Books

Book review: In “Unpublished Alaska,” a glimpse of Bering Sea communities during a period of historic change

“Edward S. Curtis: Unpublished Alaska - Photographs & Personal Journal”

“Edward S. Curtis: Unpublished Alaska-Photographs & Personal Journal”

By Coleen Graybill; Vedere Press; 308 pages; $129.95

“Navigation here opens in July and closes at the end of August,” the photographer Edward S. Curtis wrote in his diary on Sept. 10, 1927, as he prepared to sail from Kotzebue to Cape Prince of Wales. “Local boatmen would not attempt it.”

Attempt it he did. He was finishing his life’s work.

Curtis was a renowned photographer who spent decades pursuing a project titled “The North American Indian,” a 20-volume series documenting Native Americans across the continent during the early 20th century. His trip to Alaska was the final journey for the final volume, and it produced more photos than could be included. Now, thanks to the Curtis Legacy Foundation and Coleen Graybill, the wife of Curtis’ great-grandson John Edward Graybill, more than 100 of these mostly unseen images can be found in “Unpublished Alaska,” a wonderful addition to any library of Alaska history.

“Unpublished Alaska” is essentially two interrelated books in one. It’s a beautifully produced collection of photographs taken of Alaska Natives living on the Bering Sea during a period of historic change, and it’s a travelogue. For much of the trip, Curtis’ daughter Beth accompanied him, and the diaries that each kept provide the text. The combination enables a dual examination of time and place, one that acknowledges the Indigenous inhabitants while providing insight into how this region of the world, still largely unknown to Americans, appeared to newcomers.

Edward and Beth departed Seattle with Curtis’ longtime assistant Stewart Eastwood early in June that summer, a story told through their journals. One advantage of reading diaries rather than memoirs is getting the thoughts of individuals as they happened, not in retrospect. Thus, on June 14, Beth described the first ice floes to greet her eyes as “large pieces in the most fantastic shapes...beautiful in their blue and green shades of color.” A mere four days later, indefinitely blocked from shore by that ice and awaiting the opening of a passage, she bemoaned, “Worse and worse, we are all becoming bored with the ice.”

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It’s subtleties like this that make the written accounts so compelling. By the time Edward was preparing to escape Kotzebue ahead of the winter storms, which were already smashing across the open water, he had endured some of the worst seas known to navigators. We know this because we’ve accompanied him thus far already.

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

Curtis was compelled to see as many villages in a single season as possible. When the party finally disembarked in Nome (“it has the look of what it is,” he wrote, “a deserted mining town”), they purchased a 40-foot boat named the Jewel Guard. Skippered by a man known as Harry the Fish, they headed out on rough seas for remote settlements, where Edward aimed his lens at people, places and things, and snapped away.

The photographs on offer in this book capture pieces of daily life on Nunivak, King and Little Diomede Islands, as well as Selawik, Noatak, Hooper Bay and elsewhere. Traditional subsistence was still very much in practice and evidence, but slowly things were changing. Gasoline engines for watercraft had been introduced. Missionaries, whom Curtis railed against sometimes humorously and other times with venom, had arrived. Schools had opened. The U.S. mail, which the party’s craft helped deliver, as well as the wireless telegraph, had only recently created new methods of communication between communities. In most places, the party’s arrival was expected.

The photos themselves are enthralling. On Nunivak, a small boy with the face of a man who has spent his life working hard stands alongside a kayak (these boats, invented centuries ago in the Bering Sea and perfect for use under its conditions, were at the time still such a novelty to Americans and Europeans that there wasn’t even an accepted spelling for them). In Selawik, a man emerges from the entrance to one of the sod-covered homes, partially built into the ground, that were widely used throughout the region.

Just getting to Little Diomede was an ordeal in itself, as we learn from Edward’s journal, but there he captured some remarkable images. The best among them, titled “Carrying a boat to water,” shows a hunter with a boat atop and over his head, his posture directed towards the sea, as if preparing to launch.

Carrying boat to the water

This photograph was in all likelihood posed, and many others clearly were. There has been some criticism of Curtis’ work over the years for having Native Americans across the continent dress in traditional clothing and pose for formal shots, rather than documenting daily life (in practice he did both). Worth keeping in mind is that Curtis derived no small portion of his income from studio photography. Many of the photographs included here, including “Carrying a boat to water,” are works of artistic portraiture as well as historic resources.

Curtis approached the individuals he chose as topics in the same manner that he did wealthy patrons in his studio. The picture of O-la (Nashoalook), a woman from Noatak, captures her beauty and dignity, as well as provides a wonderful look at the fur ruff of her parka. It’s one of numerous such photos he took there and elsewhere.

Tools, racks, boats, dwellings and more (including the famous cliff homes of King Island) were also captured on film. Readers will see what residents of these communities saw each day. The simple yet stunningly beautiful “Boat manned by men with oars” captures five men in an open boat off Little Diomede, bathed in subarctic sunlight.

As with any historic document, some of the diary entries are impolitic by today’s standards, but this should not diminish the importance of this book. The Curtises were traveling through a world foreign to the nation that held it. They documented it and humanized it in ways that made it accessible to Americans, and hopefully, helped build understanding. And their work left us with an understanding of their time and how it led to ours. “Unpublished Alaska” has much to offer.

David James

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based critic and freelance writer. He can be reached at nobugsinak@gmail.com.

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