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A Cannibal in the Archive: Performance, Materiality, and (In)Visibility in Unpublished Edward Curtis Photographs of the Kwakwaka'wakw Hamat'sa



The frequently published photographs of Native Americans taken by Edward S. Curtis in the early 20th century have come to embody the proud, sorrowful, and romantic Indian in the American imaginary. In this article, I explore two alternate venues for the circulation of his images: the 1911 lantern slide “picture opera” and the photographic archive. In particular, I examine a series of unpublished photographs that Curtis took of George Hunt—Curtis's and Franz Boas's longtime collaborator—posed as a Kwakwaka'wakw Hamat'sa (“Cannibal Dancer”). The photographs allowed Curtis to visualize an outdated, rumored-about, and previously secret ritual, while his recontextualization of them in the picture opera momentarily publicized and spectacularized them before they were relegated to the archive. This article critically examines ethnographic photographs as they both construct and obscure cultural realities based on their unique materialities and paths of circulation. It also explores the relationship of performance to such photographs at various moments and suggests that recognition of indigenous agency in the creation of ethnographic images has implications for their later modes of interpretation, especially by Native people themselves.