THE LAST FRONTIER
True West|September 2021
EDWARD CURTIS’S FINAL ADVENTURE
JAMES D. BALESTRIERI

What we know: He was 59. He had a bad hip after a whale upended his boat while he was making a film. He would travel to Alaska with his daughter, Beth, a first for both of them and something that pleased him greatly.

What he knew: He knew this would be the last chapter in the adventure of The North American Indian, that the photographs he took, the languages and stories he set down would comprise the 20th and final volume in the series. He knew that he would not be able to circle back to Alaska again, as he had done with the Hopis, where only patience and persistence after years of visits earned him a place in the kiva and in the sacred Snake Dance.

What we don’t know: Even from the pages of the diary he kept, we don’t know whether or not he took the Alaskan adventure as an opportunity to look back over his life: his travels, trials, travails and triumphs.

What he didn’t know: He didn’t know that this would be the final adventure of his life. To the very end of his days, he expected that there would be other journeys. He also didn’t know that on his return from Alaska, when he arrived in Seattle, the sheriff ’s deputies would be there to arrest him at the behest of his ex-wife, Clara, for nonpayment of alimony, and that he would be subjected to a humiliating, very public set of hearings. At those hearings he would describe his avocation, his passion and his single-minded drive to achieve it. The man was Edward S. Curtis. The month was October 1927. In June of that year, Curtis, Beth and a college student named Eastwood, who had proven himself game on Curtis’s last trip to Oklahoma, sailed from Seattle to Nome.

They sailed past the place in British Columbia where Curtis had made the first all-Indigenous film, one that Hollywood had ginned up with the preposterous title, In the Land of the Head-Hunters ( for more on Curtis’s film, see page 66). The film had been a critic’s darling and a box office dud and had cost Curtis dearly, even more if you count his whale-smashed hip.

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