Published: Oct. 16, 2015

Original article can be found at The Denver Post  
Originally published on October 16, 2015 By Patty Limerick 

Even though time travel is impossible, we are sometimes picked up and abruptly deposited in the past. 

“Nearly all of the Indians in this area,” a well-intentioned guide informed our group, “died in the 1820s and 1830s. So when the American settlers came, there was basically no one here.” 

If our guide had presented himself in costume, arrayed with top hat, waistcoat, and pocket watch, his performance would have been an effective way to acquaint the people of the 21st century with the attitudes of the 1890s. 

But no such luck. 

Moreover, our guide’s remarks and the exhibit we were touring were distinctly at odds. As he told us that the absence of Indian people had meant that this part of the country had been spared the violent conflict that occurred elsewhere, he was standing a few feet away from a display on local white/Indian wars. 

In reality, Indian people themselves have been and remain resilient and persistent. And yet that reality never fully triumphs over the persistent idea of the “vanishing Indian,” a myth that surges to the surface in places where you would least expect it. 

If there is a cure for people who cannot surrender that myth, it is probably not scolding and scorning them. A more helpful remedy comes from asking the question, “Where did that idea come from, and how did it acquire so much power?” 

Any answer must address the work of Edward Curtis, the early 20th century photographer whose images of solemn, sepia-toned native people conveyed the message that Indians were residents of a departed past who could not live on into modern times. 

In the 21st century, several people have invested their own vitality in the strenuous work of exploring Curtis’ soul, traveling in time to glimpse the world as he saw it. In an extraordinary project that viewers can never forget, the Navajo photographer Will Wilson has been photographing contemporary Indian people using exactly the methods that gave Curtis’ photographs their haunted, frozen-in-time quality. 

“I am impatient,” Wilson has written, “with the way that American culture remains enamored of one particular moment in a photographic exchange between Euro-American and Aboriginal American societies: the decades from 1907 to 1930” when Curtis took his photographs. Rather than denounce Curtis and bemoan his continued influence, Wilson chose to “resume the documentary mission of Curtis.” 

Using Curtis’ photographic techniques to convey “a contemporary vision of Native North America,” Wilson is an artist whose robust claim on life and whose breathtaking creativity overrules the tired myth of the “vanishing Indian.” 

So how to help the guide whose remarks caught me by surprise on our museum tour? With greater forethought, I would have arranged for him to travel to Colorado and spend time in the presence of one of the nation’s more joyful paradoxes: Indian people who were thought to have vanished have taken possession of the very media, art forms, and images that once seemed to assert their disappearance. 

On Oct. 26 at 6:30 p.m. in Hale 270 on the CU Boulder campus, Navajo photographer Wilson will present that paradox in its most compelling and disarming form. 

In another significant advance in the nation’s progress in self-understanding, New York Times columnist Timothy Egan has written a compelling and memorable biography, “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis.” 

In that book, Egan tells us that the subject of his biography was, as an old man, burdened by letters from people who wrote to ask, “Is Edward Curtis still alive?” 

If irony has the power to invite realistic thinking then imagining Curtis’s reaction to those premature estimations of his departure from the planet might provide the best mental “rebooting” of all.