First American Art Magazine No. 22, Spring 2019 - Page 50

they acculturated, Indians lost the vague quality of “Indianness,” in effect, they seemed to become less authentic. Thus, when American Indians changed, they were no longer seen as “Indians,” and the fallacy that Indian culture did not change could remain sacrosanct. 3 According to Celia Lury, author of Prosthetic Culture: Photography, Memory and Identity, “In the early days of ethnology, this gener- ally meant that researchers attempted to study Indian cultures in terms of what they were—or rather what they were imagined to have been—prior to contact with white peoples.” 4 Edward Curtis, who became the most famous pictorialist photographer of Native subjects, opens one volume of his series The North American Indian with his photograph, Vanishing Race— Navaho. He captioned the photogravure: “The thought which this picture is meant to convey is that the Indians as a race, already shorn of their tribal strength and stripped of their primitive dress, are passing into the darkness of an unknown future.” 5 Curtis felt this image captured his thesis so well that he selected it as the first in his entire 20-volume series. 6 Curtis’s photograph also illustrates Susan Sontag’s point that, more often than not, Americans use photography for partisan purposes because they are “experts on the ‘reality’ and inevitability of change.” Photography in America not only showed what should be admired, but also what should be improved by the influence of American culture. Sontag linked American photography to a geographic and social reality that was more hopeful for whites, and more predatory for others. 7 Imagery of American Indians—first from literature, drawings, and paint- ings— was that of the savage. With the advent of photography, came images of the “vanishing race.” In the 20th century, these two concepts were propagated by the motion picture industry through Westerns. The disappearance of Native peoples was portrayed as a moral victory during that period of the past, and the elimination of “uncivilized” Indians was represented as better for all, including those in the present still watching those Westerns. With the apparent victory of European-American culture over Native cultures, there were now two kinds of American Indians portrayed: those acculturated on reservations far away from the majority of Americans, or the “Injuns” who had not fully taken on American culture and could be seen displaced amongst Western civilization. The Injun became a stereotype, the butt of humor and a commercialized image for brand names and mascots. Since reservation Indians were no longer authentically Indian they could simply be ignored as the government’s respon- sibility, and they became invisible. The American Indians’ plight went unnoticed, since they no longer existed in the “white man’s world.” Thus, in the late 1960s, it came as a shock to most mainstream Americans that Indians did exist, and they had complaints about how they were being treated. American Indians used visual arts in the 1970s, especially portraiture, to reclaim some of the identity that had been taken from them by non-Native photographers, moviemakers, and corporations. 8 To mainstream Americans, the most surprising aspect of Indian identity was the broad range of Native peoples and cultures, well beyond the two stereo- typical images types of Indians. Lucy Lippard recognizes that American Indian image-makers have many viewpoints, because Indigenous people are not all alike. American Indian “contemporary photographers are making art with a humor and vitality that is sometimes angry, but amazingly free of bitterness,” according to Lippard. “Creation of such Celia Lury, Prosthetic Culture: Photography, Memory and Identity (London: Routledge, 1998), 49. Lury, Prosthetic Culture, 49. Shannon Egan, “‘Yet in a Primitive Condition’: Edward S. Curtis’s North American Indian,” American Art 20, No. 3 (Fall 2006): 59. Lury, 49. Sontag, 63. Lucy R. Lippard, “Independent Identities,” in Native American Art in the Twentieth Century: Makers, Meanings, Histories, ed. W. Jackson Rushing III (London: Routledge, 1999), 134. 9. Lippard, “Independent Identities,” 141. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 48 | WWW.FIRSTAMERICANARTMAGAZINE.COM