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by | Jun 24, 2024

TEN INDIGENOUS HISTORY BOOKS

A thoroughly subjective selection, acquired at thrift and used book stores in southern Ontario

For National Indigenous History Month, this is the pick of what I’ve come across and coveted, for one reason or another (notably delight to the eye), in forming the indigenous section at the Shinnstitute library. It reflects what’s been published and passed on in my neck of the woods, as well as my interaction with serendipity. Thus somewhat randomly acquired, there are obvious gaps—nothing about Africa, for instance, but plenty of North America. The main focus of this selection is the historic culture of indigenous people, through what they said and wrote and made, and how they were, as published in a distinguished variety of English-language books, over the years.

Facsimile, 5 x 8½”, by Prospero Press, 2001, from the 1850 Charles Gilpin edition. The text type is a Scotch Modern, Great Primer size (14/18 pt.)

1. The Ojibway Nation, by George Copway (Kah-ge-ga-gah-Bowh), Chief of the Ojibway Nation, 1850.

Copway (1818-1869) was an ethnographer, historian, best-selling author, celebrity, lecturer, activist and Methodist missionary. An intellectual polymath, certainly. His best-known work is a brilliant compendium of history, culture and advocacy, entirely in keeping with the nationalist sentiment of the age (as demonstrated by Walter Scott, for example). Here is documented the wars between the Ojibway and the Sioux, Iroquois and Hurons, collated from the oral recollections of knowledge keepers; the lifestyle, games, language, legends and religion of his people; and his analysis and proposals for dealing with colonization. While acknowledging the disastrous effects of settler guns, commerce and disease, and especially alcohol, he was also critical of the “wild and warring ways” of Native Americans, and a firm believer in modern civilization and Christian education.

The large size of the text type in this book indicates that it is not “literature”, but rather addresses a potential educational market, while also demonstrating the breadth of Copway’s political intent, which is made clear in the final chapter, reproducing his plans for a self-governed Native American state, as published in several newspapers of the day.

10½ x 9½”, published by Firefly Books, Toronto, 1985. Designed by Howard Pain. Typeface: Palatino.

2. Kenojuak, by Jean Blodgett, 1985.

This monograph of Kenojuak Ashevak (1927-2013) contains the Inuit artist’s autobiography and excellent reproductions of her prints. Those Inuit of her generation, raised in a lifestyle largely pre-contact, who became artists, were a special bridge between ancient indigenous and modern global society, made possible by the genres of art—small sculpture and block prints—mediated by artist-entrepreneurs James A. Houston and Kananginak Pootoogook, the founders of the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative in 1957.

Following the adoption of the primitive style by Picasso and the modern school as an aspect of gallery art, Inuit artistic creativity, which had been considered decorative handicraft, was transformed into discretely significant icons of some worth, in the form of steatite carvings and stonecut (block) prints by named artists, to great acclaim internationally. After the European fashion of the division of labour between artist and manufacturer (Doré is said to have employed 40 different engravers to work up his sketches, at one time or another), Kenojuak’s felt-pen artwork was stone cut and printed by artisans at the Co-op in Dorset Bay (now Kinngait). In other media, Owl (above) also appeared on a Canadian postage stamp in 1970.

7 x 10¼”, published by Mead & Beckett, Sydney, 1987; first published 1966. Typeface: Bembo.

3. The Fatal Impact: The Invasion of the South Pacific, 1767–1840, by Alan Moorhead, 1987.

The discovery, by the industrial nations, of a civilization from a much earlier age, their cultural youth or so they believed, was a shock to both parties. For the indigenous, an existential tragedy, for the Europeans, a new perspective of self-awareness, fomenting the ideology of progress. There is a morbid fascination in this richly designed and illustrated book, because one knows that the story will not end well.

11½ x 14¾”, Printed by Joh. Enchedé, Haarlem. Fonts: Perpetua Title, Perpetua, and Times, 11/15.

4. Oceanic Sculpture, by Carl A. Schmitz, photographed by F. L. Kennet, Oldbourne Press, London, 1962.

The depth of tonality and fine detail in these enormous gravure prints is profoundly engrossing, it really makes one appreciate the skill involved in creating such fantastically bizarre masks and carvings—not to mention the expertise of photographer and printer. All the objects are in museums in Germany and Switzerland.

8½ x 11”, designed by Charles Gl. Behrens, printed in Sweden by Nordisk Rotogravyr, Stockholm. Text: Stempel Garamond, 12/15.

5. Nomads of the North, photographs by Anna Riwkin-Brick, text by Elly Jannes. Macmillan, New York, 1953.

A picture book, designed in the manner of Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White’s You Have Seen Their Faces (1937) with large bleed photos, asymmetric layouts, and single paragraph captions. This is photojournalism, telling the story of a year in the life of Sámi reindeer herders in Northern Sweden. Page after page of beautiful photogravure, and these folk, dressed in traditional pre-synthetic fashion, with their dogs, goats and caribou, in vast barren landscapes—a marvelous impression.

