Controversial cache of images offers glimpse into Native American life

EVANSTON, Ill. — There are 40,000 photographs from the turn of the century that let us peek into a mysterious culture that we’re not supposed to see.  Edward Curtis befriended Native Americans, and in some cases even bribed them, to capture these images.

Teddy Roosevelt saw Curtis’ work and gave him a letter of support that helped him get funding from JP Morgan for a 20-volume edition.

Curtis spent weeks and months learning Native Americans' traditions. You can see some of the photos at the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian in Evanston run by Kathleen McDonald.

Curtis captured different tribes’ ways of making pottery, music and art, as well as revealing their sacred ceremonies.

"But it really captured a life way that wasn’t happening in reality at that time. He often staged the photos so it would show their past," McDonald said.

And sometimes, secrets that weren’t supposed to leave the tribe.

"I don’t know if it’s purely ethical or not, but for him I’m sure it’s a way of getting what  he wanted or needed—sometimes it still happens today," said Ernest Whiteman III, who works at the museum and is from the Arapahoe tribe

"I’ve severed friendships because people were trying to get the secret cultural information from me," he said.

People were fascinated by Native Americans but didn’t necessarily care about them, and perhaps that’s part of the controversy,. In staging photos that weren’t quite accurate to the time, Curtis was looking backwards to romanticize the past. As a photojournalist, he could’ve exposed the injustice, broken treaties, bad land deals, cultural repression, sending kids to boarding schools where they were prohibited from speaking their language.

"I do think a lot of natives are upset by what he did," McDonald said. "Native people see that time as a precarious time for their culture being lost and here someone’s  trying to highlight the very traditional but not showing that degradation of their culture and what the u-s policies were doing."

Now, Whiteman is working as a film director in hopes to tell stories that reveal a more authentic voice of Native Americans.