This was the book that I almost didn’t read. I was at the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) convention and of course going through the exhibition hall. This was my first convention and I didn’t know that on the last day of the convention, the vendors give out books like candy. So all I knew was that people were shouting out book titles and people were pushing and shoving to get them. Basically it was a bibliophile’s Mardi Gras. So I was at one vendor who was just handing out one book after another. And I’m not the type to turn down a free book. So after collecting an arm full of books, I took them back to my room to look at the booty.
Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher by Timothy Egan, stood out amongst the rest. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’ve been trying to beef up my reading about Native Americans and/or by Native Americans. Also, this particular book won a National Book Award, just adding to its gravitas. The book is a biography of Edward Curtis, a photographer from late-1800’s Seattle, who made it his life’s work to document the languages, religions, customs, and everyday lives of the Native Americans. He started this work after taking several portraits of chief Seattle’s daughter, destitute and living off of scraps from a trash heap. He was curious to know more about the Native Americans living near Seattle. What he saw shocked him. He found civilizations that were in danger of becoming extinct. The few Native Americans that were still living on their own land showed Curtis that they were not the savages that the government and popular beliefs made them out to be.
While establishing himself as one of the premiere photographers not only on the West Coast but the U.S., he used the earnings from his studio to fund excursions to reservations such as the Hopi, Navajo, Cheyenne, Crow, Sioux, Blackfoot, Kwakiutl, and the Inuits. He brought with him to the reservations assistants to record language, customs, and ceremonies. After collecting data from each tribe, they would all hole themselves up and put it all into words. After realizing the undertaking of this task, of documenting the crumbling world of Native Americans, Curtis applied to J.P. Morgan for help. Morgan gives him the money and continued sponsoring the project until its completion.
Sadly, like many great artists, Curtis’s personal life was in shambles. Because of his devotion to the project, he neglected his life at home. Alone, constantly on the brink of bankruptcy, his wife finally divorces him. Luckily, his children understood his passion and eventually sided with him in their adulthood. Also, like many of the greats, he wasn’t appreciated in his time. He didn’t sell enough subscriptions to actually make any money from the project. The only copies that were purchased were by academic institutions and by foreign dignitaries. However, during and after his lifetime, he has been lauded for his efforts and achievement to document the lives of Native Americans.
It was a bit of a tough read merely because it was hard to read about the disappearance of entire civilizations, not due to time but due to governmental mismanagement and racial intolerance. Plus it was hard to listen to Curtis’s life crumble around him even while he’s trying to document the lives of others. I’m glad that Egan left readers on a good note. Several of the tribes Curtis documented, later went back and used the information to recreate, rejuvenate, and even reinvigorate their language, cultures, and religions. It’s inspiring to know that even while the Native Americans were being pushed onto reservations and their way of life completely altered, a few people stood up to the injustices and tried to give a voice to people who didn’t have an audience.