Skip to main content
Original Issue


"We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, and winding streams with tangled growth as wild. Only to the white man was nature a wilderness and only to him was the land infested with wild animals and savage people. To us it was tame.... Not until the hairy man from the east came and with brutal frenzy heaped injustices upon us and the families we loved was it wild for us. When the very animals of the forest began fleeing from his approach, then it was for us that the Wild West began."

There is no more complete record of a culture at peace with the natural world than the photographs of American Indians by Edward S. Curtis which are being exhibited through June at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.

In his poetic yet powerful Duck Hunter (above), the figure, much as in a Sung dynasty painting, is an observer rather than an intruder. He is an integral part of the scene, topically and formally, the parts as inseparable from each other as the shapes of the Oriental yin-yang symbol. Curtis saw his subjects with a warm heart and clear eye. A painter and draftsman as well as a photographer, he attained art's greatest goal: he made his process invisible. Thus it is we are able to enter into the very lives of his people. Today, realizing we have largely ruined our environment, many now look back to the Indians hoping to rediscover a philosophy to replace the "Man Against Nature" one we have been using.

It is interesting to note that Curtis' hunter carries no visible weapon, nor are there in fact any ducks in the picture. Yet the mood is explicit. This man is waiting, which in one sense is the largest part of any sport afield.

You could probably lay the reproductions of duck hunting scenes hanging in corporate offices end to end and they would reach around the world. But such artistic industry is simply empty commercialism feeding on the desire of people to become part of something sensed but not genuinely understood. The difference between the duck hunter Curtis shows and a lithograph of a modern gunner drawing a bead with his Model 12 on a two-dimensional canvas-back is the difference between a culture with a long tradition of spirituality and one without.

Curtis has given to us the Indian's legacy of spirituality in a form we can see. Black Elk of the Oglala Sioux tribe put it in words: "Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle. The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same, and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves."