The Edward Curtis Project
Contemporary Native photojournalist Angeline is traumatized by having to chronicle the freezing death of three Aboriginal children; she is grappling with the irony of winning an award for a newsworthy article and the deeper implications of such a tragedy. Unable to erase the mental image of their young, frozen bodies, Angeline becomes increasingly tormented by what she witnessed and begins to question her own mixed heritage identity and place within North American society.
In an attempt to help her heal, Angeline is given a crucifix by her father, a rock by her First Nation boyfriend, and a book of Edward Curtis’ collection The North American Indian by her sister Dr. Clara, a psychiatrist with “porcelain skin”. It is the latter gift that launches Angeline into deeper self-reflective despair as she identifies with the caption, The Vanishing Indian. The beauty of Curtis’ images both haunts and challenges her.
As she moves through her breakdown (categorized by Angeline herself as a “breakthrough”), she invokes the controversial photographer who documented thousands of photographs of First Nation subjects over a 30-year period. Her encounters with the imaginary historic figure help clarify who this man was, how he worked, and the reasons for – and impact of – his passion. Her visions include flashbacks to Curtis’ stressed relationship with his wife Clara, his lecture series, and interactions with his First Nation translator, Alexander Upshaw , along with the photographer’s very first subject, “Princess Angeline”.
Angeline’s imaginings are intermittently interrupted by her sister, from whom she becomes increasingly estranged. She questions Dr. Clara’s lifestyle and life choices, and imposes on her sister her own perception of a sibling who, although of the same lineage, has “…not the same colour of skin, so not the same reality”. She questions the concept of success and by whose terms it should be defined.
Yiska, Angeline’s boyfriend of the N’lakap’mux First Nation, is also represented and merges with characters from the past. He is a traditional person who attempts to anchor Angeline while warding off the influence and impact of white society, which she is both part of and struggling against.
As Angeline wrestles with the question of her own vanishing race, either by harsh reality, as in the tragic deaths of the young Inuit children, or by cultural appropriation, as in the staged impressions of Curtis’ work, she sinks further into the abyss of an identity crisis both as a “successful” journalist and a Canadian of mixed blood heritage.
In the end, she manages to rise above her conflict knowing that she will not vanish: she has survived, her people have survived and that, in itself, is an accomplishment.