One of my loves is photography. Edward Curtis is a photographer from the late 1800s known, for better or worse, for his work with Native Americans. I found a Santa Fe gallery that featured Curtis prints from the original plates. I spent a few evenings combing through it’s collections.
One of my favorite prints had a profile of a woman with a scarf wrapping her head and covering her neck. The great thing about this photo is it’s ambiguity. You couldn’t tell if she was Native American, Muslim, or from India. She defies any ethnic identity, yet she was universally ethnic.
Today most of our clients at the Tibetan refugee camp reminded me of this Curtis print. Any of their faces could have easily been put into that Curtis print, as well as others of his. They wore weathered and cracked faces of a group that had endured similar exiles as that of the Cheyenne, the Sioux, the Jew, or even Vietnamese.
As Lissa and I worked, we sat with our backs against each other, our patients creaking on top of crude beds that had a pad on top of plywood. I noticed a pattern with our worn faced clients. All of our patients had major leg complaints. It was dramatically different from the people of Kaskikot. “What gives here!” I remember saying to myself. “This is too weird that everyone has a similar problem.”
Having traveled to Montana, and seen firsthand the Native American experience, I realized there is more to this group then is seen on the Curtis prints. Surely there must be more to Tibetan people than bad knees? Am I drunk with some sort of Tibetan sentimentality? Am I being swept up by the Tibetan struggle with their exile, by my sense that their long march through the Himalayans has worn their knees? Perhaps having no nation has worsened their legs? But am I letting my client’s knee problems get the best of me?