Society for the History of Discoveries


Gidley, Mick, ed.  Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian Project in the Field.  Lincoln and London:  University of Nebraska Press, 2003.  ix, 178 p.  25 b&w photos, bibliography, index.  $49.95 cloth.  ISBN  0803221932.

     This edited book by Mick Gidley, a professor of American Literature at the University of Leeds, is a significant contribution to the history of discovery.  The author begins with a thoughtful introduction that provides an overview of Edward S. Curtis and other individuals who participated in the North American Indian Field Project that documented and photographed Native American life in the early years of the twentieth century.  This volume also includes little-known contemporary reports by Curtis and project assistants about their contact with tribal people in the southwest, plains, and the west coast from California to Alaska.

     The North American Indian Field Project began when Curtis left his Seattle studio to study the everyday life and ceremonies of Native Americans.  Like many of his contemporaries, Curtis published nostalgic accounts of tribal life.  He also used staged obituary photographs that portrayed a proud but vanishing people. Nonetheless, Curtis did recognize the Indiansí spirituality, linguistic diversity, and horticultural achievements.

     Gidley has selected letters, newspaper accounts, and other documents from the North American Indian Field Project to demonstrate that the ethnocentric assumptions held by Curtis and most of his assistants were unsupported by their anthropological research.  Data from project fieldwork revealed that Native Americans responded in a variety of ways to survive and endure after conquest.  For instance, the Pueblo, Blackfeet, Kwakiutl, and other tribes continued to hold dances and participate in religious ceremonies to maintain their cultural heritage.  Other Indians were baptized Christians but remained loyal to the faith of their fathers.

     Furthermore, the North American Indian Project records edited by Gidley indicate that a significant number of Native Americans adjusted their behavior to cope with changed circumstances.  Indians joined the wage economy by selling songs and recalling their creation stories for large sums of money.  In addition, they adopted a new identity by intermarrying with non-Indians, joining syncretic religious movements, and becoming cowboys.

     This book provides valuable information about Native American leaders.  Alexander B. Upshaw, a graduate of Carlisle Academy, participated in the North American Indian Field Project by locating photographic landscapes and recording Bull Chiefsí remembrance of Crow history.  Other influential Indians were Davy Black Bear, who worked as an interpreter in Cheyenne camps, and George Hunt, of Tlingit-Scottish ancestry, who helped Curtis learn more about Northwest Coast natives.

      This volume will be of interest to the readers of Terrae Incognitae.  Gidley has carefully chosen published records and photographs from the Curtis project that provide new insights concerning first-hand encounters between Euro-Americans and Indian people.  The author moves beyond loss and victimization history.  He convincingly uses primary documents and editorial commentary to demonstrate  that, contrary to Curtisís photographic images, Native Americans did not vanish or remain inactive after contact with those who resettled the American and Canadian.

West.
Kenneth Philp
The University of Texas at Arlington


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