What a remarkable undertaking, both for Curtis and for Egan, who continues to rank as one of my favorite non-fiction writers. Curtis set a remarkable task for himself – to try to record for posterity the vanishing ways of the American Indian. If this meant, at times, asking them to play dress-up or to be re-enactors, he was willing to do it. And JP Morgan, both fortunately and unfortunately, was willing to fund it. (Curtis did not ask for enough; Morgan didn’t give enough and when he had to give more, he and his son asked for too much.) Along the way, Curtis got rave reviews and ignored, was friends with Presidents and ruined his marriage, and he accomplished his goal – 20 volumes of The North American Indian which are apparently quite difficult to actually see. A triumph of ethnography and publishing, these books, according to Egan, now help to re-acquaint tribes with their own languages and practices.
When pressed by a judge to explain why he pressed on, even though he made no money from the project, Curtis says, “Your honor, it was my job. The only thing . . . the only thing I could do that was worth doing” (293). Hard not to admire that.
After initially promising not to engage in political commentary and being pressured to omit some of his discoveries about Custer’s conduct, Curtis, with help from a loyal and slowly diminishing band, finds his voice. And the injustices, both de jure and de facto that he recounts will never cease to astonish me. Why did we do what we did to the American Indians? Why do we do it still?
The book can be slow in places. We know he’s aiming for 20 volumes, so sometimes I found myself noting the count. Nevertheless, this book is an important record of an amazing and important achievement. The photos Egan provides are teasers. I wish I could see the whole thing.