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Edward Curtis Celebrated Native American Cultures

Edward Curtis commenced a daunting project in 1896. His dream was to document the culture and lifestyle of Native American tribes before it was too late. His fantastically ambitious 20-volume undertaking called The North American Indian took nearly thirty years to complete.

The 1890 census recorded the Native American population at less than 225,000, down from many millions prior to settlers arriving in 1492.

With many tribes disappearing, Edward Curtis’s mission was:

“…to form a comprehensive and permanent record of all the important tribes of the United States and Alaska that still retain to a considerable degree their…customs and traditions.”

To that end, he visited more than eighty tribes across America, Alaska and parts of Canada. His milestone work included more than 40,000 photographs; and 10,000 recordings of Native speech and music. (LOC)

The project drove him into bankruptcy. While his life’s work has drawn criticism, Edward Curtis is considered by many as one of the most celebrated photographers of Native Americans.

The Grand Plan

Curtis. He envisioned a set of 20 volumes of ethnographic text illustrated with high quality photo engravings taken from his glass plate negatives.

“Each of these volumes would be accompanied by a portfolio of large size photogravures, elegantly bound in leather and printed on the highest quality paper.” (LOC)

Curtis planned to sell subscriptions to five hundred sets of the publication to fund the entire project. As it turned out, he was a better at photography than business.

In the meantime, Edward Curtis was burning through money. He received some support from railroad tycoon John Pierpont Morgan who eventually owned Curtis’s negatives as well as President Theodore Roosevelt who wrote a forward to the series.

In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Marie Bottineau Baldwin to the Office of Indian Affairs (OIA). It was an agency within the Department of the Interior and the forerunner of today’s National Congress of American Indians. Bottineau was one of the first Native American women to become a force in federal politics for her people.

The Work Was A Group Effort

To produce The North American Indian, Edward Curtis depended on an extensive team of ethnographers, research assistants, academic advisors and editors, photographic technicians, and printers. Among his co-workers were

“…hundreds (if not more) of Native Americans participated in the construction of the project, not only as photographic subjects but also as translators, informants, and cultural brokers.” (Muse/JSTOR)

His Romantic Style Attracts Criticism As Well As Praise

According to Ellie Gascoigne of the Photography Ethics Centre by the time Edward Curtis embarked on his momentous project, Native Americans had been subjected to centuries of oppression.

“European invaders, and the disease they brought with them, decimated indigenous populations. In 1492, the Native American population numbered around 50 million. By 1900, only 237,196 remained. Those that survived faced cultural genocide through a succession of assimilation policies …”

In his introduction to the first volume of The North American Indian, Curtis acknowledged that treatment of Native Americans ‘has in many cases been worse than criminal, a rehearsal of these wrongs does not properly find a place here.’

“… while he (Edward Curtis) makes occasional reference to the odd massacre or inevitable approaching extinction, this context cannot be found within the photographs.” (PhotographyEthics.org)

Some historians question why Curtis chose to omit this reality and if his romantic leaning diminishes the veracity of his images.


The First Edition Was Published In 1907

Volume one of The North American Indian appeared in 1907.

The New York Times. June 6, 1908 wrote:

“Nothing like it has ever before been attempted for any people…In a series of twenty large volumes and as many accompanying portfolios, Mr. Curtis’s text and pictures are now being published in a limited edition at “$3,000 per set. ..The work is being edited by Frederick Webb Hodge of the Smithsonian Institution, editor of the American Anthropologist, while President Roosevelt has written a brief foreward of warmest recognition of its interest and value.

The two volumes already published take up the Navahos, Pimas, Yumas and the less important tribes of Arizona. Each tribe is studied separately… Its known history is briefly told, followed by its own account of its origin. Its creation myth and other important legends, its tribal ceremonies, its religious beliefs, its habits and customes are recounted in a simple, clear and vivid style. (The New York Times. June 6, 1908)

In 1930 the last two volumes were finally published, completing nearly thirty years of work. Only 272 complete sets had been printed.

A Brief Note On How His Passion Developed

Born near White Water, Wisconsin, Edward Curtis (February 16, 1868-October 19, 1952) developed his passion for the emerging art of photography at a young age. He built his first camera when he was an adolescent. He moved to Seattle with his family in 1887where he eventually bought a portrait photography studio.

Edward Curtis became interested in Native American cultures as an official photographer of the 1899 Harriman Expedition. He documented the geological features of the Alaskan wilderness and its indigenous population. Inspired by his new work, he visited tribal communities of the West, eventually spending more time in the field than his studio.

Photographs by Edward Curtis can be seen at the National Museum of the American Indian, and Prints and the Photographs Division Curtis collection consists of more than 2,400 silver-gelatin prints at the Library of Congress.

An interactive map of regions of Native American tribes can be seen at Popular Mechanics: This Tribal Map of America Shows Whose Land You’re Living On .

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