Edward Sheriff Curtis – circa 1889
In the mythic past of our Celtic ancestors – a sovereign was one whose spirit was so united with the soul of the land that the very stones sing with the raising of the crown. This is the tale of the Tara or Earth Stone in Ireland. Druid wisdom includes the wisdom of the rhythms and tones of such life resonance. Stones are associated in different ways with the thrones of many human kingship dynasties. In the tales and poetry is the power to excite not only the human spirit but to invoke a conscious array of resonance through ceremonial positioning with the ancient energetic leys of the land. This is an understanding of earth and spirit that has connected the Celts and Native America over time.
You yourself may have had the experience of sharing music on the landscape with festival, celebration, ceremony or your own musical devotions. Medicine music invokes spiritual forces of the living landscape. The birds, insects and animals will come into polyphonic agreements of music that join up symphonically. Each species in a thriving ecosystem occupies distinct territories of tone and rhythm. Medicine music enters this conversation with a listening that amplifies and contributes to synergies of this music. Acoustic biologists recognize centers of this kind of wild polyphony as one of the signs of healthy vibrant ecosystems. Artists and lovers recognize it as an expansive bliss, a healing moment, or active peace.
We now know in truth that our whole gains strength and in deception our very muscles lose strength. This insight centered the old Nordic hazel circle justice of the duel in which two who were in unsuccessfully mediated dispute – under the witness of the elders- encircled with elder planted hazel rods – engaged in physical combat to settle what dispute was theirs – by the bodily strength of truth and the weakness of deception. A brutal path it might seem but one based on this sense of the power of spirit that has integrity of resonance with the elemental powers of the creation. NW Coast Bone games are a more playful dance with this tension between truth, deception and power.
An ecological, economic and spiritual center of the pacific Northwest over the last 12,000 years + has been Celilo Falls (Wishram is the village on the North Side of the historic Falls) – Women have always been at the core of the work done and the cultural / spiritual power centered there.
In the work of Edward Sheriff Curtis there is a profound and epic striving to represent native spirits with a poetics of resonance that invokes the spiritual power of the land and its people – that it might have a path forward through the rapacious onslaught of capitalistic greed, deception and destruction. He very consciously avoided moralizing political voices and relied on the power of Art. His driving faith was in representing the authentic truth of this beauty and power through great art opening a possibility to invoke the triumph of integrity. Curtis became possessed with the task and it is an enduring visual poetry that holds itself as a bridge across time. His commitment went beyond art to an encyclopedic cultural documentation of a continents peoples. His work ended lives and it furthered lives. The work is still controversial and it is both appreciated, expanded upon and there are those who believe it should be in part destroyed. It is a thorny rose of a thing.
Live in Indian country and there will be a time where you hear tales of those who choose to break a taboo, stumble upon a site, ritual artifact, or ceremony that is to be left alone and instead pry and then pay the cost with life disturbance or even a shortened life. You will hear the tales of ones who have a clear path, a path that those who know and respect will leave clear, and you will hear of the ignorant newcomers who engage before listening and may have paid with life itself for blocking the path. No hand of violence need be raised – these are stories of the shattering of resonances necessary to life – shattering’s, which emerge out of an arrogance that refuses to listen. Misunderstandings and willful ignorance bearing tragic fruits litter the landscape of initial and ongoing intercultural contacts.
The survival wisdom of internalizing the values of the oppressor during genocidal violence has contributed to echoing confusions around respect for the ancient, and respect for the sacred present, leading to dispersing disarray in many lineages of earth wisdom. Those who have carried these insights forward often find themselves in new landscapes foreign to their own lineages as an alternate path of survival in response to the rapacious violence of genocidal capitalistic colonialism. A close look at many of the migrations into North America will expose such roots.
