Constructing Law, Space, and their Subjects:
European Conceptions of Aboriginal People,
their Governance and Law

12 of 20

Constructing the North American Indian

A variety of media were employed in constructing the North American Indian as exotic, irrelevant and on the way to extinction or assimilation. Photography was a particularly important way of putting over these representation from the middle of the 19th until well into the 20th century.

Consider the following passage from Daniel Francis, The Imaginary Indian (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 1992) referring to the classic photos of North American Indians by Edward Curtis a keen American photogrpaher of native life and culture as he saw it:

If the camera never lies, neither does it tell the whole truth. Critics praised the authenticity of Curtis's photographs. People admired the way they showed Indians "as they really were." But in fact, the photographs were carefully posed renderings designed to convey a particular view of the Indian. Curtis equipped his subjects with props--wigs, for example, and items of clothing -- and doctored the photographs to eliminate evidence of White culture. He was trying to present Indians as they existed before the White Man came; or more accurately, as he thought they existed before the White Man came. Like most non-Natives of his day, Curtis believed in a timeless Indian past where nothing much really changed. His photographs were tiny time machines intended to take the viewer back before history began into a romantic world of a technologically primitive people. Any evidence of contact with White culture contaminated this image and Curtis worked to eliminate it. Native people as they actually lived did not interest him because in his eyes they were no longer Indians. Only in his photographs might one find the real Indian, which is to say, the Imaginary Indian. (p.41)

Consider the following images in light of the quotation from Francis. The two photos included are the result of careful staging by the photographer, Edward Curtis.

Lecture poster
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The first image shows a poster advertising a talk given by Edward Curtis.
Coming for the Bride
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This image, "Coming for the Bride" (Kwakiutl), is a still from one of Curtis's most famous silent films, In the Land of the Headhunters, produced between 1910 and 1914.
Staged photo by lake
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The third image is an idylic arrangement of Plains Indians.
NOTE: Additional information on Edward Curtis and his images are available at
courtesy in part of the Washington Historical Society.

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