did in his life, it seems that as soon as he died though his family begrudgingly continued to fund Curtis’ field work they valued it so little that they sold all 20,000 original plates of his work to a dealer for $1000 in the Great Depression just to be rid of it all.   Each full set is now valued at between two and three million dollars.

            If Egan’s book is largely designed to resurrect the reputation of an a man unappreciated in his own time, King’s Inconvenient Indian is a book that reads like a clever, barbed, incisive and comprehensive indictment of an entire people unappreciated in all of the times since Europeans set foot on North American soil.   And, of course “unappreciated” does not remotely express the genocide, oppression, double-dealing, and downright hate and exploitation that has greeted the native population in the US and Canada for the last number of centuries.   You might think that you have heard all of this before and what new is there to be said, well, yes and no, but in King’s hands the skilled organization of the relatively short book and his cheeky, witty telling of horrible stories of injustice is devastatingly effective and a one-volume refresher course that would surely punctuate any impression that some booming casinos and benign neglect had somehow “solved” the problems of justice for the native peoples.  

            Reading the books together makes Egan’s book on Curtis pale by comparison.   In King’s hands Curtis is involved in “cowboy-and-Indian” or what he calls “Dead Indian” mythmaking, and though Egan briefly acknowledges that Curtis rarely lifted a finger in advocating for justice for native peoples other than telling and photographing their story or at least a version of their story, the Inconvenient Indian by contrast would essentially shrug at the fact that Curtis was not heralded for his epic work as “guilt by association” at worse and “par for the course” at best. 

            Curtis work simply as art might stand taller if it were not so clear from Egan’s book that art operates here as a plaything for the rich since any that would hold Curtis’ work as a public good would have to value the lives and aspirations of native peoples as a primary interest.   King reminds us that no one cares and justice is still something sought without success.   King ends with some high notes in looking at the deals to make for a separate Inuit area in Canada and the Alaskan Native Corporations, but that’s another trick up his sleeve, since there are scores of examples from our times that he offered earlier making it clear that these problems are evergreen and still waiting for justice.