No one’s saying that famed photographer Edward S. Curtis’s photographs of North American Indians aren’t powerful. In the early part of the 20th century, fearing that Native Americans were doomed to go extinct due to the harsh government policies at that time that prevented them from adhering to their customary ways, the Seattle-based photographer dedicated himself to documenting tribes across America. He used all the tools at his disposal: film, audiotapes, written narratives and photographs, spending three decades in compiling a massive, 20-volume set titled The North American Indian.
But perhaps foreshadowing “fake news” by a century, Curtis fudged some of the facts. He had his subjects dress up in a manner that might have been more reflective of pre-colonial contact. He retouched photos to remove modern elements and to heighten the picturesque myth of the “noble savage.”
So a few years ago, when the Seattle Public Library realized that the sesquicentennial of Curtis’s birth would take place in 2018, the staff there began to talk about how they might best share their substantial Curtis holdings with the public. They formed a steering committee and held open meetings that attracted collectors from across the country, historians from around the region, and tribal representatives from around the Pacific Northwest.
It was obvious to all that Curtis’s assumptions about the fate of Native Americans had been in error. But what also became apparent over a succession of meetings was that the current generation of stakeholders, prompted by the presence of multiple Native American perspectives and at least one funder (4Culture) that increasingly is emphasizing the importance of assuring that projects are considered through the lens of equity and diversity, viewed the idea of a Curtis sesquicentennial not only as a chance to redress the misinformation that Curtis had promoted, but also to look “beyond the frame” and bring current Native American voices and visibility to the forefront.
The refocused initiative is being called Beyond the Frame – To Be Native. It launched at Chihuly Garden and Glass on February 17, Curtis’s birthday, with a benediction and welcome from Ken Workman, Duwamish Tribal Council member and great-great-great-great grandson of Chief Seattle, followed by remarks by city and tribal dignitaries, and multi-generational performances of Native American music and dance.
As over 20 local institutions participate in the initiative over the next year, the Curtis works will serve as the backdrop for conversations that focus on Native identity, race and resilience, and the role of arts and culture in addressing these issues.
“Bringing the Native voice into the center of this community conversation has been vital to the Library and, we think, needed by the general public,” Seattle Public Library Chief Librarian Marcellus Turner told the crowd assembled for the launch of the project.
“The Library supports engagement and the building of community by providing access and support for all types of information, learning, and civic discourse. Beyond the Frame gives our regional community the platform from which to explore complex histories, read personal narratives, re-evaluate the history, and listen to our Native colleagues.”
For more information on upcoming programs and exhibits related to Beyond the Frame, visit beyondtheframe.org/to-be-native