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“The Vanishing Race” in Sight and Sound: Edward S. Curtis's Musicale of North American Indian Life

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 July 2009

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On November 19, 1911, Edward S. Curtis (1868–1952), the “photohistorian” of American Indians, wrote to his friend Edmond S. Meany, Professor of History at the University of Washington, about his latest triumphs. “Dear Brother Meany,” he began, “I think we can say that my lecture entertainment ‘arrived’. I wish you could have been present at the Carnegie Hall affair. The tremendous auditorium was filled to overflowing, a sea of people from the stage to the very ‘sky’ itself.” Curtis had been introduced by Henry Fairfield Osborn, Director of the American Museum of Natural History; just before they stepped into view Osborn looked through the foliage and, according to Curtis, had remarked, ‘“Do you realise that that is almost an appalling audience, and one that few men in their life-time have the privilege of facing?’” “I think,” Curtis added, “he was a little nervous on his own account and slightly so on mine, [but] rather than causing nervousness … it gave me courage and I was absolutely certain of myself after my first two words.” “Osborn's voice,” Curtis explained, “lacks the carrying power and his slight nervousness meant a rather halting introduction. This was evidently greatly to my advantage, as the minute I spoke I reached the farther-most corners and my voice caught and held the people.”

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1987

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Author's note: A much shorter version of this study was delivered as a paper to the U. S. American Studies Association Biennial Conference, San Diego, in 1985 and, somewhat changed, to “‘Making Exhibitions of Ourselves’: The Limits of Objectivity in the Representation of Other Cultures,” a symposium held at the British Museum, London, in February 1986. I am grateful to John Kasson for his comments on the shorter version.

1. Biographical accounts of Curtis may be found in Graybill, Florence Curtis and Boesen, Victor, Edward Sheriff Curtis: Visions of a Vanishing Race (New York: Crowell, 1976)Google Scholar and DeWall, Beth Barclay, “Edward Sheriff Curtis: A New Perspective on The North American Indian”, History of Photography 6 (07 1982): 223–39.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

2. Curtis, to Meany, , 11 19, 1911Google Scholar, Meany Papers, University Archives, Records Center, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle. I am grateful to Gary T. Lundell for his help in researching the Meany papers.

3. In his letter to Roosevelt, Curtis, said, “It was a success beyond my greatest expectations,” 11 16, 1911Google Scholar, Roosevelt Papers; also Curtis, to Pinchot, , 11 16, 1911Google Scholar, Pinchot Papers, both in the Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D. C. There were similar letters to his editor, Hodge, Frederick Webb, 11 19, 1911Google Scholar, Hodge Papers, Southwest Museum, Los Angeles, and, for example, to MissBowditch, Charlotte, 11 19, 1911Google Scholar, Bowditch Papers, Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

4. Roosevelt, to Curtis, , 11 21, 1911, Roosevelt Papers.Google Scholar

5. For a detailed account of Catlin's venture (with which Curtis's enterprise had much in common) see Truettner, William H.'s, The Natural Man Observed: A Study of Catlin's Indian Gallery (Washington, D. C: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979)Google Scholar; Russell, Don's The Wild West (Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum, 1970)Google Scholar is an account of popular wild west shows.

6. Contemporary sources of information about Curtis's public appearances include “Convention Aftermath,” Camera Craft 1 (09 1900): 269Google Scholar; “Will Lecture On His Work,” newspaper clipping from Seattle Times, 11 20, 1904Google Scholar in the Washington-Biography file, Pacific Northwest Collection, University of Washington Libraries; Curtis letters to Pinchot of December 30, 1904, and January 21, 1906, Pinchot Papers, speak of his engagements at the Cosmos and Century clubs; and an advertisement for talks at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1905, Pacific Northwest Collection.

7. A letter from Curtis to Dr. George Byron Gordon of the University of Pennsylvania Museum, September 5, 1906, gives his fees as $100.00 for a slide lecture and $125.00 when motion pictures were included (Letters to the Director, Museum Archives, University Museum, Philadelphia).

