"Outside a dog a book is man's best friend, inside a dog it is too dark to read!" -Groucho Marx========="The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." -Jane Austen========="I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book."-JK Rowling========"I spend a lot of time reading." -Bill Gates=========“Ahhh. Bed, book, kitten, sandwich. All one needed in life, really.” -Jacqueline Kelly=========

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: the Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis by Timothy Egan

Edward Curtis is the man in the foreground.
You may not know who Edward Curtis was but I bet you would recognize his magnificent photographs of American Indians. This book, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: the Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis, was scrupulously researched and marvelously written by Timothy Egan, the award winning author of The Worst Hard Time.

Princess Angeline, Chief Sealth's daughter. Photograph by Edward Curtis.
Edward Curtis was Seattle's most famous citizen in the early 1900s. He was a renown as a portrait photographer but became interested in the plight of the American Indian tribes after seeing the daughter of Chief Sealth (Chief Seattle) walking around the streets of Seattle. She was living in poverty outside the city, not being allowed as a Native American to live within the city limits. He paid her a dollar to photograph her and realized that her face told an important story. At that point he decided that he wanted to photograph all the tribes that were still clinging to the old way of life. Thus began his life project, to photograph and publish a 20-volume set of books, called The North American Indian. This project, which he thought would take five years to complete, took thirty years. It wrecked his finances, his marriage, and his health. By the time he died in 1952, Edward Curtis was living in obscurity and poverty, nearly blind. His photographs were almost forgotten. Was his life project for naught?
When Curtis died in 1952, his lifework with Native Americans had all but faded into obscurity. "Rediscovered" in the 1960s and 1970s, Curtis's photographic work is now recognized as one of the most significant records of Native culture ever produced. His photographs have been included in virtually every anthology of historical photographs of Native Americans and are now frequently used to illustrate books and documentaries. -Library of Congress 
Library of Congress collection of photographs by Edward Curtis

In addition to photographs, Curtis and his helpers recorded the native languages and songs.  He recorded the important celebrations of each tribe.  When his work was rediscovered in the 1970s, tribes started using The North American Indian to teach their children their language and to reignite interest in the old ceremonies and rituals.  Pacific Northwest Indians, the Makah tribe "set out to revive whale hunting in 1999 as a bridge to their past, they had trouble finding anyone alive with memory of the practice. They relied on pictures by Curtis..., and the text from Volume XI, as a guide to reconstructing the ritual of the hunt." The Hopi purchased an original edition of Volume XII devoted entirely to their tribe. "The tribe uses it to build and solidify its teachings, traditions, and language." Many similar examples for other tribes were given in the epilogue.

Oasis in the Bad Land. Curtis. 1905.

My husband and I listened to the audiobook of Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher. It was a powerful experience for both of us. Of course both of us were aware of the deplorable treatment of the American Indians in our history. But neither of us were aware of the role that Edward Curtis played in documenting the rich cultures of these tribes. Many times I found myself in tears as I listened to the book. A shoutout to David Drummond the voice actor who read the book to us.  He does a very good job. We did have a print copy of the book with us while we listened which was important because Egan talks about particular photographs as the end of each chapter and the photos are shown. Listening without the print book wouldn't have given us a complete experience.

I recognize that everyone doesn't enjoy reading biographies, or history books but this book is exceptional and I recommend it for older teens on up.


Photo montage on NPR of several of Curtis' photos.

30 books this Summer Reading Challenge


24 / 30 books. 80% done!

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