Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

In Montgomery: Historic photos of Native Americans by Edward Curtis January 31, 2020

Prints of Edward Curtis photos now exhibited at the Montgomery Arts and Heritage Center.


BENEATH PORTRAITS OF KOLACKY DAYS queens, early 1900s era sepia-tone photos stretch along walls and grace tables in the narrow room. Prints of images taken by a man considered one of America’s greatest photographers. Edward S. Curtis.


A permanent exhibit of Kolacky Days queen portraits hangs above the temporary exhibit of Edward Curtis photos of Native Americans.


A photo of Edward Curtis with info about this noted American photographer.


Visitors are welcome to sit and page through Edward Curtis books.


Despite his outstanding photographic reputation, Curtis was previously unknown to me. But no more. Recently I visited an exhibit of around 60 selected photos from his “The North American Indian” collection at the Arts and Heritage Center in Montgomery. His entire body of work encompasses 40,000 photos, many published in 20 volumes.


Historic Hilltop Hall houses the Montgomery Arts and Heritage Center on the right and a floral and gift shop on the left.


To see these photos, termed part of the “most complete visual record of Native Americans west of the Mississippi,” right here in rural Minnesota is such a gift. A $4,000 grant from the Carl and Verna Schmidt Foundation funded the exhibit in Montgomery, a community of some 3,000 just 20 miles northwest of Faribault.


Edward Curtis photographed Native Americans of the west over a 30-year period.


Displaying Curtis’ photos here brings the photographer full circle back to Le Sueur County. At the age of five, he moved here with his parents from his native Wisconsin, eventually settling in Cordova. Here he grew up to appreciate the outdoors as he canoed with his preacher father along the Cannon River. By age 17, Curtis was working at a photography studio in St. Paul. In 1887, he moved to Seattle.


A snippet of a 1906 comment about Edward Curtis by President Theodore Roosevelt.


That’s the backstory of a photographer who earned the praise and financial support of President Theodore Roosevelt, who called Curtis a “close observer.” That is evident in the documentary photos of the Native Americans Curtis came to know well and to, clearly, value and love.


“Wishham girl,” 1910


Text accompanies the “Wishham girl” photo.


A portion of the portrait of “Chief Joseph– Nez Perce”, 1903


His portraits of western Native Americans document not only a culture, but also history and personalities. As I studied the photos, I admired faces weathered by wind and sun, steady strength in profiles, joy and sadness in eyes. I admired, too, the artistry of woven baskets, handcrafted pottery, curved canoes, feathered headdresses and detailed beadwork.


An insightful and beautiful quote by Edward Curtis.


I expect if I was to revisit this exhibit, I’d notice details I missed. There’s just so much to see, to take in, to appreciate, to contemplate. A culture. A people. A way of life. A history. A connection to nature.


More photos from the exhibit.


I am grateful to long-ago photographers like Edward Sheriff Curtis for his efforts in connecting personally with his subjects, for caring and for documenting with his camera. His work is truly remarkable.


Info about Edward Curtis included in the show.


FYI: “The North American Indian” exhibit at the Montgomery Arts and Heritage Center continues until Saturday, February 29. The arts center is open from 2 – 5 pm Thursdays and Fridays and from 9 am – noon Saturdays and is located at 206 First Street North in downtown Montgomery, Minnesota.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Minnesotans remember the Holocaust in traveling exhibit June 23, 2014

I READ IT IN THEIR STORIES. Courage. Hope. Strength. Fortitude. Survival.

I see it in the lines that etch deep into their faces, in their piercing eyes, in their hands. Courage. Hope. Strength. Fortitude. Survival.

Panels showcase portraits and stories.

Panels showcase portraits and stories.

They are men and women, now living in Minnesota, who survived the Holocaust.

On a recent Saturday, in Owatonna, a rural Minnesota community far removed from the horrible history of Nazis and concentration camps and atrocities against Jews, I was introduced to brave souls who endured almost unimaginable experiences to emerge with spirits still strong, hope alive, lives to live.

Holocaust survivor Leo Weiss.

Holocaust survivor Leo Weiss.

Eva, Ella, Sam, Walter, Paula, Anne, Joe, Trudy, Leo…

The Steele County History Center, 1700 Austin Road, Owatonna, is hosting "Transfer of Memory" through August 17.

The Steele County History Center, 1700 Austin Road, Owatonna, is hosting “Transfer of Memory” through August 17. Museum admission charges apply.

Thirty-five impressive portraits by photographer David Sherman and accompanying information written by Lili Chester tell the stories of these Holocaust survivors in the traveling exhibit, “Transfer of Memory.” The show, created in partnership with the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, will remain at the Steele County History Center until August 17.

Their stories will touch you.

Their stories will touch you.

I’m especially pleased that this exhibit is showing in Owatonna, offering southeastern Minnesota residents like myself the opportunity to view the portraits and read the stories without traveling into the Twin Cities metro.

Panels of portraits and stories define "Transfer of Memory."

Panels of portraits and stories define “Transfer of Memory.”

As I perused the panels of photos, plucking laminated story cards from below the portraits, I found myself immersed in the personal stories of survival and lessons learned. Hands gripped to prevent separation. Warnings given to save lives. Lying about age and religion to save one’s self. Death and marches and sickness. Horrible horrible stories.

Hope in a story.

In their words: hope.

But always hope. Hope and faith and more allowed these individuals to survive such awful atrocities.

I wonder if I would have possessed the willpower to continue on, to overcome, as they did.

Survivor portraits and stories impress.

Survivor portraits and stories impress.

These Holocaust survivors offer not only their experiences, but their introspection. Therein lies the power of this exhibit:

Don’t hate, it is a terrible thing. Everyone is born innocent. There is no reason to hate.—  Eva Gross

The United State presents to me and all our sons and daughter (s) an equal opportunity. Have patience, make an effort and be tolerant.—  Sam Rafowitz

The potential of (evil) is there in all of us if we do not remember the past.—  Lucy Smith

FYI: If you are unable to view this exhibit in person, click here to see the portraits and read the stories online.

Permission was secured from curators Laura Zelle and Susie Greenberg and from photographer David Sherman to use these photos of Sherman’s work and the exhibit quotes published here. Original exhibit photos and text are copyrighted.