In my own life as an American, Curtis has served as an ongoing ambassador between deeply disparate worlds. Revisiting his work has brought pause for reflection on the mediumship of his striving and the mystery of the way it has found forward movement through time and place. Curtis is an enigma in that he refused rest in an outsider role and was initiated deeply into the heart of ceremonial life as a part of his striving to represent Native America through the shadows and light of image, audio recording, text, film as well as multimedia symphonic lightshow stage performances. He did this without shifting out of his identity but rather out of a desire for personable humanity. He made himself a ley line emanating out of the spiritual elders of the landscape that went straight into the hearts of power in the colonial landscape – obtaining funding from the wealthiest capitalist of the time, J P Morgan, and a foreword to his great work written by no less than the President of the United States – Theodore Roosevelt. Presence on the land gave him access to both of these divergent realities, which he united by infusing glass and film, and ultimately text in the arguably most artful books ever made in America with poetic constellations of light. It was in his work as a mountain guide on Tahoma that he initiated his connections with the power elite rescuing a climbing party of East Coast aristocrats that went astray in blinding alpine white out conditions.
Sun Dance Encampment – Piegan – Curtis’s participation in this Sun Dance was among the initiatory experience that kept him at work producing the 20 volume North American Indian
From the modern perspective the concepts of earth geomancy and the leyline and the kinesiology of integrity may not be as strong of a reality as it once was for humanity. The experience of resonance has been constricted despite mediated globalization. The visionary Goethean scientist and founder of Anthroposophy, Rudolph Steiner, made observations of this almost a century ago on a visit to the landscapes of the British Isles which are full of these kind of ancient ceremonial human / landscape constellations. He spoke of the earth’s imaginations which meditative clairsentient practice can so readily experience in the ceremonial leys of the megalithic landscape there. He spoke of the impact of modern technologies – the combustion engine and electricity as shattering the subtleties of these imaginations and our capacity to experience them. He spoke of the importance of granite in this kind of experience – often associated with the spirituality of landscapes such as Cornwall (A primary landscape in this authors ancestral history), which is densely megalithic in its constructed forms. The cosmic forces of the stars are absorbed by the crystal structures of the slow cooled igneous rock and are then reradiated as a part of the nutritional energetics that underlies the doctrine of signatures imbedded in the morphology of plants and animals. He led the development of biodynamic agriculture as a way of retaining this cosmic vitality that is absorbed into plants, which grow in humus / biotic rich soils. The ability of our will to take action upon spiritual insight he saw as connected to the quality of this flow of cosmic nutrition into our bodies through food (In research at Washington State University Biodynamically Grown foods have the highest nutritional content compared to other organic / non organic methods).
Morphological form serves as a kind of etheric antennae in which form allies itself to cosmic resonance. Amazingly the Glastonbury Tor, one of the most famous of such megalithic sites, was discovered to be surrounded by a full set of zodiacal constellations – in the very shape of the landscape and still imbedded in the landscape are geographic place names which refer to the land sculptures zodiacal aspects. It is a mystery how the land and visualization of the land came into being – Katharine Maltwood (who later immigrated to Cascadia and has an archive at the U of BC in Victoria), after meditation and overflights of the Tor in the 1920’s photographed the landscape forms and made the geographic place name connections. Have there been ancient flight traditions? Are the seeing / flying ointments based around mugwort that are still in use among those in the Wicca life tradition a source of this kind of landscape experience and knowledge? Is the meditative practice of walking with the landscape an opening? Are the cosmic strengths of the landscape of the British Isles connected to the emergence of English as a world language? Her insights remain controversial yet illustrate a deep sense of continuity and connectedness through the mediumship of the earth.
Druidic tradition, which is carried forward in the once outlawed Gorsedd’s of the Celts, and the until recently outlawed Shamanic traditions of Native America, share cultural primacy of Orality in communication. Sound is one of the most easily experienced forms of resonance. Modern intoxication with the engine has fundamentally challenged our human aural experience of the landscape. Acoustic biologists have documented the continuing diminishment of the size of biological acoustic space. As air traffic and highways and shipping and rail traffic has increased there are now only a handful of sites in existence which regularly have 15 minutes or longer before being polluted by the sound of engines. Biologists in Crater Lake National Park have documented that sound in the 45 dB range interferes with amphibian mating (walking on a path is about 60 dB). Most cities have background levels of 80-90 dB – and it is a logarithmic scale! In the pre combustion world, acoustic space commonly expanded to as great as 17 miles in radius. That space has grown smaller and smaller until it has been reduced by headphones to the size of our own head.
