"Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher"

If you are looking for a good book to read, I suggest this one as a possibility: Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher (2012) by Timothy Egan. The book, winner of the National Book Award, tells the amazing story of Edward Curtis, a renowned American portrait photographer who lived from 1868 to 1952.

Curtis’ story is nothing short of incredible. He was friends with several U.S. presidents (like Theodore Roosevelt) and

Edward Curtis self-portrait

with some of the most powerful men of his age (like J.P. Morgan). In 1900, however, when he was 32, he made a bold decision to pursue what he called his “Great Idea”: to photograph the country’s Native Americans before they and their traditional ways of life disappeared.

For the next 30 years he traveled the country, lugging his heavy photography and recording equipment, while documenting the history, stories, and rituals of more than eighty North American tribes. This massive undertaking changed him from being a mere observer of Native Americans to an untiring advocate for them. Before he was finished, Curtis had produced over 40,000 photographs and 10,000 wax cylinder audio recordings. In addition, he is credited with making the first documentary film, one that focuses on the Kwakiuti tribe in British Columbia.

Curtis sacrificed just about everything for his project. His marriage to Clara Phillips ended in divorce. For many years he had very little contact with his four children, Harold, Elizabeth, Florence, and Katherine. He also sacrificed his health and his finances to pursue his dream. One of the criticisms leveled at him is that he staged or edited some of his photographs. For example, he removed an alarm clock from a photo of the inside of a tepee. Yet many of his photographs and recordings are the only ones we have of tribes and a way of life that no longer exist.

Personally, I found the book breathtaking. I agree with the words in the Minneapolis Star Tribune: “The author gracefully transforms the past into vivid scenes that employ all five senses.” And I agree with the words from Shelf Awareness: “When it comes to superlative historical writing, this is as good as it gets.” The many photographs and the stories behind the photographs also enrich the book.

Here’s one story.

In 1896, the last Indian living in Seattle was an elderly woman. Rumor said she was over 100, but she was probably in her 80s. At that time it was illegal for Indians to live in Seattle, so this particular Indian lived in a shack mostly hidden from view. Her father had been the great Chief See-ahlsh. Her name was Kick-is-om-lo. Because the white residents of the city could not pronounce either name, her father was known as Seattle and she became Princess Angeline. The young boys near where she lived tormented her, calling her names and chasing her. She retaliated by throwing stones at them—stones she hid under her skirts.

Edward Curtis found Princess Angeline when he was twenty-eight years old. He showed her some photographs he

Princess Angeline, last surviving daughter of Chief Seattle.

had already taken of people in Seattle, and then he offered her money if she would allow him to take her picture. She eventually agreed. When she entered his studio, she was about to remove her headscarf, but Curtis told her he wanted her just as she was. He took her picture and paid her a dollar, a large amount of money in those days. Angeline died shortly after and was buried from Our Lady of Good Help Catholic Church and laid to rest in Lake View Cemetery under a stone that says, “Angeline, Daughter of Sealth, May 31, 1986.” So much irony! During her life, she was legally barred from living in the city named after her father. And in her death, she was treated almost like royalty!

For reflection:

Did anything catch your attention in this reflection?

Study the photograph of Edward Curtis… What does this self-portrait say about the man?

Study the photograph of Angeline… What do you see? What does this photo say about her? How does this photo make you feel?

PS: I have an upcoming presentation at St. John of the Cross Parish (formerly St. Felicitas) in Euclid, Ohio on Saturday October 5 from 10:00 am to noon. I will speak on “Hanging onto Hope in Today’s World.” I will explore the virtue of hope and its relation to faith, love, courage, and humor. I will also suggest practical ways to nourish our hope in everyday life. Everyone is welcome! St. Felicitas is my home parish.

This is a song by Carrie Newcomer entitled “Every Little Bit of It.” To me the song is about God’s grace that is continuously moving in the world–often just beneath the surface of things…

I invite you to respond below to anything in today’s reflection!


  1. Thomas DeFreitas on September 2, 2019 at 4:35 am

    Sr Melannie, hello (and hello to all) —

    Carrie Newcomer’s song is wonderful. “We sense but can’t describe…something nameless and abiding, and so we keep transcribing.” Perfect!

    In connection with Native Americans, there was a recent reflection offered by Episcopal Church Bishop Steven Charleston, of the Choctaw nation, about the rising anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States. Bishop Charleston’s reflection is quite sage; I think it can be found either by googling, or on social media where it is currently going “viral.”

    Peace and light to all.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on September 2, 2019 at 10:10 am

      Tom, I didn’t find his talk on anti-immigration yet, but I did listen to his 10 minute sermon “like the wind.” It’s beautiful! I want to hear more of his sermons/talks. Thank you for the good recommendation. Melannie

  2. Kathleen Magiera on September 2, 2019 at 6:07 am

    Good Morning Sr. Melannie and friends!

    Thanks for sharing about the life and work of Edward Curtis. You provided us with such amazing visuals of Native Americans. I just googled Curtis and found more portraits. The Native people and their pictures are stunning. The Smithsonian has acquired the original glass plates. The curators talked about how Curtis “ennobled” the Native people in his pictures. Curtis captures the dignity of these tribes.