7¾ x 9¾”, duotone with spot warm grey title. Published by Taschen, Köln, 2004. Designed by Andy Disl and Birgit Reber. Text: Sabon, 10/13.

6. Edward S. Curtis, by Hans Christian Adam, Taschen, 2004.

The task that photographer Edward Curtis (1868-1952) set himself was gargantuan. Not only to document all the indigenous tribes of North America, but also to publish the work as a twenty volume encyclopaedia, with over two thousand photogravure prints, ethnological commentary, and sound recordings. The North American Indian was a serious and very expensive project that took him and a host of assistants from 1907 to 1930 to complete, and it would not have been possible without the enthusiastic support of President Theodore Roosevelt and the financial backing of plutocrat J. P. Morgan. The photographs presented a carefully staged, romantic and idealized notion of indigenous peoples and their traditions, for which they were proud and willing collaborators. As the record of an historical culture, if not the “vanishing race” it sought to eulogize, it was a magnificent preservative vision, not too unlike that conjured in Williamsburg and various “Pioneer Villages” and Native American heritage centres throughout North America today. Of the many Curtis books, Taschen does a superb job of subtly reproducing his gravure prints.

Jean Malaurie, centre, and fellow travellers, photographed by Padtloq, Ellesmere Island, 1951. 10¼ x 13”, full colour, 175 line screen. (One of the few photographs in the book not taken by Malaurie, although with his camera.)

7. The Call of the North: An Explorer’s Journey to the North Pole, by Jean Malaurie, Abrams, New York, 2001.

The large colour reproductions of photographs that geographer Jean Malaurie (1922-2024) took 75 years ago are remarkably fresh. Compared with the always picturesque work of professional photojournalists such as Richard Harrington, his shots have a bland immediacy of style, but made art by the passage of time, to paraphase Susan Sontag.*

An Inuit photographer, Peter Pitseolak, was active concurrently, but I haven’t come across his work in book form, and it was in black and white so far as I know. Malaurie’s photography, reproduced in fine detail at large size, with the high quality production values of a Harry Abrams publication, creates a vivid frisson of otherness—one doesn’t expect pictures from so long ago to be so big, clear and colourful, as if they were taken yesterday.

6 x 9”, designed by Ingrid Paulson. Chapter headings: Bell Gothic Bold, 22/23. Text: Dante, 11/14 pt.

8. Bill Reid and Beyond: Expanding on Modern Native Art, edited by Karen Duffek and Charlotte Townsend-Gault, Douglas Macintyre, Vancouver, 2004.

These essays discuss Haida artist Bill Reid (1920-1998) with regard to race and identity, authenticity and modernity, commerce and politics. Through such a lens, his work, so very much of another age, bears comparison with that, so very different, of today’s best-known Canadian indigenous artist, Kent Monkman—as do these essays, with current thought on the issues.

4¾ x 7¼”. Text: Caslon, 11/13 pt.

9. The Gospel of the Redman: an Indian Bible, by Ernest Thompson Seton, 1937, Methuen and Co., London.

In this treatise compiled during the Great Depression, not long after the Great War, the culture of the North American Indian is recommended “as an improvement on our own.” Seton (1860-1946) was a white Toronto artist and writer who became one of the founders of the Boy Scouts of America, incorporating aboriginal “woodcraft” skills and otherwise appropriating elements of indigenous life. Nevertheless, he and his wife Julia here created a work of sincere probity, based on the recommendations of a committee of men and women, five American Indians and five whites. Included are several indigenous texts and biographies, and many footnotes. The spirituality that the Setons observed is party to the idea of a commonality amongst religions, emerging in the United States in the late 19th century, prompted perhaps by the objective eye cast upon the human race by the new establishments of anthropology and sociology, and also apparent in the new religions of Bahá’í and Theosophy.

10½ x 8½”. Font: Baskerville, 14/15 pt.

10. Talking Stones: John Howard Payne’s Story of Sequoya, by Althea Bass, The Colophon, A Book Collectors Quarterly, the first part for 1932.

Bass introduces The Life of George Gist [Sequoya], translated from the original Cherokee of John Huss in 1835, and collected in the papers of John Howard Payne, actor, poet and playwright. For the bibliophile type designer, this article is pure catnip, especially with its elegant letterpress printing in an obscure cut of Baskerville. Sequoya was the inventor of the Cherokee syllabic alphabet, the inspiration for encoding many indigenous languages around the world. The Cherokee type was cast in New York in 1828 and found immediate use in the Cherokee Phoenix, a bilingual newspaper in New Echota, capital of the Cherokee nation in what is now Georgia, prior to the ethnic cleansing mandated by the Removal Act of 1830. ●

 

* “Photography’s adoption by the museum only accelerates that process which time will bring about anyway: making all work valuable.” —Susan Sontag, On Photography, Delta, 1977, p. 141.