In “Unpublished Alaska,” a glimpse of Bering Sea communities during a period of historic change

“Edward S. Curtis: Unpublished Alaskan Photographs and Personal Diaries”

By Colleen Graybill; Wedley Press; 308 pp; $129.95

On September 10, 1927, photographer Edward S. Curtis wrote in his diary as he prepared to sail from Kotzebue to Cape Prince of Wales: ” The waterway here opens in July and closes at the end of August.” “The local boatmen won’t try.”

Try he did. He is completing his life’s work.

Curtis is a renowned photographer who spent decades working on a 20-volume project called “Indians of North America,” documenting Native Americans across the African continent in the early 20th century. His trip to Alaska was the final voyage for the last volume, and the resulting photographs were too numerous to include. Now, more than 100 of these nearly invisible images can be found in “Unpublished Alaska,” a collection of Alaskan history books, thanks to the Curtiss Legacy Foundation and Colleen Graybill, wife of Curtiss great-grandson John Edward Graybill A wonderful addition to the museum.

“Unpublished Alaska” is essentially two interrelated books rolled into one. This is a beautifully crafted photobook of Alaskans Natives living on the Bering Sea during a time of historic change, as well as a travelogue. Curtis was accompanied by his daughter Beth throughout much of the trip, and the diaries each kept provided text. This combination allows for a double examination of time and place, both acknowledging Indigenous peoples and gaining insight into the perceptions of newcomers in parts of the world still unknown to Americans.

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In early June of that summer, Edward and Beth left Seattle with Stewart Eastwood, Curtis’s longtime assistant, and their diaries tell a story. One advantage of reading a diary rather than a memoir is to get an idea of ​​the individual’s thoughts, not retrospect. So, on June 14, Beth described the first ice floes that came into view as “big chunks of oddly shaped ice…beautiful shades of blue and green.” Just four days later, she was caught by the The ice held off the shore indefinitely, waiting for the channel to open, she lamented: “What’s worse, we’re all tired of the ice.”

It’s subtleties like this that make the written narrative so compelling. As Edward prepares to flee Kotzebue ahead of the winter storms that are already sweeping the open waters, he has weathered some of the harshest seas known to navigators. We know this because we’ve been with him so far.

Portrait of a woman named Ko-kong-gik in The Little Diomede, 1927

Curtis was forced to see as many villages as possible in one season. When the group finally disembarked in Nome (“It looked like an abandoned mining town,” he wrote), they purchased a 40-foot boat called the Jewel Guard. Led by a man named Harry the Fish, they sail across rough seas to remote settlements, where Edward focuses his camera on the people, places, and things before speeding away.

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The photographs presented in this book capture snippets of everyday life on the islands of Nunivak, Kings, and Little Diomede, as well as on Selavik, Noatak, Hooper Bay, and elsewhere. Traditional livelihoods are still very important in practice and evidence, but things are slowly changing. Gasoline engines for ships are already available. Curtis reprimanded the missionaries, humorously, viciously, for they had arrived. School starts. The American mail that Party Craft helped deliver, as well as the wireless telegraph, have only recently created new forms of communication between communities. In most places, the arrival of the party is expected.

The photos themselves are mesmerizing. On Nunivak Island, a young boy with the face of a lifelong hard worker stands next to kayaks (these kayaks were invented centuries ago in the Bering Sea and are perfect for the Bering Sea conditions, Still a novelty at the time for Americans and Europeans, they didn’t even have an accepted spelling). In Selawik, a man emerges from the entrance of a house covered with sod, which is partly built underground and widely used in the area.

As we know from Edward’s journals, just reaching Little Diomede was an ordeal in itself, but he captured some remarkable images there. One of the best is called “Carrying a Boat into the Water”, which shows a hunter with a small boat on his head, facing the sea, as if preparing to launch into the water.

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launch a boat

This photo is most likely posed, as are many others, apparently. Over the years, Curtis’ work has received some criticism for having Native Americans across the continent wear traditional clothing and pose for formal cameras, rather than documenting everyday life (he actually did both). It’s worth remembering that a significant portion of Curtis’ income comes from studio photography. Many of the photographs included here, including “Boat into the Water,” are works of artistic portraiture and historical resources.

Curtis approaches the individuals he chooses as topics in the same way he approaches wealthy patrons in his studio. The photo of female O-la (Nashoalook) from Noatak captures her beauty and dignity and provides a wonderful look at the fur collar of her parka. This is one of many such photographs he took there and elsewhere.

Tools, racks, boats, dwellings and more (including Kings Island’s famous cliff houses) were also photographed. Readers will see what residents of these communities see every day. The simple yet strikingly beautiful “Crew Oars” captures five men in an open boat near Little Diomede, basking in the subarctic sun.

As with any historical document, some diary entries are ill-advised by today’s standards, but that should not detract from the importance of this book. The Curtis family is traveling through a world alien to the country that owns it. They document it and humanize it in a way that Americans can understand and hopefully help build understanding. Their work allows us to understand their time and how it led to ours. “Unpublished Alaska” has a lot to offer.


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