The North American Indian
In the summer of 2017, the Muskegon Museum of Art exhibited, in its entirety, Edward Curtis’s masterwork The North American Indian. Comprised of 20 volumes of texts and thousands of images, including 723 large format photogravures in accompanying portfolios, The North American Indian recorded the lives, culture, and history of Native American Tribes from the Southwestern, Plains, and Northwestern United States in the early 20th century. For 30 years, Curtis traveled extensively, producing photographs, copious field notes, and wax cylinder recordings. Available by subscription, the project enjoyed initial success but Curtis was bankrupt and forgotten by the time the final volume was published in 1930. The surviving prints and plates were rediscovered in the 1970s, leading to a revival of interest that continues today. The Muskegon Museum of Art’s complete set was obtained in 1907, when Lulu Miller, the librarian of the Hackley Public Library, convinced the Muskegon Board of Education (who governed the library) to subscribe.
Modern scholarship reveals many of the flaws of Curtis’s work, products of the prevailing Euro-centric prejudices and attitudes of his time. Curtis’s intention to record and preserve the cultures of Native American Tribes before they vanished under a deliberate campaign by the United States government was commendable and ultimately successful. Ironically, his project also served to codify and perpetuate the dominant stereotypes of the time. As an artist and historian, Curtis staged images, edited contents to reflect his own intentions and pre-existing beliefs, and cloaked much of his product in a veil of romanticism. Curtis’s texts indeed preserved oral history, music, and language that may have otherwise been lost, but the cultural heritage of America’s Native peoples ultimately endured without his efforts, never “vanishing” as predicted by leading scholars of the day.
Video Project: Sharing the Story
It was vitally important to the MMA and guest curator Ben Mitchell that our exhibition reflect not only the history of such a monumental artistic undertaking as The North American Indian but also the full range of controversies that surround it. Working with leading Native Indian scholars, artists, and West Michigan area Tribes, our team developed programming, content, and text that shared the fullest story possible with our viewers, while challenging assumptions and inviting new perspectives. The text developed as part of our exhibition appeared on panels throughout the galleries and was narrated by Ben Mitchell in a series of YouTube videos. As we look back on our successes and forward to our expanding future, these videos remain an important resource to understanding our permanent collection and shared cultural heritage.
You can find the entire series at the links below.
Find all our videos on the Muskegon Museum of Art YouTube channel.