It was hard to recognize the faces of friends in the garden. We had gathered that night for a Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, celebration at SEEDS Community Garden in Durham.
Día de los Muertos is a national holiday in Mexico, one descended from Aztec traditions, a time to remember and pray for the dead.
Several wooden tables were covered with colorful glass vases and candles. Photographs of loved ones were illuminated by the flames, giving a soft glow to their countenance. Even as strangers, we could feel their presence.
On a basic, intuitive level, this is what photography does best—connect the present with the absent. This principle guided photographer Edward Curtis during his 30-year odyssey to preserve the image and culture of an entire ethnic group.
Nayenezgani, the Navajo deity pictured here, was documented by Curtis in 1904, and was included in the first of his massive 20-volume set, The North American Indian, one of the most significant and controversial representations of our continent's native inhabitants.
Curtis embarked on the project because it was thought, in the early 20th century, that Native Americans were a "vanishing" race that would be gone in a single generation's time. Their population had dwindled to less than 250,000, with many being forced to shed their cultural identities in order to conform to a white society that still viewed them as godless savages in need of parental oversight and discipline.
This dominant racial ideology presented a paradox for Curtis' bold documentary endeavor, which was funded in part by prominent men such as J.P. Morgan and Teddy Roosevelt.
Curtis walked a thin line, stating that Native Americans were "being ground beneath the wheel of civilization, and though we may be able to justify our claims that advancement and progress demand the extermination of the Indians, we can scarcely justify the method used in this extermination."
The majority of Curtis' photographs were intimate, humanizing portraits, the kind you might place near a candle and acknowledge compassionately as being present and part of your world.
The image of Nayenezgani is not. The name means "Slayer of Alien Gods," and in Navajo mythology, he vanquished numerous bird, animal, rock and human monsters that wanted to destroy human life. He stands still enough to sense the wind blowing at feathers near his waist. Imagine seeing Nayenezgani in motion, illuminated by firelight, fearlessly conveying the stories of your ancestors. Before photography, this is how culture and identity were best preserved.
In 1890, the performance of the "Ghost Dance" was a catalyst that led to the massacre of 300 Lakota warriors, women and children by the U.S. 7th Calvary at Wounded Knee. At least 20 U.S. troopers were awarded the Medal of Honor after this final "battle" of the American Indian Wars.
The forces of colonization were outpacing Curtis' grand endeavor. Many of the dances and ceremonies he photographed were outlawed by the U.S. government. Occasionally, Curtis used documentary methods that are hard to ethically justify: paying subjects to pose, selecting the ornaments and vestments they wore, and removing modern artifacts such as a clock from the final image. He also had to satisfy the aesthetic tastes and expectations of his patrons, which led Curtis to stage a number of scenes to heighten the "Indian-ness" of his subjects.
In the new book Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis, Timothy Egan makes the case that Curtis' approach was one of necessity and "no different than, say, going to Scotland to photograph different family clans, and then asking someone if they would pose in the kilts of their grandparents."
For his part, Curtis created a substantial and lasting record of the indigenous population, though ultimately it's one told through the lens of an outsider who took creative liberties.
A century after Curtis began his project, North American Indians have not vanished, but it's hard to recognize them through the darkness, beyond the margins of our society.
They do appear at or near the bottom of every quality of life indicator. The New York Times recently reported that the federal government has cut the size of its police force in Indian country, "even as rates of murder and rape there have increased to more than 20 times the national average."
Will we ever fully acknowledge and support the continued existence of our indigenous people and culture, or will their faces be forever absent, like that of Nayenezgani?
Affixed is a series of essays on the photographic process and the art of arresting images. D.L. Anderson is an award-winning staff photographer for Indy Week.