Clark Humanities Museum Presents Edward S. Curtis & "The Vanishing Race: Ethnography, Photography, & Absence in The North American Indian."

Photo by Layne Wells '19

Photo by Layne Wells '19

By Maureen Cowhey ‘19 & Layne Wells ‘19
Staff Writers

For the third consecutive year, Scripps College is exhibiting Edward S. Curtis and “The Vanishing Race: Ethnography, Photography, and Absence in The North American Indian.” Curated by Scripps College art professor Ken Gonzales-Day, the photography exhibition will run in the Scripps College Clark Humanities Museum until Nov. 6.

 A welcoming reception was held on Thurs., Oct. 29 at the Clark Humanities Museum, located on the second floor of the Edwards Humanities Building on Scripps’ campus. The reception provided free food, wine and refreshments and was open to the public. Many professors, students and members of the community were in attendance.

 According to a Clark Humanities Museum flyer, the exhibition displays only forty images out of the 300 sets of Curtis’ photographs of The North American Indian housed at the Honnold/Mudd Library Special Collections. Curtis’ The North American Indian consists of 20 volumes of narrative text and photogravures of Native American people, culture, and traditions which he published between 1907 and 1930. The exhibit was specially selected to emphasize the absent or false aspects of Native American culture that Curtis depicts.

 Edward Sheriff Curtis was a famous portrait photographer who focused on documenting and photographing Native Americans between 1895 and 1930. Through the use of audio recordings, motion pictures, photography, and writing, Curtis perpetuated a myth of indigenous people as the “Vanishing Race.” Some Historians believe that rather than helping to preserve Native American culture, Curtis helped extinguish it through his false representations of a receding traditions.

 The photogravures--prints produced by etching a copper plate through an intaglio process--on display include examples of portrait photography, pictorialism, and ethnographic photography. These images cover themes such as Native American performance and spirituality and religion. Curtis also created sections of images pertaining more to Native Americans as a vanishing race, titling these selections “Wig? Or Real?” and “Objectification or Resistance.” The images are supplemented by texts that contextualize the images, as well as discuss several debates that have emerged over the works.

 The Scripps College Core Curriculum in Interdisciplinary Humanities supported and promotedthe Curtis exhibit. As it pertains directly to the current theme of “Conquest and Colonialism” that Core I is exploring, all first-year Scripps students are required to visit the exhibition. Curator Ken Gonzalez-Day will also give a Core I lecture on the exhibit for first-year students.
The Core I objective of the exhibit is to discuss and address these false representations of Native American culture. The exhibition continues to be relevant and controversial on the topic of colonialism, making it an integral part of the Core I curriculum over the past three years.

 Janna Akers ‘19 is an assistant at the Clark Humanities Museum and a Core I student. When she first saw the images, she recalls being fascinated by the depictions of Native American culture, but after discovering that many of them were staged and manipulated, she questioned whether Curtis was attempting to preserve a culture or create images for white people to admire.

 Amanda Tamayo ‘19 had a similar reaction after viewing the exhibit. She stated, “Ostensibly the images appear to be a good representation of a race and a culture, but once you discover that they are staged by someone not of the Native American race, you see how easily our perceptions can be manipulated in favor of political oppression.”

The Clark Humanities Museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. until November 5. For more information on “Edward S. Curtis and the Vanishing Race” or the Clark Humanities Museum, please visit For more information on the exhibit and its relation to the Core curriculum, please contact Max Greenberg at .