Three words: Read this book. Pulitzer-prize winning writer Timothy Egan’s “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher” tells two stories; both of them tragic yet heroic. For one man, it is the passion that catches hold of his life such that in order to see it completed he loses much by which society measures a person. Indeed, the subtitle “The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of EDWARD CURTIS,” is no overstatement. At the end, he may not have viewed his life as “epic,” but there can be no question that it surely was. The photographs that outlived him are being used today to tell stories that otherwise would have been lost. For his quest was to record the lives of the first nations of this continent before those ways were lost to destruction and assimilation. It is that second story, the combined stories of the many tribes that were the first inhabitants of the lands we occupy, that he was trying to preserve before it was too late.
Curtis was a man who said “yes” to life. A fire burned within him because he knew something had to be done. The lives of the people of the first nations were quickly being transformed; traditional ways of living, languages, dress, songs, faith, were all disappearing without a trace. He took upon himself the monumental task of recording the people of this land by writing down everything he could, recording their voices and songs, and, so importantly, photographing them before they slipped away. His story takes him all over the continent and, through people who believed in what he was trying to do, to meetings with Presidents and the most powerful men in the nation. He had only a rudimentary education, yet he found himself in the highest circles and, eventually, put to shame so many of the “experts” in the field. Both President Teddy Roosevelt and banker J.P. Morgan thought that his idea was impossible, and encouraged him to go right along and do it. For his dedication to this important task, he paid in terms of wealth, health, family, relationships, and eventual obscurity. Of course, he was not without fault. That, however, takes nothing away from the enormous gift he provided to posterity – both to the first nations and us later arrivals. He knew what he had been called to do and stayed faithful to the task, regardless of the cost or outcome. Such people we may call fools or geniuses. Regardless, many great things in humanity are done because of them.
One can not read this story about Curtis the man without also reflecting on the history of European contact with the first nations of the continent. From my perspective, I wonder how much has been lost in terms of understanding how to live in harmony with our natural world, of different perspectives on Creation, spirituality, and religion, of cultural richness and diversity? I am cautious not to over-glorify the first nations, and I do know that not all European contact with them was negative. What is widely accepted now, however, is that our forebears at times ruthlessly mistreated them, broke oaths, and attempted to systematically destroy their way of life. Ethnic cleansing and, in some cases, genocide would be appropriate terms. Racism was rampant. Often because we had superior technology and faith that “Our God” had led us to a “promised land,” we viewed the first nations as inferior in all ways and, of course, as heathens. Our ancestors seemed markedly lacking in humility, patience, honesty, kindness, and loving one’s neighbor – all the while espousing the virtues of their God. Most importantly, we arrived with a fundamental difference in how we see the Earth.
Land. We view it as something to be divided up, transformed, harvested, mined, occupied, and used. We do not have a relationship with it, yet it is from whence we came. Instead, we are (as quickly as possible) trying to move away from it, to create our protective bubbles inside our homes and apartments, to avoid the discomfort of nature and all that goes with it. We succeed at overburdening the land with too many people so that we must resort to factory farms where crops are genetically modified and animals are kept in inhumane conditions. When people were engaged with the land by growing their own crops and hunting animals over wide expanses of area, there was greater balance. It was simply more sustainable. Did we err by ignoring the first nations and their symbiotic relationship with the land in favor of our approaches of mass cultivation and use of domesticated (and now unnatural) livestock? Did their spiritual approaches make more sense because they were so much more focused on the natural world? Is new and improved always better than old and reliable?
Writing almost 25 years ago in “Celebration and Mourning: A Literary History of the American Indians,” my mother, Diane M. Smith, posited that “it was the European predilection for seeing the Indians, not as an enemy people, but as part of an enemy whose persona was the country itself, that set the stage of four hundred years of hostility. Europeans saw the wilderness and everything in it as out to get them, unless they conquered it first, and utterly. …. Because most white Americans think they’ve won, that the wilderness is tamed, and therefore dead (little do they know), they believe the Indians are dead, too.” But it and they are not; as I believe we may one day learn.
This is the wealthiest nation on earth because of people who were industrious, intelligent, and dedicated. We are also wealthy because we appear to have conquered the people who were here first and we were far more efficient at how to exploit the land. On a personal level, I recognize that I am here because of what those people did. One of my ancestors is the first woman in the United States to have a statue erected in her honor. What did she do? She scalped ten members of the Abenaki tribe during King William’s War, six of whom were children. It was arguably justified in that she had been taken captive and her infant child had been dashed against a tree. Like most Americans, I was born and grew up on land that had used by the first nations. In my case it was the Iroquois, and they had a reservation nearby that does not come close in size to what had been their traditional hunting areas.
Yet here we are. The past, however, can not be relived. It can come alive again through remembrance. And from that we can and should learn so that we may both know the past and also become better people. What Curtis did was to preserve – as best he could – what a very different past was like so that we could have an understanding of what has been lost, and so that first nations can remember. What he did was heroic. As a result his life became tragic. If he were here, I would tell him, “It was worth it.”