    In our times, we so often miss the beauty of people who are different then ourselves. There is a wisdom in Native Americans that can be overlooked. I live near a reservation and there seems to be more respect for the Seneca language and ways while the people are still mired in a struggle to be honored by others.

    God bless us all in our differences.


  3. John E Hopkins on September 2, 2019 at 6:36 am

    Good morning, Sr. Melannie, Thomas, Kathleen, all…

    There is such a messiness to life. Edward Curtis lost his family so that we could have a visual and auditory archive of this nation’s original families, families ravaged by our disease, lust for land, and duplicity. I’m sorry to sound so negative. Around here, Plymouth is about to celebrate its 400th anniversary (2020), the landing of the Mayflower in 1620. What must the Wampagoags — an existing tribe in south-eastern Massachusetts — think about all this?

  4. Ed Johnson on September 2, 2019 at 6:50 am

    Sister Melannie,
    Wonderful book……wonderful author, Mr. Egan. I also recommend his books “The Worst Hard Times, “ and “The Big Burn.” He is one of those compelling authors who puts the reader right there in time and place…….Prayers from all, please, for those in the path of Hurricane Dorian, especially The Bahamas, Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. Peace and Blessings to everyone this Labor Day. Thank you, Sister.
    Ed J

  5. MFT on September 2, 2019 at 7:16 am

    Thank you for reminding me of one of my favorite books and all the wisdom in a profound story so masterfully written.
    Perfect timing too…

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on September 2, 2019 at 10:05 am

      Thank you, Mary Fran, for recommending this book to me! That’s what good friends do! Melannie

  6. Missy Butler on September 2, 2019 at 8:06 am

    In the princess I see pride, disdain, sadness and wisdom

  7. Leigh E Tenkku Lepper on September 2, 2019 at 9:41 am

    Reading about Curtis and his incredible life and work was one of those profound experiences for me. Tim Egan is an EXCELLENT writer and he tells this story well. After reading this book, I then went on a hunt for the complete 20-volume set of his works, The North American Indian which can be found at this website: http://curtis.library.northwestern.edu/aboutsite.html
    Amazing work…amazing read of the life of the Native Americans in this country. Sadly, many of the current generations of NAs do not know their cultural history. I always find I learn so much from our Native Americans. Thank you for this overview of this very amazing man and the dedication of his life.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on September 2, 2019 at 11:40 am

      Dear Leigh, Thank you for the link! I went to it, clicked on the table of contents, started with the Apaches, and spent quite some time gazing at the beautiful photographs. The faces intrigued me–whether of elderly men, vibrant warriors, mothers with their babies, or the many little children. What a meditation it was for me! I highly recommend the website to all. Thanks again for sharing this with us! Melannie

  8. Ron on September 3, 2019 at 1:16 am

    I grew up in Seattle and graduated from Chief Sealth H.S. (public school). This Native American had several English names; Chief Seattle, Chief Sealth, and his baptism certificate into the Catholic church spells his name another way. Thank you for blogging about the book. I want to read it. Tomorrow, I am attending a “storytelling” hour on Native American heroines: Pocahontas, Sacagawea, and Princess Angeline.

  9. Terri on September 3, 2019 at 11:39 am

    A quote I read last night: “There are no simple lessons in history…It is human nature that repeats itself, not history.” John Toland
    It is staggering, all the wisdom lost because of arrogance and greed.
    Thanks for the reflection and lovely song…

  10. Elizabeth Hillegas on September 3, 2019 at 2:04 pm

    Your reflection reinforces that we must be accepting of differences and we must love differences–love thy neighbor. The picture of Princess Angeline shows no expression. Does this reflect despair? Thank goodness for authors/photographers for their works that record history.

  11. Diane Butler on September 3, 2019 at 4:37 pm

    Love the pictures He looks like a student of life, she like one who has known life well. Native Americans are a fascinating people, have several pictures in my home and they speak volumes. One of my favorites is of a young man holding an eagle ready to take flight into a sunset. I will.look for that book thank you Sr. Melanie.

  12. Jean Canatsey on September 10, 2019 at 10:28 pm

    Dear Sr. Melannie,
    Thank you so much for introducing me to Timothy Egan. I just picked up his book, “ Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher” from the library. It is my beach read this week. I am loving it!!

  13. Bernadette on September 17, 2019 at 7:26 am

    I have mulled over this reflection for days. To follow a dream is an inspiration now to many. Still, I am struck by a man who in the early 1900s, divorced his wife and for many years had no contact with his 4 children. How hard it must have been for that little family to survive those years without a provider, without a father…all because of a desire, a dream to fulfill capturing a people so far, so distant from his own.

  14. Betsy Tanabe on September 17, 2019 at 9:14 am

    Dear Sr. Melanni,
    Thanks for bringing to our attention the marvelous book by Timothy Egan
    regarding Mr. Curtis documenting the last North American Indian cultures
    which were going to disappear. I found it fascinating and a marvelous
    endeavor on his and his team part. It was a impossible dream/idea but he pulled it off for our benefit. Blessings. Betsy

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