The Frozen Bodies of Edward S. Curtis

A new collaborative play and photographic series tackle the representation of aboriginal peoples and the legacy of colonialism.

Aboriginal peoples of the Americas are known primarily through stories of tragedy, dismal statistics and romantic photography of their pre-colonial cultures. What is less commonly known is the story of colonialism itself, and the stories that are behind the traumas that make up colonialism’s continued legacy.

In her new play, The Edward Curtis Project: A Modern Picture Story, B.C.-based Métis playwright Marie Clements creates a unique and layered drama around the trauma of silence on colonialism.

The main character is Angeline, a reporter on aboriginal subjects. Angeline is writing a factual news story about a man who walked out of his home in the middle of a very cold northern night with his little girls in tow, looking for help for his sick child. Along the way, he passes out and loses his children. After waking from his drunken slumber, he finds his children frozen to death. Haunted by the image of frozen bodies and her own reportage, Angeline is having a breakdown. Her news story, which, as she was instructed, reported just the facts, became yet another headline involving tragedy and drunkenness in aboriginal country. However, she has realized that the facts simply do not do justice to the story: focusing on the facts allows the public to ignore their responsibility for the contemporary situation of poverty, bad housing and violence within aboriginal communities.

The project arose when Presentation House Theatre asked Clements to submit a proposal for the 2010 Vancouver Cultural Olympiad. Clements in all her wisdom decided to tackle the weighty historical figure of Edward S. Curtis, who took over 2,000 photographs of indigenous peoples between 1907 and 1930, which were then published in the massive twenty-volume The North American Indian. I say wisdom because these photographs have been, for over one hundred years, the international community’s main point of access to representations of aboriginal peoples; yet it is a work that, in attempting to capture the image of authentic, pre-contact aboriginal culture, problematizes the limits of representation, where truth becomes merely a perspective. Clements then invited Toronto-based photojournalist Rita Leistner to collaborate on the project by undertaking a parallel photographic investigation with aboriginal peoples across North America as the subjects. So right at the moment when the Olympics decided to represent Canada through aboriginal arts, communities and symbols like the Inukshuk, Clements and Leistner decided to tackle the fraught terrain of what people think an “Indian” is.1

I.

Clements is in her element as a writer when her subjects are controversial and full of contradictions. Her play Copper Thunderbird, which sets out to capture the many facets of the great Anishnabe artist Norval Morrisseau, is a case in point. Her characters often represent different perspectives on a given person, history and time period, each of which functions to complicate the overall narrative. Curtis, therefore, is an ideal subject for Clements. In her new play, she brings to life the contemporary controversy over Curtis and the “reality” of what he photographed.

Curtis is introduced into Clements’s narrative through The North American Indian. The book is given as a present from Dr. Clara, a light-skinned, “assimilated” aboriginal person, to her sister Angeline, the dark-skinned, “mixed blood” journalist, who is about to accept an award for her article on the man whose children froze to death. When Angeline repeatedly presses Dr. Clara for an explanation for the gift, the latter can only respond: “It was just a gift to show you I cared. Edward Curtis was a photojournalist of sorts and you’re a journalist… It’s a coffee-table… book. You put it on your coffee table… if you had one.” Because Curtis’s work is driven by the ideology of “salvage ethnography,” which aims to save the “products” and knowledge of the vanishing Indian, this gift raises a question on which the play rests: What comfort are Curtis’s early-twentieth-century representations of aboriginal people to the present day when the legacy of colonialism is witnessed but constantly erased?

In her 1999 study Colonial Photography and Exhibitions: Representations of the ‘Native’ and the Making of European Identities, Anne Maxwell locates Curtis and his project within colonial stereotyping of indigenous people as a “vanishing race,” the title of the first photo in the book. She writes:

The image features a group of Navahos riding into a canyon, one of whom turns his head to look back regretfully as the dense gloom begins to envelop riders and horses. Clearly this was intended as a metaphor for the physical and cultural attrition that was occurring as Native Americans abandoned their traditional lifestyles for the practices of white society.

