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Photog helped American Indian culture live on

Michaeline Chance-Reay

By A Contributor

Shadow Catcher is the name Edward Curtis, given by the Native Americans whom he photographed.  The title refers to his atypical circadian rhythm when feeling driven.

The Apache warrior Geronimo was quoted as saying, “We are vanishing from the earth, yet I cannot think we are useless or else Usen would not have created us.  He created all tribes of men and certainly had a righteous purpose in creating each.”

So begins the story of the life of photographer and ethnographer, Edward Sheriff Curtis.

Curtis lost his father at age 14, becoming the head of the family as a teenager. By age 24 he was successful enough to marry and buy a house in Seattle where his expanded family could live together. His bride, Clara Phillips, was only 18, but she was an educated girl who shared her husband’s vision.

It was after photographing Princess Angeline, whose tribal name was Kick-is-om-lo, the daughter of Chief Seattle and possibly the last of the Duwanish and Suquamish, that he realized he was viewing an epic change in the history of the native tribes.

Angeline was paid $1 for posing at his studio. Her visit was brief because at the time if was not legal for Indians to live in the city named for her deceased father. “As a witness, young Curtis sensed the value of a diminishing world; it occurred to him in a stark epiphany that if he could capture these closing hours, he would have something of lasting value.”

In addition to photography, mountaineering was another of his passions. While spending time on Mount Rainer he rescued lost climbers, one of whom was George Bird Grinnel, founder of the Audubon Society, who was to become his mentor introducing him to like minded individuals like Teddy Roosevelt and Edward Harriman with the funds and influence to finance his dreams.  Grinnell, like Curtis, knew the Indian way of life was disappearing and should be chronicled and that became their mission.

“….by 1900 the tribes owned less than 2 percent of the land they once possessed. Entire languages had already disappeared—-more than a loss of words, a loss of a way to look at the world.”

Egan’s biography, containing 30 photos, is also an adventure story, as that was an apt description of the photographer’s life.  Curtis lived to age 84, divorced and destitute, but he had compiled a 20 volume set of 40, 000 photographs, 10,000 audio recordings, stories and rituals of more than 80 tribes, and is credited with filming the first narrative documentary. The entire 20 volumes can be seen online or at the Curtis Library on the campus of Northwestern University in Chicago or at the Library of Congress. 

He truly had fulfilled his promise the make the Indian live forever.

Many know author Timothy Egan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, as a visitor to Kansas in 2008.  He appeared to promote his book about the Dust Bowl during the 1930’s Depression, “The Worst Hard Time,” which went on to win the National Book Award.

“Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher,” equally detailed and researched, is another proof of the axiom that truth can be stranger than fiction. It won both the Chautauqua Prize and the Carnegie Medal in 2012.

Michaeline Chance-Reay , local writer and historian, is an emeritus professor in Curriculum & Instruction and Women Studies at Kansas State University.

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