Klamath Chief – Crater Lake – with Mazama Island in Background
The elliptical ball courts of the Mayan (such as found on the San Francisco Peaks of Arizona near one of the four sacred earth breathing openings) are interesting in that when one is in one of the two elliptical centers of the court – the aural experience of the world is reflected so perfectly the world sound feels like it is internal. Sensitivity to this aural experience of the earth is part of the work of ritual use of “hallucinogenic” earth medicines. Peyote experience has been described as opening the sound of the earth’s spin through space to the ears of the soul.
A fundamental insight in communications studies has been that when the primacy of existential experience is mediated – the message of the medium has primacy over the actual content of the medium. Image or text on stone is a message across time – often associated with memorial & burial sites reinforcing in the landscape a social dynamic of power. Image or text on paper is message across distance – often associated with temporalities of empire and commerce across space. The modern global digital mediation is message in simultaneity – time and space are unified. Will this association with simultaneity deepen a hardening and complete shrinking of existentially authentic experience or will it enable a fundamental restructuring of the locus of power and the territory of existential experience? The history of shifts in mediumship is a cautionary tale.
She Who Watches
Historically there are observable patterns in the transformations of mediumship. New mediums are often introduced with sympathetic references to a previous mediums resonance. This eases transitions with familiarity. For example movies initially often used the opening of curtains invoking the live dramatic space of theatre. The Kindle digital reader replicates the look of paper. As a medium develops it goes through a period of innovative diversity and then moves into a period of monopolistic consolidation. Unless there are conscious structural agreements in the body politic these natural forces of monopolistic consolidation overtake access to the medium. This is reflected in the privatization of medium and narrowed ownership of publishing / distribution for books, corporate consolidation / domination of radio and newspapers in the modern moment. Most current peer reviewed research is locked behind excessive pay walls of elite journals. In my city of Portland there are currently only two choices to gain access to the Internet as opposed to the dozens of choices that existed 20 years ago. Both of these companies have lobbied to break net neutrality, which has driven the egalitarian openness that has enabled the creative explosiveness in the digital age. The surveillance / data mining power of those with the biggest computers is now actively being used to screen what information each of us are given access to. Google searches deliver very different results depending on who you are perceived to be by Google. PRISM allows the military to target anyone on the planet based on their digital medium behavior that represents a threat to the values of consolidated US military power and its monopolies of violence.
How does all this connect with Curtis? He is in an unusual cultural position as he was working at the forefront of new transformations of mediumship of cultural communication – within the vibrant edge territory between multiple cultural ecologies and mediumship transitions. His photography work through its artistry seeded revisions in humanizing First Nations people. He actually created the first Mythic Documentary Native Drama on film, which preceded Nanook of the North (it’s producer received direct inspiration and guidance from Curtis). The film was tied up in distribution litigation and never was released nationally – being almost unknown until an old copy was found in a museum archive. The first attempt at viewing resulted in a fire but about ¾’s of the original has been restored. He commissioned symphonic representations of First Nation song, which were performed in Carnegie Hall, and other premiere venues in the country well before other such efforts.
This canoe was commissioned and filmed during the film project.
One might argue with the analysis that Curtis was seeking to communicate a spiritual integrity that could empower the native spirit in its interactions with capitalistic violence. Many of his photographic images were to a certain extent staged. For example men from differing tribes are imaged in the same beaded deerskin shirt, which Curtis carried. In working with the nature of photography of his time much of what he documented was to varying degrees staged. He was attempting to convey forward across time – place based resonances of culture – that were not yet transformed by interactions with the invasions of industrialism. I would argue that he was striving for a visual poetics of archetypal truth – which in his manipulations he was striving to invoke through creative mediumship. His was a cinematic rather than a literalist approach. He succeeded to varying degrees, which from our perspective in time and cultural experience, we may be unable to fully judge.