8. Curtis, Edward S., The North American Indian, ed. Hodge, Frederick Webb, under the patronage of Morgan, J. P. (Cambridge, Mass, and Norwood, Conn.: University Press and Plimpton Press, 19071930).Google Scholar Also, DeWall, cited above, and Ewing, Douglas C., “The North American Indian in Forty Volumes,” Art in America 70 (0708 1972): 8488.Google Scholar

9. One example of such speeches was reprinted in Gidley, Mick, “Edward S. Curtis Speaks …,” History of Photography 2 (10 1978): 347–54.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

10. Curtis, to Hodge, , 07 7, 1911Google Scholar, Hodge Papers.

11. For commentary on this aspect of Curtis's movie work, see Gidley, Mick, “From the Hopi Snake Dance to The Ten Commandments: Edward S. Curtis as Filmmaker,” Studies in Visual Communication 8 (Summer 1982): 7079.CrossRefGoogle Scholar See also the Waldorf-Astoria advertisement cited in note 6.

12. Roosevelt, to Curtis, , 02 7, 1905Google Scholar, Roosevelt Papers. Natalie Curtis became the compiler-author of The Indians' Book (1907)Google Scholar, an influential rendition of Indian songs, myths and stories.

13. Some of the field recordings for The North American Indian survive in the holdings of the Archives of Traditional Music at the University of Indiana, Bloomington; see Lee, Dorothy Sara, Native North American Music and Oral Data: A Catalogue of Sound Recordings 1893–1976 (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1979), pp. 5558.Google Scholar I am grateful to Ronald K. Engard for sending me tapes copied from these recordings.

14. Biographical accounts of Gilbert appear in Longyear, Katherine M. E.'s unpublished thesis, “Henry F. Gilbert, His Life and Works,” Eastman School of Music, Rochester, 1968Google Scholar, and in her entry on Gilbert, in Sadie, Stanley, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (London: Macmillan, 1980), vol. 8, pp. 372–73.Google Scholar

15. The North American Indian, vol. 6, 1911, pp. 165–66.Google Scholar

16. Curtis's chief ethnologist, William E. Myers, was certainly conscious of the popularity and worth of the Pirate Song; in a letter to Gilbert he wrote: “Mrs. Myers joins me in best wishes to Mrs Gilbert and yourself. Last fall in a little New Mexico town we happened into a general store and heard [David] Bispham singing the ‘Pirate Song’ and thereafter we made it a daily practice to have business there so long as we were in the town. It's a fine thing” (Myers, to Gilbert, , 05 14, 1912Google Scholar, Gilbert Papers, Music Library, Yale University, New Haven). Subsequent quotations from letters to Gilbert are taken from these papers.

17. Curtis, to Gilbert, , 07 26, 1911Google Scholar; also further letters of July 26 and August 7 and 12, 1911.

18. Curtis, to Gilbert, , 08 7, 1911.Google Scholar

19. Gilbert, , “A Chapter of Reminiscence,” Part II, The New Music Review 20 (1921): p. 91.Google Scholar

20. Myers, to Gilbert, , 09 22 and October 7, 1910Google Scholar, and May 14, July 11, August 26 and November 26, 1912; Curtis, to Gilbert, , 02 17, 1914.Google Scholar

21. Gilbert, , “A Chapter of Reminiscence,” p. 91.Google Scholar

22. Curtis, to Gilbert, , 07 26, 1911Google Scholar; also, Curtis, to Gilbert, , 08 25 and September 7, 1911.Google Scholar

23. Rice, to Gilbert, , 08 24, 1911Google Scholar; also Rice, to Gilbert, , 08 31 and September 14, 1911Google Scholar, and Curtis, to Gilbert, , 08 18 and October 2, 1911.Google Scholar

24. See the second half of Curtis's exuberant letter to Meany of November 19, 1911, in which he described the “seventeen kinds of hell” through which he had traveled to success at Carnegie Hall; also, Curtis, to Hodge, , 01 6, 1912.Google Scholar

25. Gilbert, , “A Chapter of Reminiscence,” 91.Google Scholar

26. Curtis, to Gilbert, , 02 5, 1912Google Scholar, December 30, 1911; Schwinke, to Gilbert, , 03 2, 1912.Google Scholar

27. Curtis, to Gilbert, , 02 5, 1912Google Scholar, and Curtis, to Hodge, , 01 6, 1912.Google Scholar The note “Mr. Edward S. Curtis's ‘Picture-Opera,’” Bulletin of the Archaeological Institute of America 3 (06 1912): 188Google Scholar, constitutes an endorsement of the musicale.

28. E. S. Curtis and His Indian Picture-Opera “A Vanishing Race” Achieve Triumph, a simulated newspaper brochure produced to advertise the 1912–1913 tour, is in the collection of the present author. Unless otherwise indicated, all of the quotations and much of the information on the content and reception of the musicale is taken from it; subsequent citations, for quotations only, are to the original newspaper source as given in the brochure (though not all of these have been checked).

29. Price, , The Bellman (Minneapolis), 01 27, 1912.Google Scholar

30. Curtis, to Gilbert, , 06 4, 1913Google Scholar; also letters by Hammond, F. T. to Gilbert, , 07 16Google Scholar, August 8, October 15 and 22, November 7 and 13 (with enclosures), 1913. By 1915, the U. S. Columbia Record Catalog did list Gilbert, 's Dream of the Ancient Red ManGoogle Scholar; it was noted as incidental music to Curtis, 's “The Vanishing Race”Google Scholar illustrated lecture and consisted of “Signal Fire to the Mountain God” and “Song of the Wolf” played by [?] Prince's Orchestra (Columbia record number A 5457).

31. Curtis, to Gordon, , 01 16, 1912Google Scholar, Letters to the Director.

32. Curtis, to Wissler, , 12 4, 1911Google Scholar, File 110, Anthropology Department Archives, American Museum of Natural History, New York. I am grateful to Belinda Kaye for granting me access to this file.

33. Curtis, to Hodge, , 01 6 and 14Google Scholar (together with enclosure to Francis W. Kelsey), and March 28, 1912. Details of financial provision appear in “Memorandum of Agreement” dated 12 16, 1911Google Scholar, between Curtis and the University Museum, Philadelphia (Letters to the Director).

34. New York Evening World, 11 16, 1911.Google ScholarBanks, Charles E., “Primitive Glory of Indian Shown,” undocumented newspaper clipping in Washington-Biography file, Pacific Northwest Collection.Google Scholar

35. Washington Star, Wednesday, 01 31, 1912Google Scholar; New York Evening Post, Thursday, 11 16, 1911Google Scholar; “Peeps Into Inner Life of the Indian,” Baltimore Star, 01 13, 1912Google Scholar; Times-Dispatch, 02 1, 1912.Google Scholar

36. “Picture-Opera is Given at Belasco,” Washington Herald, Wednesday, 01 31, 1912Google Scholar; “Belasco Audience Sees Indian Life in Picture-Opera,” Washington Times, Wednesday, 01 31, 1912.Google Scholar

37. New York Evening Telegram, Monday, 11 27, 1911Google Scholar; Price, as cited in note 29 above.

38. Curtis, to Gilbert, , 04 25Google Scholar, and Myers, to Gilbert, , 05 14, 1912.Google Scholar

39. Myers, to Gilbert, , 11 26, 1912Google Scholar, and January 4, 1913; Curtis to Gilbert, February 17 and 26, 1914. Unfortunately, no notes on the music by Gilbert appeared in the published volume, though most of the transcriptions were his.

40. Gilbert, , “Program Notes [Indian Sketches],” Boston Symphony Orchestra Programs 1920–21, ed. Hale, P. (Boston, 1921), p. 1074.Google Scholar

41. Gilbert, , Indian Scenes (New York: H. W. Gray, 1912).Google Scholar In this publication each piece is preceded by the appropriate Curtis picture–though two, “In the Kutenai Country” and “On the Jocko,” were mistakenly substituted for one another, a matter about which Curtis vented his irritation in a letter to Gilbert, of 04 25, 1912.Google Scholar For Curtis's blessings on this venture, see also his letters to Gilbert, , 12 23 and 30, 1911Google Scholar, and February 12, 1912.

