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Painted lodges - Piegan. Edward S. Curtis

[Detail] Painted lodges - Piegan. Edward S. Curtis

Native American Rituals

Although photographs capturing sacred ceremonies were seldom if ever permitted, Curtis persuaded some nations to permit him to photograph ritual dances as a means of preserving a record of cultural traditions. Curtis staged some photographs of sacred rites, brushing out tourists who may have been captured in the background.

The Hopi snake dance ritual, performed as an incantation to bring rain for an abundant harvest, was one of the rituals photographed by Curtis. While the dancer clutched a rattlesnake in his teeth, he was followed by a "hugger," who calmed the snake with a feathered stick. Once the dance concluded, the snakes were released in the plaza, where women sprinkled them with cornmeal. Runners would pick up the snakes and carry them in four directions before releasing them in the desert. According to Hopi tradition, the snakes return to the underworld carrying prayers to the rain god. Examine Curtis's photographs showing different elements of the Hopi ritual dance, as well as photographs of other dances intended to bring rain:

  • Why were ceremonial rain dances common in the American Southwest?
  • In his captions, how does Curtis explain the ceremonies?
  • Evaluate Curtis's portrayal of ritual ceremonies. Did he show respect for cultural traditions or do his captions ridicule the ceremonies? Explain.

Examine photographs of the Arikara medicine ceremony "The Ducks", the Qagyuhl ceremony to restore an eclipsed moon, and "Peyote Drummer". Analyze Curtis's captions for clues to his view of ceremonial practices.

  • What judgment does Curtis make regarding interference in Native American religious practices and rituals?
  • Do the captions to these three photographs indicate that Curtis was an unbiased recorder or do they reflect his personal values regarding different Indian ceremonies?