The original photograph included an alarm clock between the 2 men – which was washed out in development by Curtis
He also contributed to a commodification of culture and could be viewed as mining cultural treasures. His work was only possible through the production possibilities of industrial culture and the funding of a powerful and often ruthless capitalistic banker. He himself never took payment for his work and by its completion was forced to surrender all ownership and copyrights to his lifetime of work to the Morgan family in exchange for the partial funding to complete the work. The Morgan family sold these rights for little during the depression and the work was almost completely lost until it was discovered in the basement of a bookseller in the 1970’s. His primary scholarly work was limited in it’s production by a hefty subscription price of thousands of dollars that could only be afforded by the most wealthy and powerful individuals and institutions.
When he completed his last and what he considered perhaps most significant volume it was at the time following the 1929 crash and was received with a stunning silence. His life ended with the struggles of ill health, depression, poverty and relative isolation.
Today his work is continuing its rise in value. A complete 20-volume copy of his North American Indian recently sold at Christie’s for over $900,000. (Here is a million dollar link to your copy of the North American Indian care of the Library of Congress and Northwestern University)
Perception itself is a highly selective creative act – and often requires cultural initiation in order to be brought to consciousness. The work of scientists reading emotional micro expressions – and the linguistics work of Noam Chomsky and others has provided evidence that deep internal structures of body and aural communication transcends cultural and linguistic differentiations and represent an essentiality of human biological experience that enables resonate cross cultural communication. The very structure of matter in its encoding of memory in the resonances of fundamental particles retains memory and resonential potentials with all that exists in the fields of light and matter. On the other hand shared experience of a landscape and a people becomes encoded in densifying sympathetic resonances of word and symbol that can take a lifetime to comprehend. This is part of the power of mythological storytelling, song and poetic invocation, which has in its imagery and tonal contours encoded condensations of cultural experience that transcend time and place. While each moment contains infinite directions of consciousness potential we are usually only able to hold 5 to 6 foci of attention at a time. Those foci align with the resonate structures of our initiatory experience which aural and expressive language communicates to us out of the lineages of those in our social and experiential environments. When the predictive patterning aligns or defies predictions of our neurally imbedded predictive consciousness patterns we bring waking consciousness up through the infinite possibilities of consciousness. Changes in the predictive harmonic resonances are awakening and initiate the birth of new consciousness. Good Art combines predictive resonance with the unpredicted and ambiguity to court, free and open consciousness.
Time and space is encoded not only in the content of language and symbol but the space and tone, which surrounds and indwells its invocations. The sharing of music attunes a fundamental biological resonance that initiates cross body communications in packs and communities of biological organisms. Bees and ants are examples of individuals who become what biologists call super organisms because of the integration of individual action into a whole system. Early chimeric life forms in the evolutionary history of the planet may have relied much more on the unifying powers of such communication to inform community dynamics – much as we are discovering prokaryotic microorganisms do to this day. Much as we are discovering eukaryotic plant and animal communities do through the mediation of mycelium & pheremonal networks. The simultaneity potential of digital communication underlies a realization of super organism moments in human experience. We could simultaneously make sudden and significant collective changes in our evolutionary expression. This may be prelude to a historic moment whose resonate memory leys are embedded in the languages of mythic symbology.
While Curtis is most known for his work as a photographer it is little known that he took the power of song and language seriously and made over 10,000 recordings of story, song and language. (While this number occurs in multiple texts there are surviving it seems just under a 1000 recordings housed at the University of Indiana in Bloomington – they are curated with sensitivity to the wishes of the First Nations who own the songs.) For much of his career he assembled crews of translators, scholars and artists each winter in remote sites where they worked 18-hour days 7 days a week with outside communications limited to one day a week. He oversaw attempts at crossing the cultural / medium divides out of orality into literacy for over 75 distinct cosmologies and languages. At the outset of his career he participated in the ceremonial life of the communities he encountered beginning with the Sundance. He was over time initiated as a Hopi Snake Priest – though he chose not to participate in the then public ceremonies because of the potential political consequences for his artistic work. These initiatory experiences opened for him an internal experiential access to the generativity of 1000’s of generations of experience in the American landscape. This created an experiential valuation that exceeded the imaginative potential of uninitiated colonists to comprehend – a divide he sought to mediate. He set out to do what he could to awaken through art, new organs of perception that could create a bridge between these worlds.
