Pondering Edward Curtis

Abbe Museum Trustee Jamie Bissonette Lewey offered these remarks on May 6th at an event on the occasion of an exhibit, Contemporary Native Photographers and the Edward Curtis Legacy, at the Portland Museum of Art. The talk was co-produced by the Abbe Museum and discussed the ways Curtis’ images have perpetuated cultural genocide of Indigenous North Americans and the way they represent the violence of colonization.


Chimera dictates entrapment.

Integral definition of emptiness—immediately full.

Integral empty of integrity.

Image is compliant, static—tricky,

the frame captures the crime.

mollybasket_LEARNWABThe Curtis photographs purport to capture a moment in time. In settler-colonial societies, time is represented as a line, something happens and one moves on. An Ojibwe elder explained that time is like being in a boat, and you are facing the land anchored away from the shore—maybe you are fishing. The waves behind you, that is your future, right under you, that is your present. The past is those waves that are meeting the shore. You are seeing, feeling experiencing it all at the same time, and you can make your decisions because it is all right in front of you. Your past is in front of you and it informs how you act right now.

If the Curtis pictures are evidence—and I think they are—they are evidence of a crime. They are evidence of a crime against humanity. They are evidence of genocide. They are evidence of loss.

How is evidence of genocide treated in other places? In Germany, the evidence of the cataclysmic 19th century holocaust, a globally acknowledged crime against humanity, is kept in sealed vaults. If you want to examine that evidence, you are examined. And you, the researcher, are denied access if there is any hint of revisionism. Yet, here in the US, the denial of the genocide of at least 50 million, and more likely over 60 million, Indigenous peoples is the national “story” that this land was virgin, empty and open for the taking.

These photographs aspire to be the final punctuation point at the end of that story. And rather than being treated as evidence—where they could be examined through a decolonized lens, protected from revisionist interpretation, these photographs are the most recognizable manifestation of revisionist history—hanging in offices, homes, in books, and here at the Portland Museum—and contemporary citizens of the United States can admire this evidence of genocide as art. Just like it is always as important to listen to what is not said as carefully as what is said, to pay attention to who or what is not present as well as who or what is before us; what is missing from these photographs is profoundly significant. The portraits are highly stylized and the People are isolated from the land—and the land is the primary evidence of Indigeneity.

case of the clock assessment_0
“In a Piegan Lodge,” c. 1910. This scene is unaltered by Curtis.

So what is a decolonized approach? Decolonization is about two principles: real, balanced power-sharing and self-determination. Is anything decolonized in these photographs? Even though Curtis controlled the setting, the light, the posture and, in some cases, the way an individual was dressed, the individual, on some level, decided to participate. Although the portrait dominates the frame, Indigeneity is only visible if the observer is a descendant who has access to all versions of the print and knows the land where this ancestor lived, how to search the regalia, the posture the shape of the expression, the lay of the hand, the presence of an object, for the clue, the teaching, the evidence their ancestor left them. Those clues are there. The only reason to allow a photograph would be it the individual had something to tell their descendant—something that could help them. When the descendants of the people who Curtis photographed deconstruct these photographs, the blanket drops, or the background becomes clear, the light is sharp and the descendant can walk away knowing something that will make them and their people whole. If properly examined, the evidence of crime will yield active, vital resolution.

altered original
Same image, altered by Curtis.

These images were taken approximately 60-70 years after the state of Maine assumed responsibility for the treaties that Massachusetts (as a colony and as a state) entered into with the Tribal Nations who were within newly drawn borders. Although Maine acknowledged these responsibilities in its constitution, it did not live up to the agreements, hid them and refused to publish them. By the time Curtis was revising Indigeneity as “material culture” and his photographs were offered as evidence of a time and people that “was” the Tribes in Maine were pushed to the edges of their world. Land, natural resources and, as we learned from the Maine Wabanaki Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission, children were being parceled out by unscrupulous Indian agents in the plain view of all governmental entities. This is fact and is amply documented in the legislative and administrative record. At the time that Curtis was taking his photographs, the Tribes in Maine were being pushed toward invisibility—not only in their ancestral homeland—but to the federal government who had and has the primary responsibility to uphold the negotiated treaties with the Wabanaki.

The Curtis photos are evidence of loss. Loss could be defined as the time and the space to mourn. Given enough time, loss can be transformed. Among Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Maliseet and Mi’kmaq this centuries long moment transformed into an era of resistance in the 1960s and 1970s on into today as the Tribes lay claim to the entirety of their ancestral territory. This is a time of empowerment and self-determination, a time of ongoing and immediate resilience.

How do we look at the Curtis photographs through a decolonized lens? The challenge the Tribes faced when Curtis took his pictures is the same challenge they face today, “How do Tribes maintain their identity and ensure their survival into the future?” The Maine land claims and their “un-settlement” was and is an ongoing conversation about the answers to these questions. While the Tribes negotiated these questions, the state and the federal government negotiated control that revolved around the colonial concepts of plenary power, unfettered guardianship, and jurisdiction over land and natural resources.

In the face of unimaginable loss, it was the strong voices and minds of Wabanaki leaders that preserved what is known as “reserved treaty rights.” These rights tie modern Wabanaki people to their ancestors through the uninterrupted work and activity rooted in power and self-determination and the agile capacity to develop a uniquely Indigenous landscape, culture, and both sophisticated and Indigenous solutions.

The evidence of these solutions is far more remarkable than the photographs that hang on the walls of this gallery. And the evidence is everywhere—Native people are not only changing their own world and their own destiny, but they are inviting others to respectfully become their accomplices in saving our beleaguered Mother, this earth.

About the Author

Jamie Bissonette Lewey coordinates the Healing Justice Program for the American Friends Service Committee in New England and she is the chair of the Maine Indian Tribal State Commission and  She is one of the founders of the Healing and Transformative Justice Center that gathers, supports and shares essential healing methodologies.  There are many projects that address individual healing—this project focuses on healing of whole communities or nations. This blog post originally appeared on the AFSC’s blog.


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