Episode 45: Edward Curtis’ “The North American Indian” with David Coleman

David Coleman
David Coleman

Texas State University’s David Coleman, director of The Wittliff Collections, joins the Big Ideas TXST podcast to discuss the legacy of Edward Curtis and his photography collection, “The North American Indian.”

In 1906 Curtis received a grant from financier J.P. Morgan to record, through photography and the written word, all Native American tribes who retained some degree of their “primitive” lifestyle. Native Americans were almost wholly confined to reservations by this time, and they were subjected to federal programs that forced their assimilation to Western ways. Curtis felt passionately that their cultures should be chronicled before they disappeared altogether.

The North American Indian is one of the most ambitious photographic projects ever undertaken. Published from 1907 to 1930, it documents more than 100 peoples’ languages, stories and songs, along with extensive illustration by Curtis’ photography. Yet his work has also come under scrutiny, revealing that in some cases he used the same clothing or accessories for multiple tribes and he retouched many of his negatives to remove Western items like suspenders, parasols and more. Curtis is regarded by some as a notorious “faker,” and he is criticized for romanticizing Native Americans at a time when their forced assimilation into Western culture denied their rights and dignity.

Coleman came to Texas State in 2011 from the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, where he served as the chief curator for photography. He earned his doctorate in art history from the University of Texas in 2005 and has worked at the Ransom Center since 1996.

Big Ideas TXST is part of the TXST Podcast Network.

About the Show

Big Ideas TXST goes inside the fascinating minds forging innovation, research and creativity at Texas State University and beyond. Hosted by Daniel Seed, episodes showcase the thought leaders, breakthroughs and creative expression making the world a better place, one BIG idea at a time. Produced by University Communications at Texas State.

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About the Host

Daniel Seed is a lecturer in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Texas State University, specializing in electronic media. Prior to coming to Texas State, he worked as a news reporter and anchor, sports director and sports anchor during a career that began at WHDH-TV in Boston and continued at stations in Oklahoma and Texas. He is three-time winner of the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters Outstanding Achievement in Broadcasting Award for best sportscast (non-metro category) and a winner of the OAB’s Outstanding Achievement in Broadcasting Awards for Spot News and General News.

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