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Native American Photography – Edward Curtis

Native American culture is reflected in so many art forms, including Native American jewelry, Pendleton blankets, stories, dance, legends, and photographic images.

Some of the most captivating images of these magnificent peoples are the early photographs of Native Americans taken in the late 1800s and early 1900s across the USA. Perhaps the most famous of these photographers was Edward S. Curtis.

Chronicler of Native American Culture

Edward S. Curtis

Edward Sheriff Curtis was born in 1868 in Wisconsin, and by age 17 he was working as a photographic apprentice in a Minnesota studio. With his family, he moved west to Seattle, where he bought his own camera and a share on a local photographic studio. He married and was to ultimately become a father of four children. He came to specialize in portrait photography, taking images of society women.

In 1895, Curtis took his first photograph of a Native American, capturing a session of portraits with Princess Angeline, the eldest daughter of Duwamish Chief Sealth, who was aged 75 at the time.

Princess Angeline by Edward S. Curtis, 1895

In 1898, when photographing Mt. Rainier, Curtis met anthropologist and Native American culture expert George Bird Grinnell. They became friends and this led to Curtis being appointed as the official photographer for the 1899 Harriman Alaska Expedition. During this expedition, Curtis photographed Inuit settlements and soon followed Grinnell to visit the Piegan Blackfoot Tribe in Montana in 1900.

Edward Curtis became deeply affected by the customs and traditions of these Plains Indians, including their Sun Dance, and his photographs of the Plains American Indians were published widely and soon led to him lecturing across the United States. Thus began a lifelong passion and commitment to learning about Native Americans and capturing their images for posterity.

Shadow Catcher

By 1906, Curtis was sponsored by a wealthy benefactor to travel the country and collect enough photographs for 500 original prints and 25 volumes of books. Curtis set out and travelled in a trail wagon through perilous circumstances (disease, impassable roads, stifling heat, gales, and some less-than-friendly human encounters) to live among and work with dozens of Native American tribes, hiring interpreters and researchers along the way. He grew close to the people he lived with and photographed, working with them, and he came to take photos of the likes of Chief Joseph, Medicine Crow, Red Cloud, Geronimo, as well as many thousands of everyday people.

Curtis travelled and immortalized the Native American tribes over thirty years. He was desperate to document the North American Indians in their natural, traditional, cultural, unspoiled lifestyle before it was too late and the native way of life was destroyed forever by white expansion and US government policy.

As well as thousands of photographs committed to glass plates, Curtis collected more than 10,000 sound recordings on wax cylinders of the music, speech and songs of more than 80 tribes in their own unique languages.

The Native Americans trusted Curtis and some eventually named him “Shadow Catcher”.

Curtis’s life’s work was collated as The North American Indian, a series of twenty volumes.

Curtis’s commitment to his passion was to cost him his marriage and his family home and studio. By the onset of World War I, public interest in Native American culture began to diminish, but he eventually returned to visit tribes in the late 1920s. He was dismayed at this time to see the decimation of the tribes by assimilation and relocation, and the final volume of his set of books was quietly published in 1930.

Edward Curtis was by this point financially, physically, and emotionally ruined, and he died in 1952 before he had been able to publish his memoirs.

Young Wishham woman, c1910 by Edward S. Curtis

Through his more than 40,000 photographs, Edward Curtis created a timeless picture of Native American culture that is today sadly lost. Even though things were changing quickly when the first photos were produced, Curtis chose to focus on documenting traditional images, conveying the dignity and majesty of these amazing tribes of people. Curtis was head and shoulders above his contemporaries in terms of openness, tolerance, and sensitivity to the Native Americans, seeking to observe, understand, and appreciate – but never influence or change.

Source: Smithsonian