The North American Indian contains many images of the vanishing Indian, with large landscapes being the most “sentimental.” Curtis’s photographs locate the “Indian” firmly in the past and locate their goodness in an “Indian-ness” that is vanishing as well as an authenticity tied to a pre-contact culture not yet impacted by colonial society and violence. Maxwell explains:

The nineteenth-century anthropologists’ obsession with authenticity was also a function of assigning value, but here it was a function of the ability to camouflage the damage inflicted by colonialism. Curtis, for example, was prepared to go to great lengths to produce images that showed no trace of western influence.

This preparation included the use of wigs, costumes and props, and the removal of any sign of modernity.

Curtis conceived of his own work as a reconstruction due to the fact that contact had “changed” the “primitive.” His conception may have been partially false and partially true, but the important factor is how lasting his representation is. Curtis states:

None of these pictures would admit anything which betokened civilization, whether in an article of dress or landscapes or objects on the ground. These pictures were to be transcriptions for future generations that they might behold the Indian as nearly lifelike as possible as he moved about before he ever saw a paleface or knew there was anything human or in nature other than what he himself had seen.

The removal of any sign of contact meant the removal of any sign of the contemporaneous signs of the effects of colonization. This could be a means through which Curtis—and by the circulation of the images he produces, his generation—means to convert guilt into nostalgia. The guilt comes to fore in the idea of civilization as a “contaminating” force. The nostalgia for the lost origins of man is a symptom of the displaced guilt over the destruction of “primitive” cultures wrought by colonialism, industrialization and urbanization.

The nobility of the “Indian” and the tragedy of the passing of “Indians” were intrinsically aesthetic and scientific “subjects” (read objects) for photography and film. In Tales of Ghosts: First Nations Art in British Columbia, 1922-1962, Ronald Hawker argues, “Since colonized societies and the objects they produced were necessarily destroyed by the process of colonization, it was the duty of those at the forefront of modernity’s intrusion into the societies of the ‘less advanced’ to vigorously record what colonialism displaced.” Modern nostalgia for the past was monitored and released through the construction of a record of the colonial “other” and the “facts” of its cultures.

What was lost in the construction of the authentic Indian, however, was the indigenous peoples’ subjectivity and their inherent capacity to represent themselves. The reality of their political situation at the turn of the 20th century was also erased by the circulation of romantic pictures.

The vanishing Indian of Curtis’s imagination thus was a construct that enabled the justification of expansion of colonialism and settlement westward. The narrative of disappearance covered over the reality of colonial policy, which, by the turn of the century, had forced indigenous peoples onto reservations, stolen children into residential schools and banned indigenous ceremonies and cultural practices. All three disciplinary measures were part of a larger colonial policy of assimilation whereby all “Indians” were “civilizable” in so far as they rid themselves of their cultures and languages. The disappearance of aboriginal peoples either physically or culturally was thought to be a regrettable but inevitable loss to “History.”

II.

In a parallel investigation of Curtis’s work, his legacy and the issues that arise, Leistner’s photos, in the vein of concerned photography, look squarely at contemporary aboriginal peoples and communities. The extensive photographic series that resulted from the collaboration with Clements was exhibited during the performance and is published alongside the play in the Talon edition.

In the book, a set of diptychs depicts people in powwow regalia and ceremonial attire with touches of modernity to convey how the cultural traditions are alive and well today. The diptychs also show that aboriginal peoples did not vanish and are not stuck in the past. The subjects are front and centre, gazing at the viewer, a stance which underscores their subjectivity and undoes Curtis’s use of scientific profiles and distant objective observer points of view. There are, moreover, photos of reservation housing that, in one image, depict both the sense of home and also the strength required to create home from substandard housing conditions. With sensitivity and an eye for detail, Leistner, as a non-aboriginal photographer like Curtis, does a good job in humanizing and contextualizing her subjects.

Leistner, following the journeys of Curtis, travelled to many reservation communities in Canada and the U.S., including those in Oklahoma, in the Northwest Territories, in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, on Haida Gwaii and in the Navajo Nation in Arizona. However, the journalistic treatment does not go as far with Curtis’s legacy as work by some aboriginal art photographers, such as Jeff Thomas. In A Conversation with Edward S. Curtis, for example, Thomas places unseen and unknown photos by Curtis beside a photo of contemporary aboriginal peoples in a similar pose. Often they are group shots with movement inside the frame. His diptychs, thus, focus attention on the people inside the Curtis frame, reclaiming them as part of an aboriginal lineage, and highlighting them as friends, family members and ancestors.

