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This Photographer Documented Native American Tribes Before They Vanished

The work of an early 20th-century photographer who set out on a 30-year mission to document Native American tribes was almost forgotten about entirely until his work was rediscovered years later.

Born in 1868, Edward S. Curtis rose from humble beginnings in Whitewater, Wisconsin to become one of the most significant ethnographic photographers in history.

After establishing himself as a prominent portrait photographer in Seattle, his sliding doors moment came in 1900 when he photographed Princess Angeline, the daughter of Chief Seattle. This encounter sparked his profound interest in Native American cultures, leading to his ambitious project, The North American Indian.

A sepia-toned portrait of an elderly person wearing a patterned headscarf and traditional clothing. Their face is expressive with deep wrinkles, and they have a calm, contemplative expression. The image has a historical and timeless quality.
Princess Angeline, the eldest daughter of Chief Seattle. Curtis’ encounter with her got him interested in Native American culture.
A person stands on a ledge partway up a large, jagged rock formation, extending one arm outward against a backdrop of the sky. The rock has a rugged, layered appearance, creating a dramatic scene. The surrounding area appears arid and sparse.
The offering. San Ildefonso.
Black and white portrait of a Native American woman with long, straight hair, wearing a loose-fitting dress and adorned with necklaces. One of the necklaces has a large, circular pendant. She stands against a plain, neutral background.
Yuls-Huls-Walking.
Sepia-toned photograph of a Cheyenne maiden standing by a calm riverbank. She wears a traditional fringed dress adorned with beadwork and has her hair styled in two braids. The background features natural vegetation and a clear reflection in the water.
Cheyenne maiden, 1930.
Black and white photograph of a Native American man in profile. He has long dark hair and is wearing traditional clothing adorned with beads and patterns. Two feathers are attached to his hair. The background shows a blurred natural landscape.
Crow’s Heart, Mandan, circa 1908.

Curtis embarked on this monumental journey with the intention of preserving a record of Native American life before it was irrevocably changed by modernization and forced assimilation policies. His work was supported by influential figures, including President Theodore Roosevelt and financier J.P. Morgan, the latter providing substantial funding that allowed Curtis to travel extensively across the United States.

The Library of Congress notes that like most scholars of this period, he believed that Indigenous communities would inevitably be absorbed into white society, losing their unique cultural identities. He wanted to create a scholarly and artistic work that would document the ceremonies, beliefs, customs, daily life, and leaders of these groups before they “vanished.”

A person stands on a steep rocky ledge, leaning forward and holding a long, thin pole towards the water below. The background is mostly empty, giving a sense of height and isolation. The image is in black and white.
Fishing with a Gaff-hook—Paviotso or Paiute, circa 1924.
An elderly person with a weathered face, dressed in traditional clothing and adorned with multiple necklaces made of beads. The individual wears a cloth head covering and has a contemplative expression, gazing slightly to the right. The background is dark and plain.
Navajo medicine man, Nesjaja Hatali, circa 1907.
A black and white photo of a man with long hair, wearing minimal clothing and traditional footwear, riding a horse on rocky terrain. He holds a small staff or tool, and the horse has a white marking on its face. The background is a clear sky.
The old-time warrior: Nez Percé, circa 1910.
Sepia-toned portrait of an elderly individual with deep wrinkles and a contemplative expression. They are wearing a head wrap and a thick, large cloak, looking to the left. The image has a vintage, timeless quality.
Geronimo of the Apache people, 1905.

Curtis utilized large format cameras, such as the 14×17 inch view camera, which produced highly detailed negatives. These cameras were cumbersome and required glass plate negatives which Curtis had to process in field conditions.

Additionally, he employed the photogravure process for his prints, a technique known for its rich tonal range and longevity, ensuring that his images would stand the test of time.

