This photo comes from Northwestern University's online edition of Edward Curtis's massive, multivolume work, The North American Indian (1907-1930). Curtis is not highly thought of as a photographic ethnographer, mainly because his photographs were staged, he often paid people to pose for them, and he sometimes retouched his images to create a more picturesque effect (Vizenor). However,
Edward Curtis presented his photographs, notes and cultural observations as ethnographic. He argues against those detractors who petitioned the government that he was not a trained ethnographer, and that his work was not decisive. Three generations later the native heirs choose his photographic images for reasons other than the politics of the social sciences. Perhaps natives praise the visual analogy. Curtis pictures may, in fact, be the choice of more natives than any other photographer. (Vizenor)
Vizenor considers this preference to be based on aesthetics rather than ethnographic propriety, and I think it very properly is. It would certainly not surprise me if most ordinary people, Native Americans included, have a good deal more sympathy with the photographer as the active illustrator of a personal narrative than as the passive and impartial stenographer of a particular moment in time. So have I, for that matter. The photos are beautiful, and if Curtis removed a clock from one scene or an anomalous belt buckle from another, it was only to recreate the spirit of his narrative, which is based on interviews with eyewitnesses from within the Native American cultures he was documenting. As Mick Gidley of Leeds University writes:
Edward Sheriff Curtis' The North American Indian was a truly magnificent effort to record a vast amount of very many of these aboriginal cultures. Published between 1907 and 1930 in twenty volumes of illustrated text and twenty portfolios containing more than seven hundred large-sized photogravures, The North American Indian, which was issued in a very limited edition and sold rather expensively on a subscription basis, contains millions of words: descriptions of homelands; accounts of religious beliefs that some might find strange; accounts of tribal organizations ranging from the aristocratic to the casually democratic; records of ceremonies so subtle in their significance, or so seemingly bizarre, that an alien eyewitness could easily not understand what it all meant; versions of haunting myths, songs and stories; descriptions of domestic chores and of intricate and skilled arts and hunting practices; and heroic tales of arms and men. In short. The North American Indian is a monument in words and pictures to a range of cultures which most white men could not or would not see.
And as far as paying people for their time is concerned, it's a quite a bit more considerate than using people to get yourself tenured and giving them nothing but a firm handshake in return.