III.

Clements and Leistner understand the ways in which some histories become legitimated and others are actively silenced or erased. There is authority and power in what is allowed to be said, filmed or written for any time period, and this is particularly true in the colonial situation.

Clements’s play explores how Curtis’s surviving archive becomes part of the continued production of the discourse on the authentic “Indian.” Curtis’s photos and writings become how-to manuals rather than mere recording devices. Part of the problem is that both aboriginals and non-aboriginals can see the photos as representing the “real” culture. The consequence is that contemporary aboriginal peoples are constantly made to feel as if they are no longer as good as the imaginary “Indian” of the colonial imagination. The experience of colonialism as one of traumatic loss and systematic cultural destruction can have the added impact of loss of cultural esteem.

Theories on the nature of photography are haunted by the notion of indexicality: because the camera was really there recording “reality,” its products point to reality. Photos become a captured real which can then be used to reconstruct reality. In Clements’s re-examination of Curtis, the constructed and performative nature of the photograph is deployed for narrative depth. The photographs appear almost like characters on stage where characters interact with them, just as characters in the present day interact with a resurrected Curtis. The photo as document or testament to a past then must be conceived as a performative re-presentation and not a reproduction of reality. As Angeline’s traditionalist aboriginal boyfriend, Yiska, says to the resurrected Edward Curtis, “You were taking pictures of your idea of them. Big difference.”

The repeated images in the play show the repeated trauma of frozen bodies: both the real body of the child frozen to death and the photos of Curtis’s Imaginary “Indians.” In Woman, Native, Other, Trinh T. Minh-ha cautions that “one cannot seize without smothering, for the will to freeze (capture) brings about a frozen (emptied) object.”

In this way, Clements cleverly layers the fact of Curtis’s erasure of the politics of his time into the present traumas about which Angeline writes. The romantic must erase the poverty and disease wreaking havoc in aboriginal communities, just Angeline is asked to not mention colonialism and to just report the facts.

ANGELINE: I didn’t write the whole story.

YISKA: You wrote the facts. You wrote what you were expected to write.

Pause.

ANGELINE: Did I? I didn’t write the real story…

She doesn’t wait for his response.

YISKA: Ange….

ANGELINE: I wrote that an Indian father was drunk and dropped his three kids in the snow….

YISKA: He did…

ANGELINE: Did he? Or did we drop him a long time ago? I should have written that the father of those children was so young, so poor… living in a house that was so contaminated it should have been torn down…. between cardboard walls with no food, no clean water, no phone, no heat, and the only reason he decided to go out into minus-thirty-eight weather was because one of his kids was sick…. He went to get help… Do you think it was all his fault? Or maybe we all should own a little piece of it?

YISKA: We do, Ange, because we’ve survived, but most people don’t want to hear the whole truth… they don’t want to see it, they just want us to disappear.

IV.

In her 1991 article “Constructing of the Imaginary Indian” in Vancouver Anthology: The Institutional Politics of Art, Marcia Crosby argues that a large amount of contemporary aboriginal art is produced as an attempt to reclaim the image of the “Indian” from the ethnographic context of the salvage paradigm. What she means is that indigenous peoples have been theoretically and physically collected and that their material and visual cultures were “salvaged” and placed into museum collections. Clements’s play and Leistner’s series of photographs critically expose the ways the photography has been used to document, record, produce and construct aboriginal peoples through the western lens.

In the end, Angeline chooses to tell the story of colonialism to explain how a man might have dropped his children in the snow where they froze to death. Her decision to stop hiding behind her grief and take up her responsibility to tell the whole story heals her. The closing image is one of love:

YISKA: […] Ange… you have to see love because it is the only thing we have that can’t be starved from us.

ANGELINE and YISKA stand.

ANGELINE: We have survived despite what you can, or cannot, see.

YISKA: We have survived despite what has or hasn’t been said/

ANGELINE: /What has or hasn’t been done…

To move beyond survival is to learn to love. Yet, as hopeful as the ending is, it still underscores how, in this day and age, pride and survival are still what aboriginal peoples have to fight for.


  1. The play with the photographic exhibition opened at Presentation House Theatre in North Vancouver, co-produced with PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, on January 22, 2010.