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Navajo as Principals and Bit Players


How coincidental that this week finds celebrated singer Alanis Morissette and controversial photographer Edward S. Curtis both in Navajoland.

Separated by nearly a century, that is, with Morissette opening MTV's gorgeously filmed new "Music in High Places" out West and the prolific Curtis--who died in 1952 after making 40,000 photos of Native Americans--the subject of a highly worthy "American Masters" documentary on PBS. Don't be deterred by its leaden title, "Coming to Light: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indians."

No lead in these feet. Collective Soul in Morocco, Brian McKnight in Brazil and Shawn Colvin in French Polynesia are this week's acts following Morissette on "High Places," a series of programs that previously aired on DirecTV satellite service.

"I could definitely envision myself living amongst these people many, many years ago," Morissette says, wistfully, atop a ridge overlooking Arizona's picturesque Monument Valley before singing with her band.

There's far worse on TV at midnight than Morissette--whose artistry and sensitivity are widely admired--performing acoustically, taking in the sights, riding a white horse, joining a drum circle, bonding with locals, wearing braids and playing soul sister in a place of mystique and majesty.

She seems sincere when wanting to "immerse myself" in the Navajo culture during this TV crash course, and also later when expressing her euphoria of the moment: "Several times during this trip, I decided definitely I was moving here and I was gonna live in a hogan, and I still might do that."

A hogan is a typical Navajo dwelling. And if you're skeptical about Morissette moving into one, it's because she appears as connected to the topography behind her as KNBC's Fritz Coleman is to his weather map.

Here is Curtis early in Anne Makepeace's film, "Coming to Light," meanwhile, barely into the 20th century when photographing, filming and getting tight with residents of Arizona's Canyon de Chelly, whose red sandstone walls are also a backdrop for Morissette in a program appearing to seek out locations and experiences for her that coincide with her lyrics.

As for Curtis, this is total immersion, his three decades of research yielding 20 landmark volumes of "The North American Indian" plus 10,000 recordings and those photographs, all of it in a quest to archive every tribe in the West still practicing traditional ways.

Although brownish and primitive compared with the stunning panorama of "High Places," many of Curtis' photos are transcendent, the lined and creviced faces of his subjects surviving as road maps of their histories and as inspiration to their offspring.

"That's my mother," Ethel Mahle, a 95-year-old Hopi, says excitedly about Curtis' photo of a woman making a thin pancake from blue corn.

Riley Sunrise, an aged Hopi who says he carried water and cameras for Curtis as a boy, identifies his grandfather from another photo. It's Sikyalestiwa, the same tribal leader who, after years of lobbying by Curtis, finally initiated the photographer into the tribe's Snake Society.

It's obvious that Curtis' pictures profoundly affect the descendants of many of these subjects, whose sense of sacredness led them to place limits on what he could photograph.

He made sure his work centered on them, not him. In contrast, it's a toss-up in "High Places" whether there's more footage of the land or of Morissette looking at the land. On the other hand, Curtis' agenda was different than hers, and unlike Morissette, he didn't play the flute.

Not that show biz didn't intersect his life, as well. Curtis has been accused of altering reality, most notably regarding "In the Land of the Headhunters," his 1914 "ethnographic" movie in which he sought to depict the lives of Native Americans in the north by showing them whale hunting. The whale they were seen hunting was leased, and already dead.

Well before that, Curtis had been retouching his negatives to erase modern day objects that showed assimilation and detracted from the images of Native Americans he wanted to present. He was also said to have manipulated them by having them stage for his camera ceremonies in ritual clothing they no longer wore, thereby perpetuating stereotypes.

Observing Curtis' shots of Navajos performing a healing dance in 1904, someone remarks about the dress they're wearing: "It's just like . . . a tuxedo."

Regardless, says another Native American impressed by a Curtis photo of his grandfather, "you can't stage the determination and the eyes."

There's dancing, too, in tonight's "High Places," which ends with Morissette and her entourage joining hands with Navajos and gliding around a large fire. As they do, you search her eyes and wonder if that determination is staged.

Meanwhile, her hogan is waiting.

* "Music in High Places" can be seen tonight at midnight on MTV.

* PBS American Masters' "Coming to Light: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indians" can be seen Friday at 9 p.m. on KCET-TV. PBS has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).


Howard Rosenberg's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be contacted via e-mail at

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