'Still here, still resilient': How Muskegon Museum of Art's new exhibit amplifies Native voices

At a time in our history when there was state-sanctioned genocide against Native Americans, when thousands of Native Americans had died on the Trail of Tears, when Native communities had been decimated by disease brought by settlers, when white Americans were forcing Native American children into military-style boarding schools, the photographer Edward S. Curtis began a 30-year effort to document Native American cultures. Beginning May 11, the public can get an extensive look at Curtis’ work at the Muskegon Museum of Art’s biggest exhibition ever.
When the photographer and ethnologist Edward S. Curtis first met Kick-is-om-lo, the daughter of Chief Seattle who was more frequently known as “Princess Angeline,” she was a 75-year-old woman living illegally in a small cabin on the mud flats of Elliott Bay in Seattle—a city that was named for her father but which had banned Native Americans from residing within its boundaries.

At the turn of the 20th century, on land where Kick-is-om-lo’s ancestors, the people of the Duwamish Tribe, had resided for more than 10,000 years, the first daughter of one of the most famous Native American leaders was facing poverty, digging for clams and selling handmade baskets to forge a living in an area where members of the Suquamish and Duwamish Tribes had been forced out by white settlers. Kick-is-om-lo had refused to leave her home, which, years after her death, was torn down for the construction of Seattle’s Pike Place Market.

More than a century and a half after being driven from their homeland, including by settlers who torched their longhouses along the river that bears their name, the Duwamish River, the Duwamish Tribe is still fighting to be officially recognized by the federal government.

Curtis—whose name is now often synonymous with iconic images of Native Americans living in the U.S. and Canada at the turn of the 20th century—began to spend time with Kick-is-om-lo in 1895, when he was running a large and prosperous photography studio in downtown Seattle, and he convinced her to let him take her photo, paying her $1 for each picture. It was the first time Curtis ever photographed an individual who was Native American.

It was in this context—a time of genocide; a time just decades after thousands of Native Americans died on the Trail of Tears; a time when Native American communities had been decimated by disease brought by settlers; a time when white Americans were forcing Native American children into military-style boarding schools, where they were, often violently, made to assimilate into white culture; a time when Chief Seattle’s daughter would have to live outside the law in a city named for her own father—that Curtis launched a project known as the “The North American Indian” to document, with photography, audio, film, and more, 80 Native American tribes living west of the Mississippi River, as well as in Canada.

Beginning May 11, the public will have a chance to get an extensive look at this work at the Muskegon Museum of Art in what is believed to be the largest Edward S. Curtis exhibition ever.

“Edward S. Curtis: The North American Indian” will run from May 11 through Sept. 10, 2017 and will feature all 723 photogravures (images produced from a photographic negative transferred to a metal plate), the project’s 20 bound volumes that were published between 1907 and 1930 and included extensive ethnographic research and photos of Native American cultures, original field recordings of Native music that have never before been heard by the public, historic images of Curtis’ life and times, and examples of Native cultural artifacts represented in the photogravures.

During the entirety of his project, Curtis and his team took about 40,000 photos, made some 10,000 audio recordings, and created the first-ever feature-length film about Native Americans, “In The Land of the Head Hunters.”

In addition to an exhibition that will take up approximately 80 percent of the museum’s gallery space, there will be a diverse array of public programming, from film screenings and authors talks to traditional pow-wows, in collaboration with area cultural partners, including the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, the Lakeshore Museum Center and Michigan’s Heritage Park, the Lakeshore Art Festival, the Frauenthal Center, the Muskegon Heritage Museum, the USS LST 393 Veterans Museum, the USS Silversides Submarine Museum, the Howmet Playhouse, and others.To see the entire programming lineup, you can go here.

All of this translates to the largest exhibition the Muskegon Museum of Art has ever offered and a national campaign on the part of the museum and the city to draw visitors from across the country.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity, certainly for us to expose a much broader audience not only to our museum but, more importantly in my opinion, to this community,” says Judith Hayner, the executive director of the Muskegon Museum of Art.

Edward S. Curtis: Enduring work, enduring controversy

Curtis, a self-taught photographer who made his first camera with a lens his father brought back from the Civil War, worked 16-hour days, seven days a week essentially nonstop for three decades to produce “The North American Indian,” on which he partnered with about 10,000 Native Americans to yield some of the most extensive documentation ever done of indigenous cultures in the U.S. During these 30 years, he spent much time living with Navajo and Apache tribes in the southwest, Sioux and Cheyenne tribes in the Great Plains, and the Kwakiutl Nation in the Pacific Northwest, among other places, to photograph people, document languages, record music, film religious ceremonies, and more.