Kikisoblu known to English speakers as Princess Angeline – Chief Sealths Daughter – The first Native Portrait by Curtis
A recording exists of Princess Angeline singing two of her father Chief Sealth’s Spirit Power songs. After revisiting the work of Curtis I suspect that it was very likely he who made these recordings – though they were made before he owned a recorder. She was his first bridge into the world of Native America. The recordings of these songs were brought out by medicine leaders during a reemergence of old family spirit healing ceremonies that had been resting during the period of intensive cultural genocide which included the banning of spiritual practice of community ceremony in much of Native America.
Later Taqʷšəblu, the late Vi Hilbert, took these recordings to a regional composer and invited a symphonic piece which was performed by the Seattle Symphony in a concert that brought together First Nations from all around the Salish Sea to experience the transformation of these Spirit Power Songs of the North Wind and the Thunderbird through symphonic musical resonance that can live in a modern form – The Healing Heart of our First Nations.
Curtis’s documentation of canoes and paddles and hats… has served as a significant cultural reference from which First Nations in the Paddle culture of the Salish Sea have now reemerged.
His work in our lifetime has been experienced as a path that spirit powers have been communicated across time with. Mediumship that has gone back into fundamentals of living culture through representations of the pattern languages of artifact and the live music being shared at community gatherings.
Similar stories can be found across Indian Country. There is a powerful gift, which he led into a crossing through the mediumship divide.
Ultimately this kind of mediumship can serve as distraction and can endanger what it attempts to support. The full ethical implications are not yet in. This is where some of the controversy lives with his work.
For example, in many of the Spirit Power song traditions here in the Northwest Coast songs are not taught – they are owned by those who they gift themselves to – and for some songs there are lineages of them being received across generations of time – skipping generations in rhythms of their own choosing.
Or there is the story of a people on the Klamath who lost one of their last fluent speakers of language – and a young man who fasted in prayer buried in the earth – and received the language spirit.
Or there is the story of Leonard Crowdog during his time in prison when the government figured out he has a doubled nervous system and was preparing to do experiments on him. He gave his attorneys ceremonial instruction and in two weeks they received the language spirit so he could fully communicate – and successfully got out of the prison within 2 months.
Spirit memory and knowledge is embedded in the landscape and with authentic alignments continues its communications directly without human initiatory mediations. The earth itself can serve as source. All of the living carries the deep resonances imbedded in the languages of cultural experience and place. The presence of electronic and documentary technologies can weaken the single heart minded unity that empowers ceremonial resonance. It is for this reason that it is often excluded from such work.
This photo of Princess Angeline brought him his first early success.
A personal question lies in this territory of digital mediation. To what extent is this a bridge across violence that interrupts the mediation of life wisdoms? To what extent is this a force, which is shattering the delicacies of the rich continuities of earth’s imaginations? Will we have the spiritual will to release ourselves from the bridge across the water – before it becomes the chain and ball that sink us into a destruction of the last tracks of a free spirit. We of the Anthropocene are enduring a great time of loss and perhaps the choice to encode what we know through digital mediation is a bridge for our future generations. Perhaps this is a meditation that prepares us to go back into direct contact, singing, dancing and ceremony with each other on the earth in a softer less violent post industrial / capitalistic age. Scientists might call it the post Anthropocene. Lovers and Artists will likely call it – Heaven on Earth.
Much of Curtis’s work is now made available to all of us through digital mediation and we can each choose to experience what he strived to communicate – take what is there for us and go forward in our own living. For those in America who are in denial about the dignities and creativities and diversities of culture and humanity, which have sustained 500 plus years of attack, his work is a strong counterweight. For those who are recovering culture that was has been banned, forbidden and dispersed his work has had incredible validating and informing value. As our landscapes ecologies are weakened his work has potentials in informing all peoples of the traditions that exist which have been informed by 1000’s of generations with the landscape, and which can inform a more sustainable coexistence with place. These are living traditions, which we can be inspired to connect to through his work. Attention to and with the spiritual elders of the American landscape can give inspiration to the healing potentials, which lie before us. Curtis is a powerful model of the fusion of human warmth and its ability to nourish connection and communication through resonate art making across space and time.
