For my birthday, I recently received a beautiful book I’d been longing for called THE WOMEN. It is filled with the haunting and evocative sepia photos of 19th century photographer Edward Curtis. Curtis spent 30 years of his life traveling North America photographing and recording the Native nations he met, documenting traditions, cermonies, languages, and songs. His photos of men were more famous and shaped the way Euro Americans saw the First People, particularly its warriors. But now, we can see photos of the women who — with skepticism, wariness, sometimes playfulness, and certainly a fierce strength in their eyes — allowed him to photograph them.
Here’s a quote from the book that I love:
The Great Spirit is our father, but the Earth is our mother. She nourishes us; that which we put into the ground she returns to us, and healing plants she gives us likewise. If we are wounded, we go to our mother and seek to lay the wounded part against her, to be healed. – Big Thunder (Wabanaki Algonquin), late 19th century
One of things that tickles me about this book are the multiple perspectives. To its credit, there’s a forward by Louise Erdrich and an introduction by Anne Makepeace who help us readers understand with more depth, subtlety and humor the perceptions, misperceptions, and fictions created by Curtis’ photos. They talk about how Curtis had to gain the women’s trust – at a time just before American Indian women were having their babies taken from them and sent to boarding schools. They give voice to the descendents of the women who were photographed, and allow them to laugh at the way some of the photos (beautiful though they are) are contrived. Christopher Cardozo, who culled 100 of Curtis’ photos, to create this book, writes an essay that helps us to see Curtis’ work as a photographer and his contributions as an American ethnographer.
As for me, it’s really the soul of the book that draws me to it. The woman who stands alone beside her hulking canoe, looking out across the water. The shaman women, healers among their people. The mothers and their babies in swings and hand-made carriers. The textures of the clothing. Women, their eyes shining, their faces holding something back. Anger, the ability to laugh at what’s in front of them, the mundane tasks of gathering wood and grinding flour — the everyday stuff that keeps humanity alive.
See what you think for yourselves…