Upshaw, Curtis, and some of the Legacy of Columbus

19 Oct

James Schaap is not a historian. (He is not always attentive to the detail that preoccupy historians, such as Carlisle, not Carlyle.)

Nonetheless, as an emeritus professor at our friendly rival college Dordt, he does well in calling our attention to Alexander B. Upshaw. Upshaw was a Crow Indian who assimilated to white American culture. Ironically, notes Schaap, he also became indispensable to Edward Curtis. Curtis, a white American, became obsessed with capturing American Indian traditional life through photographs.

Schaap reflects on Upshaw, with the help of author Timothy Egan and a photograph of Upshaw by Curtis (you can find Schaap’s full reflections here: the12 – James Schaap – Columbus Day):

What’s ironic and immensely sad is that Alexander B. Upshaw became, in essence, exactly what the Carlyle philosophy determined he should be–he was educated in the ways of the white people, he was industrious and ambitious, he was interested in history and culture and ethnology, he even married a white woman–although that was, to many, a step too far. Even though all of that was true, he suffered immense prejudice and personal problems.

Edward Curtis’s debt to Alexander B. Upshaw was significant, and Curtis makes that clear in his own acknowledgements.  Without him, Curtis would not have determined that Custer’s death at Little Big Horn lacked the elements of heroism which white America attached to it when it happened in 1876.  Upshaw translated the memories of Crow warriors who had acted as guides to the Seventh Calvary because of their own hatred of the Sioux and Cheyenne. Those elders made it clear that they believed Custer had watched American troops die in the attack on Captain Reno, his colleague, because Custer was interested in greater glory for himself, a critique which still haunts the story that rises from the open plains at the Little Big Horn.

Upshaw eventually became a critic of Washington’s continuing abandonment of the Native people they’d dispossessed.  During those later years, he frequently drank too much, and eventually died in a stupor in a Montana jail.  To this day, the Crow people claim he was beaten by those who thought they had reason to hate him, then dragged behind bars to die.  

The portrait Curtis took of Alex Upshaw is itself mightily ambiguous. Upshaw didn’t have traditional long hair. He dressed in jeans and the kinds of buttoned shirts Curtis himself wore.  At the turn of the 20th century, Alex Upshaw didn’t look “Indian.” Day to day, he looked like a good grad of Carlyle school.

Yet the portrait (above) has him in a war bonnet and authentic Native accouterments.

Was it Curtis who wanted him to look like his people traditionally looked? Or did Curtis just want something akin to a cigar store Indian?  Or was it Upshaw himself, perhaps, who wanted to appear as if he were “a blanket Indian”?  Does that famous photograph show him honestly or deceptively?  And what did he think of posing as he did?

Schaap closes by noting Columbus Day, and calls us to “remember the story of indigenous people in this country.”



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