Trove of Unseen Photos Documents Indigenous Culture in 1920s Alaska

New exhibition and book feature more than 100 images captured by Edward Sherriff Curtis for his seminal chronicle of Native American life

Edward Sherriff Curtis, Diomede Mother and Child
Edward Sherriff Curtis, Diomede Mother and Child Courtesy of the Muskegon Museum of Art

In Edward Sherriff CurtisDiomede Mother and Child, a young woman looks straight into the camera with her lips pressed into a firm line. She carries an infant whose face bears the opposite expression: an open mouth, furrowed eyebrows, flushed cheeks. Such images of mothers and their children are common in art history (think of Mary Cassatt’s sentimental scenes of women with babies or the countless renditions of the Madonna and Child), but this sepia-toned portrait feels particularly timeless, like the photographer caught the pair in the middle of a decisive moment.

The snapshot is one of more than 100 now on view in an exhibition at the Muskegon Museum of Art in Michigan, reports Lindsay Hoffman for FOX 17. Titled “Edward S. Curtis: Unpublished Alaska, the Lost Photographs,” the show features recently discovered photo negatives taken during the photographer’s 1927 voyage to Alaska, displayed alongside excerpts from his personal journals.

Trove of Unseen Photos Documents Indigenous Culture in 1920s Alaska
Umiaks under sail, Kotzebue Courtesy of the Muskegon Museum of Art

Per a statement, Curtis was a photographer and ethnologist who documented the lives of Indigenous peoples in America’s Southwest, West and Northwest during the early 20th century. Many of Curtis’ photographs were published in his seminal life’s work, The North American Indian, but some went unused. A selection of these unseen snapshots, passed down by Curtis’ family, form the heart of the new exhibition and an accompanying book.

“Some of the images have some movement in them or the focus isn’t quite right,” Coleen Graybill, wife of Curtis’ great-grandson, John Graybill, tells Native News Online’s Tamara Ikenberg. “As long as they weren’t horrible, we decided to put them in because we knew their families would love to see the image, whether it was out of focus or not.”

Trove of Unseen Photos Documents Indigenous Culture in 1920s Alaska
O-la, Noatak Courtesy of the Muskegon Museum of Art

Graybill adds that the project is “not just about showing these unpublished things of Curtis, but to share them with the people that have the most interest in it. That’s really important to us.”

“Unpublished Alaska” primarily features images from Curtis’ 1927 trip, which found him, his daughter Beth and his assistant Stewart C. Eastwood traveling to the city of Nome. There, Curtis took photos and completed research for the final volume of The North American Indian. Published between 1907 and 1930, the 20-volume series strove to record, through writing and photography, the lives of Indigenous peoples across the United States.

Highlights of the exhibition include O-la, Noatak, which shows a woman donning a fur coat, and a portrait of a young Inupiaq girl, Anna Nashoalook Ellis, who is now 97, per Native News Online.

Though many have lauded Curtis’ attempts to record Indigenous history, some critics have taken issue with the photographer’s portrayal of his subjects, accusing him “of advancing his career by ignoring the plight and torment of his subjects,” as Gilbert King wrote for Smithsonian magazine in 2012.

Trove of Unseen Photos Documents Indigenous Culture in 1920s Alaska
Kilk-ni-sik, in white fur parka, Cape Prince of Wales Courtesy of the Muskegon Museum of Art

Native News Online points out that Curtis often tried to depict Indigenous people as they were 200 to 300 years before European colonization. He removed objects like clocks and modern vehicles from his snapshots, staged ceremonies and dances, and dressed his subjects in outfits they wouldn’t typically wear. 

“It's hard to put contemporary sensibility to what was happening at the time, and there is genuine concern that this is a white man telling someone else’s story,” Art Martin, a curator at the Muskegon, tells Native News Online. “But on the other hand, it is a piece of history and Curtis is reporting what he was given.

John Graybill maintains that his great-grandfather had a vested interest in his subjects. Speaking with Native News Online, he says:

Whenever he went to camp, the first thing he did was seek out who of the elders had the regalia and that's what they would use in the photographs. He gathered information from interviews with the elders. He was in this race against time to learn about all aspects of the culture and then make the photographs based on the information that's been presented to them. That’s kind of the context of how he was making these photographs, and this issue about posing.

Edward S. Curtis: Unpublished Alaska, the Lost Photographs” is on view at the Muskegon Museum of Art in Muskegon, Michigan, through January 9, 2022.

Trove of Unseen Photos Documents Indigenous Culture in 1920s Alaska
Four smiling Nunivak women Courtesy of the Muskegon Museum of Art
Trove of Unseen Photos Documents Indigenous Culture in 1920s Alaska
Edward Sherriff Curtis and his daughter Beth pose in a kayak. Courtesy of the Muskegon Museum of Art