A sepia-toned photograph of two children sitting in a wooden kayak on a body of water. Both children are dressed in traditional fur clothing, smiling and looking towards the camera. The backdrop includes the calm water and part of the kayak.
Boys in kayak, Nunivak, 1930.
A sepia-toned photograph of an Apache person washing their face by a body of water, titled "The Morning Bath – Apache". The individual is bent forward, hands cupped towards their face, and wearing minimal clothing, focused on their morning ritual.
Apache, Morning bath, circa 1907.
A historical black and white photograph shows a raised log hut standing on wooden stilts in a grassy field. The hut has a thatched roof with growing grass and a small door in the front. It appears weathered and rustic, blending into its natural surroundings.
Food caches, Hooper Bay, Alaska, circa 1929.
A sepia-toned photograph depicts three individuals in traditional Native American attire. They wear intricate costumes with fur, feathers, and face paint. The person on the left appears in a dynamic pose, while the other two stand calmly, holding long objects.
Navajo Yebichai (Yei Bi Chei) dancers, 1900.
A group of people are shown in silhouette, jumping and holding rifles and other objects in the air. A cloud of dust or smoke surrounds them, adding an atmospheric effect. The photo is in black and white.
Dancing to restore an eclipsed moon. Several Kwakiutl people dance in a circle around a smoking fire.
A sepia-toned photograph features a large rock formation towering over a flat, barren landscape. In the foreground, a line of six people on horseback are riding from left to right, casting long shadows on the ground below. The sky is clear and bright.
Seven Native Navajo riders on horseback and dog traveling against a background of canyon cliffs, circa 1904.
Black-and-white photo of a person working on a traditional loom outdoors, under a tree. The loom is propped against the tree and weaves a patterned textile. The background includes a rugged natural landscape with a large rock formation.
Navajo Weaver, circa 1907.

Over three decades, Curtis visited over 80 tribes, producing more than 40,000 photographs, 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of native languages and music, and extensive ethnographic notes. His magnum opus, The North American Indian, was published in 20 volumes between 1907 and 1930, each accompanied by a portfolio of large photogravure prints.

However, the book never sold well and the company that oversaw his work was liquidated and he sold the rights to J. P. Morgan Jr. The original glass plate negatives were forgotten about and many were destroyed.

A black and white portrait of a young child wrapped in a blanket. The child has short, dark hair and an expression of curiosity. The background is dark, emphasizing the child's face and the texture of the blanket.
A child of the desert.
Two individuals in traditional attire gather berries from a dense bush. The scene is set in an open field with tall grass, and the photo has a sepia tone, giving it a historical ambiance.
Mandan girls gathering berries, circa 1908.
A historical black-and-white photograph shows a woman with long hair and a serious expression carrying a child on her back. The child is wrapped in a cloth, resting their head on the woman's shoulder. Both are dressed in simple, traditional clothing.
Hopi mother, 1922.
A sepia-toned portrait photograph of a man with a solemn expression. He wears traditional Native American attire, including large circular earrings, multiple beaded necklaces, and a fur-adorned garment. His hair is styled back and he has prominent facial features.
Chief Joseph, 1903.
A black and white image of a person standing on a rock in a river, holding a long spear. The person is dressed in traditional attire and is surrounded by a misty, forested landscape with tall trees and rocky terrain. The scene is serene and natural.
A Hupa man with a spear, circa 1920.
Three women stand in a desert landscape carrying baskets on their heads. They are dressed in long, dark garments and are positioned near tall, large cacti. The background shows a clear sky with additional smaller cacti and barren land.
Maricopa women gathering fruit from Saguaro cacti.
A sepia-toned photograph features a man with a beard and mustache, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a high-collared sweater, layered with a jacket. The image has a vintage, old-world feel with meticulous lighting and shadow detail, capturing a serious expression.
Edward Sheriff Curtis. Self-portrait, circa 1889.

Upon his death in 1952, Curtis’ work had faded into obscurity until it was rediscovered in the 1960s and 1970s. Since then, it has been recognized as an important record of Native American culture but not without controversy.

While he is lauded for his technical prowess and dedication, some critics argue that he staged scenes and paid people to fit in with his vision of a “vanishing race.” Despite this, his contributions remain invaluable, providing a visual and auditory archive of Native American cultures that might have otherwise been lost.

The Library of Congress acquired have one 1,000 prints of Curtis’ work and they can be viewed here.


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