42. Curtis, to Gilbert, , 10 3 and 28, 1912.Google Scholar

43. Curtis, to Gilbert, , 11 22, 1912.Google Scholar

44. See Gilbert, , “Program Notes,” pp. 1072–7.Google Scholar

45. Farwell's review was reprinted in the simulated newspaper cited in note 28. Myers, who certainly knew Indian music, called Gilbert, 's compositions “Indianesque music”Google Scholar in a letter to Gilbert, , 01 4, 1913.Google Scholar I am grateful to David Cawthra of Exeter University for playing Indian Scenes so that I could compare them with the field recordings.

46. The name Wa-Wan was itself taken from the name of an Omaha Indian ceremony. An untitled essay of Farwell's that put the case for Indian music most trenchantly was printed as an introduction to a group of compositions published by the press in September 1903; a reprint may be found in Farwell, Brice, ed., A Guide to the Music of Arthur Farwell and the Microform Collection of His Work (Briarcliff Manor, N. Y.: Brice Farwell, 1972), pp. 7881.Google Scholar For a sensitive reading of this phase of American musical development, albeit with few examples of Gilbert's own role in it, see Chase, Gilbert, America's Music, rev. 2nd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966)Google Scholar, especially the chapter titled “The Americanists.” One parallel career is that of Charles Wakefield Cadman, who in 1910 brought “Princess” Tsianine Redfeather, an Omaha with a trained soprano voice, to New York to sing “Indian melodies” in the context of his lecture recital advocating the importance of aboriginal sources, and who composed a piece called To A Vanishing Race (1925)Google Scholar; see The New Grove, vol. 3, p. 593.Google Scholar I am grateful to Barry Turner for bringing Cadman to my attention.

47. Austin, , The American Rhythm: Studies and Reexpressions of American Indian Songs (New York: Cooper Square, 1970)Google Scholar is a reprint of the enlarged edition of 1930. Pages 41–43 of this book record some instances of the rise of appreciation for Indian cultural expression in early twentieth-century America, a subject treated at length in the first third of Castro, Michael's Interpreting the Indian: Twentieth Century Poets and the Native American (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1983).Google Scholar

48. Curtis, to Austin, , n.d. [early 03 1911]Google Scholar, Mary Hunter Austin Papers, Huntington Library, San Marino.

49. If the title of a brief contemporary review that I have been unable to check is significant, it may have pressed this point: Llewellyn, Louise, “Indian Tunes and National Music,” Musical America 16 (02 3, 1912): 2.Google Scholar

50. Curtis, to Gilbert, , 04 11, 1913.Google Scholar

51. See Gidley, , “From the Hopi Snake Dance to The Ten Commandments,”Google Scholar cited in note 11. It is also noteworthy that it was precisely during this period that the movies were coming to be conceived of as an appropriate medium for historical reconstruction on an epic scale, as in Griffith, D. W.'s The Birth of a Nation (1914).Google Scholar For Curtis's more ambitious film work, see Holm, Bill and Quimby, George I., Edward S. Curtis in the Land of War Canoes: A Pioneer Cinematographer of the Pacific Northwest (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1980).Google Scholar

52. Unfortunately, most of the slides that survive appear to be in inaccessible private collections; I am grateful to Thomas V. Lange, formerly of the Morgan Library, New York, for showing me the collection of uncatalogued slides in that library.

53. Curtis to Meany, as cited in note 2.

54. New York Evening Sun, Thursday, 11 16, 1911.Google Scholar

55. For development of the ramifications of the vanishing race idea, see Dippie, Brian W., The Vanishing American: White Attitudes and U. S. Indian Policy (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1982).Google Scholar A somewhat distorted view of the idea's expression in Curtis's work is to be found in Lyman, Christopher M., The Vanishing Race and Other Illusions: Photographs of Indians by Edward S. Curtis (Washington, D. C: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1982).Google Scholar

56. Reproduced from a brochure in the Pacific Northwest Collection.

57. This script and the other documents that follow here are in the collection of Karl Kernberger. I am grateful to Mr. Kernberger for granting me access to them. The scripts have been drastically cut.

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