The project evolved into something of an obsession for him and came at a high personal price for Curtis: it bankrupted the photographer and likely ended his marriage. By 1930, when his project ended, the general public was then in the throngs of the Great Depression and had almost entirely lost interest in the photographer.

When it began, the project garnered significant funding from J.P. Morgan, the richest man in the world, and patrons of Curtis’s work—those who shelled out thousands of dollars for the 20-volume subscription—included some of the most high profile leaders in the world, from European royalty to President Teddy Roosevelt and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.

In Muskegon, Hackley Public Library Director Lulu Miller was one of a couple hundred people, including the King of England and Alexander Graham Bell, to pay $3,000 at the turn of the 20th century for the 20 volumes, which amounts to about $75,000 today.

“J.P. Morgan, the richest man in the world, was funding a project which was recording and celebrating the lives of the poorest people of America,” Anne Makepeace, who will be speaking at the Muskegon Museum of Art on Aug. 24, points out in her award-winning documentary, “Coming to Light: Edward S. Curtis and The North American Indians," which was nominated for an Academy Award.

“All these people who were supporting this project had interests diametrically opposed to Native Americans,” the film goes on to say.

A clip from "Coming to Light," a documentary about Edward S. Curtis by Anne Makepeace.

“The North American Indian,” which Curtis officially began working on in 1898, debuted to much fanfare. For example, when the first volume was published in 1907, the New York Herald called the project “the most ambitious enterprise in publishing since the production of the King James Bible.”

While the breadth of his work has been called one of history’s greatest photographic achievements, there has also been widespread criticism. Critics have said Curtis created images that entirely ignored the influences of white culture. At a time when Native languages and religious ceremonies were being outright banned, Native children were being forced into boarding schools, and entire Native communities were being forced from their ancestral homelands, Curtis himself said he aimed not to tackle contemporary issues but instead present what Native American life was like before white settlers in an effort to document what he called “a vanishing race.”

“The passing of every old man or woman means the passing of some tradition, some knowledge of sacred rites possessed by no other,” Curtis wrote in 1907, when a recent U.S. Census recorded the Native American population at about 237,000—down from what scholars estimate to be about 10 million people four centuries earlier, at the time when Europeans arrived on the continent.

“Consequently the information that is to be gathered, for the benefit of future generations, respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost for all time,” Curtis continued.

He goes on to write about the atrocities that white settlers committed against Native Americans, but said he would not be discussing that in any detail in an effort to be “impartial.”

“Though the treatment accorded the Indians by those who lay claim to civilization and Christianity has in many cases been worse than criminal, a rehearsal of these wrongs does not properly find a place here,” Curtis wrote. “Whenever it may be necessary to refer to some of the unfortunate relations that have existed between the Indians and the white race, it will be done in that unbiased manner becoming the student of history.”

This ignoring of modern-day issues and the insistence that Native American culture would “vanish” has been a deeply offensive and problematic one, including for many Native Americans.

“Curtis’ pictures, though beautiful in their own way, are seeped with colonialism,” writes Cultural Survival, a publication advocating for indigenous peoples’ rights. “You can practically smell the manifest destiny wafting off. They are more or less game trophies.

“And that’s problematic because, well, Native Americans have not disappeared,” Cultural Survival continues in an article about Project 562, a current effort by Native American photographer Matika Wilbur, of the Swinomish and Tulalip Tribes, to document every tribe in the United States. “Far from it. Yes, America’s Indigenous peoples have faced incredible discrimination, brutality, hardships, forced assimilation—but they are no doubt still here, still resilient. Additionally, it’s problematic because that brand of white ethnocentrism has, unfortunately, also not disappeared over the past century.”

Ben Mitchell, the curator of the Curtis show at the Muskegon Museum of Art, calls Curtis “a true prisoner of his time.”

“No matter how flawed one might argue his methods were and his product—5,000 pages of text—the value to the student of Native American history and culture today is incalculable,” Mitchell says. “Additionally, the value to some Native elders in various tribes is invaluable. Indians themselves have gone to Curtis to relearn or confirm or study how things were done.”

“I actually was more critical of Curtis when I accepted [Hayner’s] offer [to be the curator],” Mitchell continues. “But you have to curate against your taste. As a curator, you can’t say, ‘This is the only good art.’ Privately, and intellectually, I was very critical of Curtis, but curators can’t let that kind of criticism influence what they’re doing in the wrong way…I’ve become much more of a middle-grounder with Curtis. There’s much that I’m still very critical of, but I’m more respectful of the heart and sincerity with which he did things.”

A partnership with the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians

Mitchell and Hayner stress that, for this exhibition, one of the most important cultural partners for the museum has been with the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians.

