Performing Archive: Curtis + “the vanishing race”

Given its title, one might suppose that the goal of Performing Archive: Edward S. Curtis + “the vanishing race” is to preserve the cultural legacy of Native American tribes. But upon closer examination, it becomes clear that this is but one of the project’s secondary goals. The project is a digital collection of materials from existing archives of Curtis’ works, and was completed by the Claremont Center for Digital Humanities. Curtis was a 20th century photographer whose work focused on the American West and Native American life, and this project presents a number of his works alongside new scholarly texts so as to integrate the old and the new and “facilitate teaching with Curtis’s work.” Missing from these two main goals, to preserve Curtis’s work and bring it into the classroom of the modern academic institution, is the desire to bring the project back to the tribes and peoples it depicts.

Figure 1: Curtis’s photography presented alongside an essay by Ken Gonzales-Day, Scripps College

            Indeed, the “Acknowledgements and Project Information” page reveals that the project originated out of more institutional-specific educational needs, rather than out of a fundamental desire to aid “the vanishing race.” Two of the project’s collaborating institutions, the Claremont Consortium and Scripps College, had received funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for “the development of a consortial Digital Humanities Center” and “a faculty course-planning seminar,” respectively. These institutions’ faculty needed to develop a project for this grant and course, and agreed to draw upon “a resource held within the consortium: one of less than 300 existing complete sets of the twenty volume, The North American Indian, by Edward S. Curtis.” This wording reveals that the subject matter of the project is a volume of work that just so happens to depict Native American life, and implies that Curtis’s work was chosen for its inherent rarity, rather than the increasing rarity of the subject matter it depicts.

            The project is an archive of over 2,500 media samples, which is impressive in its comprehensiveness but contributes to the endeavor’s lack of clear focus. The project team alludes to this identity crisis in stating that “this makes it a really wonderful place to explore early 20th century photography, ideas of race and nation, Native American cultural presentation and artifacts, and technology, as well as the life and work of Edward Curtis.” The main layout of the page, however, is relatively easy to navigate. Once a user scrolls over a button in the upper left portion of the screen, a drop down menu or “Table of Contents” appears. This is appealing in that it mimics the structure of Curtis’s The North American Indian text upon which the project is based. In this way, the project conveys a concern with preserving the original quality of the photographs by reflecting the medium in which the photographs first appeared.

            While the project successfully aggregates various existing archives of Curtis’s work, it is yet to fully take advantage of an opportunity to critically think about and address issues of Native American life. The authors admit that they needed advice on consultation with tribes, and that they had to “understand the complexities of working with material that was potentially subject to both U.S. copyright laws and those of over 100 different tribes.” They also concede that they “needed to understand more about how a full fledged project could and should engage with tribal members.” Miriam Posner emphasizes the importance of taking these next critical steps in “What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities” when she writes: “Of course, we cannot capture these experiences without the contributions of the people whose lives we are claiming to represent. So it is incumbent on all of us . . . to push for the inclusion of underrepresented communities in digital humanities work, because it will make all of our work stronger and sounder.”  

            A project similar to Curtis + “the vanishing race” is the Occom Circle Project, a digital collection of Samson Occom’s handwritten documents that are housed in Dartmouth College. Occom, a Mohegan Indian, was heavily involved in the founding of the College, which he initially intended to be a school for Native American youths. The complexity and deterioration of his relationship with Eleazar Wheelock, the founder of the College who ultimately abandoned Occom’s vision for the school, is clearly articulated through their letters to one another. The fact that this project is a collection of the handwritten works of a Mohegan Indian who strived to serve the interests of his people immediately embeds this project within the history of Native American tribes. The Curtis project depicts Native American life in the sense that it is the subject matter of Curtis’s works, but the immediate subject of the project is nonetheless Curtis himself. What’s more is that Curtis’s The North American Indian, a collection of texts and photographs from which this project’s archives are taken, was funded by J.P. Morgan. Embedded in this project then is a long history of the white man’s fascination with Native American life. As Posner writes, “It is not only about shifting the focus of projects so that they feature marginalized communities more prominently; it is about ripping apart and rebuilding the machinery of the archive and database so that it does not reproduce the logic that got us here in the first place.”

Figure 2: Samuel Occom and one of his letters

            This fundamental difference between Curtis + “the vanishing race” and The Occom Circle Project is embedded in the titles of these projects as well. The Occom Circle Project is named as such to literally place Occom’s works within the circle of people with whom he interacted and within the history of this school. The imagery inextricably linked to this project’s title makes its audience immediately aware that Occom’s legacy and Native American life are a fundamental part of a complex multilevel history that interacts with the Dartmouth, Native American, and human networks in ways that are both continuous and cyclical. The plus sign in Curtis + “the vanishing race,” by contrast, provides evidence that those behind the project are unsure how to properly articulate the relationship between Curtis and his subject matter. By reducing the relationship to a simple plus sign, the project oversimplifies the cultural sensitives embedded in its collection and fails to acknowledge the complexity of these relationships. The use of the phrase “the vanishing race” can be read as an attempt to mask this unexplored realm of complexity. In other words, by associating itself with the idea of preserving what is vanishing, the project makes itself look as if it has done more in the way of researching and understanding Native American life than it truly has.

            The idea that these intricacies are currently secondary or unexplored concerns recurs throughout the website’s text. The introduction to the project states: “It is our hope that in addition to its curricular use, the project will be further developed in ways that allow us to collaborate with the more than 100 tribes represented in the North American Indian.” This language not only highlights curricular use as the project’s primary purpose, but concedes that the project can do more to collaborate with the tribes depicted in the material. The introduction then goes on to say that “the issues of intellectual and cultural property rights raised by the publication of the Curtis images (both historically and now) are worth thinking about in broad terms.” There is no indication as to why these issues are only worth thinking about in broad terms, other than the fact that it is the extent of the effort this particular project has currently devoted to such issues.

            Unfortunately, this aspect of the project is left an unanswered question. In other words, there is no information on what was discovered during the research of how these materials are to engage with tribal members. Users coming to a site dedicated to archiving images and other media samples depicting Native American life would likely expect a greater effort to be made at this task. Some may question the legitimacy of the project as a whole if it appears that those behind the project have only gone so far as to acknowledge a certain question is worth answering and hint at the fact that they are still unclear on the implications of their work for the subject matter.

            At some level, this project originated out of the need for institutions to showcase their expertise in the digital humanities. At another level, it is meant to archive the work of Edward Curtis, rather than the history of Native American tribes. What is currently missing from this project then is a robust understanding how it can and should be used to benefit the tribes it depicts. Posner calls upon digital humanists to question “Who is our work for? If film—like data—builds worlds by extracting and reassembling bits of what we know, then whose world are we building? How far have we thought that through?” Moving forward, the team behind this project could network with websites that do recovery work related to Native American life and projects such as the Digital Native American Studies Project that offer workshops to instruct “participants on issues of digital humanities research and methodology in the context of Native American Studies.”