In thinking about this writing’s themes – integrity, leadership and the wisdom of humility have come to mind.
Leadership often arises out of a polar tension between devotion and violence. Those leaders whose spirits are devotional have a spirit of listening and service which inspires those around them to lift them up socially – to push them into leadership. It is out of a pure resonant listening and fidelity of character that they come to be able to articulate and inspire what is at the heart of a people and a landscape. Devotion becomes blessing power. It is through this kind of leader that a peace in the landscape may be nourished and fortified. The integrity of spirit with the earth is represented in the Celtic traditions of the singing stone at Tara when the proper one is crowned there. Or the story of Arthur who by spirit is the one who can withdraw the sword held in the clasp of stone.
Here in Turtle Island imaginations of devotional leadership resonate in the story of the Hopi peoples. As I have heard it, the people followed a path out of the north and chose to pray in a migration that took them to the four corners of Turtle Island. They then chose to center their existence in the dry southwest between 4 sacred mountains. One of the reasons for choosing their homeland was the difficulty of existence there. They chose a place in which their fidelity to spirit and land would be required in order to survive. (They are one of the few First Nations in North America to never be forcibly relocated from their ancestral villages.) Their food grows out of the rain, which largely falls in concert with their rainmaking ceremonies. People today still say you can tell where the ceremonies are by where the rain is falling.
I have had this experience myself. On a visit to White House in Mesa Verde our National Park Service guide was a Hopi man. When I inquired if it was possible to hear people singing the old songs he invited us to join a basket dance on 2nd Mesa. All of the people were gathering in the plaza area where Katchina Spirits were watching over piles of goods to be given away by the families dancing. Women from elders to youth adorned in hand made ceremonials, each dancing barefoot with a unique spirit design basket sang ancient first world songs together as they danced invoking spirit. Snow began to fall and continued to fall as each family brought out new gifts and the praying and singing and celebrating continued. In all of my life I have never been witness to a group of women who moved with such a combination of grounded power, togetherness and gentle artistic humility. Theirs was a message echoing across ages, across the narrowed boundaries between humanity and the majesty of creation. Their artistic fidelity of spirit will humble me all the days of my existence.
There are other reasons for the place that they have chosen as home. I cannot pretend to represent these but there is a story, which reveals a bit of it. There are 4 sacred mountains that center much of creation in the Hopi world. A group of scientists became aware of interesting phenomena that are a part of these mountains. Each mountain has an opening into caves. It was noticed that the air flowing at the mouths of these caves followed a rhythm that corresponds to the lunar tidal rhythms. Air begins to be pulled into the caves until it is rushing in at almost hurricane speeds of 60 mph and then it slows until it comes to a rest. It then slowly begins to flow out of the mountains until it is flowing out at almost hurricane speeds of 60 mph – then slows until it comes back to rest. This is a daily cycle that seems to follow the lunar cycles and is a great breathing between the heart of the earth and the sky. The scientists were curious and decided to tag air going in one of these lung entries and discovered that air coming into one mountain was exhaling from another mountain. These mountains are sharing breathing not only in the sky but deep in the earth as well. This 4 Corners region of Turtle Island is one of the largest high altitude areas and because of that is also a place where the breathing in of stardust, which happens primarily at the poles, extends down into the heart of the continent. The people see themselves as guardians of a breathing of the earth. It is no surprise to me that as Edward Curtis strove to comprehend and represent Native America to the world he became most closely aligned with the Hopi whom he spent the most time with and was initiated into priesthood with. An initiation that required he be wrapped in live rattlesnakes guaranteeing his fidelity to spirit.
Chief Joseph – Hinmuuttu-yalatlat (alternatively Hinmaton-Yalaktit or Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, Nez Perce: “Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain” or ‘,Hinmatóoyalahtq’it – “Thunder traveling to higher areas”)
The influence of Curtis work has held back the capacity of many people to see modern Native American’s as both traditional people and modern people. The Swinomish / Tulalip artist Matika Wilbur is entering the 2nd year of a 4 year project to photo document 562 First Nations in the USA as both modern and traditional people. Here is her blog with links to her TED talk and her Kickstarter. A very powerful response to the legacy of Curtis and the modern moment.