“They’ve lived here for more than 1,000 years,” Mitchell says. “Because the American Indian is the subject of Curtis’s work, it’s only appropriate that we go to the American Indians who live here and who have preceded us for their input, their thoughts, their advice. It’s a matter of respect, and they’ve been enthusiastic through their Ogema (chief) from the beginning.”

Little River Band of Ottawa Indians Tribal Ogema Larry Romanelli calls himself an “Edward Curtis fan of sorts.”

“I know he’s highly controversial, especially with Native Americans,” Romanelli says. “But I know there are Native Americans who are affectionate towards him, and I’m on that side of the coin…I think it’s important to recognize the times when he was actively taking photos of the Native American people. We were being eliminated. This was a time of upheaval for Native Americans. For me, Curtis captured the very tail end of some of our cultures and our people. To me, he preserved something that very much could’ve been lost.”

Romanelli, who will lead a Blessing Ceremony when the exhibition opens at 5:30pm on Thursday, May 11, emphasizes that the museum’s Curtis show will also provide for some thoughtful, and thought-provoking, conversation—not only about Curtis but about Native Americans in Michigan and issues facing indigenous peoples today.

“I think the conversations, whether they’re pro-Curtis or against him, will bring about important discussion,” Romanelli says. “It’s a wonderful time to tell our story. The more we tell our story, the more people know about what happened historically with Native Americans, the better it is for Native Americans.”

As part of this effort to tell his tribe’s story, Romanelli, a lifelong Muskegon resident whose Native American name is Little Thunder, will give a talk on the history and current life of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians on Thursday, July 13 at the art museum.

“A lot of people know more about the southwest Native Americans,” Romanelli says. “For Native Americans in our area, there’s little known because everything we made went back into the earth. I want to focus on this area, the Muskegon and Michigan area, and explain about the Ottawa Indians.”

Shedding light on current issues

Romanelli and Levi Rickert, a Grand Rapidian who is the publisher and editor of Native News Online, one of the country’s most-read daily American Indian publications, are hoping the general public walks away from the exhibition and accompanying programming with a deeper understanding of issues facing Native American communities today, both nationally and in Michigan.
Levi Rickert

“For me, one of the biggest issues we’re facing is Line 5 under the Mackinac Bridge; that’s of interest to not just Native Americans but a lot of people,” Romanelli says, referring to Enbridge’s Line 5 oil pipeline that pumps millions of gallons of oil a day under the Straits of Mackinac. “If it breaks, it could be disastrous.”

Rickert, a tribal citizen of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation who will be giving a talk on Standing Rock on Aug. 10 at the Muskegon Museum of Art, also says some of the biggest issues facing indigenous communities revolve around the environment, including the Standing Rock protests that drew thousands of Native and non-Native demonstrators to oppose the Dakota Access oil pipeline. Native American leaders and other protesters expressed fears that a spill from pipeline, which goes under the Missouri River and is a half-mile north of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota, would pollute the reservation’s water supply.

“The Standing Rock resistance awakened a new generation of American Indians who may have been proud of who they are as a Native people, but never had a real cause,” Rickert says. “...I have seen this new generation being really more engaged and maybe even have more of a purpose now.”

Rickert also mentions President Donald Trump’s recent order that the U.S. Department of the Interior review all national monuments that are larger than 100,000 acres and have been created under the Antiquities Act since 1996. Former U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act into law in 1906 in an effort to keep looters from stealing Indian artifacts at archaeological sites.

Such public space created, or expanded, under the Antiquities Act by former President Barack Obama includes Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine, and the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in Hawaii. The Obama administration was particularly careful to include Native American tribes in the designation and management of these public spaces. Changing these monuments “would have a chilling effect on tribal federal relations when it comes to protecting landscapes,” Lisa Dale, associate director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, told the New York Times.

“It’s scary what’s happening in Washington [D.C.]; the Republicans want to dismantle regulations to protect our environment,” Rickert says.

Even if members of the public cannot attend Rickert’s talk on Standing Rock, Hayner says she has no doubt people will leave the Curtis exhibition moved to pay more attention and respect to our Native American communities.

“They’re not going to walk away simply,” Hayner says. “I think they’ll walk away with a different feeling for the first Americans. They’ll walk away, and they’ll see stories on Standing Rock differently. I hope people leave changed, and I think they will.”

“Edward S. Curtis: The North American Indian” will open at the Muskegon Museum of Art May 11 and run through September 10, 2017. For more information about the exhibition, please visit the museum’s website. For a full list of the associated programming, you can go here.

Anna Gustafson is the former managing editor at Rapid Growth. You can connect with her by emailing [email protected], or on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Photography by Bud Kibby of Bird + Bird Studio.
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