Native Americans by Edward Sheriff Curtis


From 1900s to 1930, the photographer Edward Curtis captured over 80 Native cultures, producing over 40,000 glass plate negatives, 10,000 wax cylinder recordings, 4,000 pages of anthropological text, and a feature length film.

Kikisoblu (Princess Angeline) of the Duwamish ,  1896 . ©EDWARD S. CURTIS/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Kikisoblu (Princess Angeline) of the Duwamish, 1896. ©EDWARD S. CURTIS/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Edward Curtis has spent 30 years, recording the traditional Native Americans of whom he thought were vanishing. It was after the American Indian War, and therefore, the typical perspective to Native Americans was that they were disappearing.

By 1930, when he Curtis finished his series, most people had lost interest in the Indian subjects, and thousands of his images and recordings were sold to a Boston bookstore, for practically nothing. 40 years later, they were discovered in the basement of the bookstore and since then the popularity of Edward Curtis' works has grown steadily.

It all started when, in 1895, Curtis convinced Princess Angeline to come to his studio in Seattle, to photograph her. — She is the eldest daughter of the chief Seattle, who was the leader of the Suquamish and Duwamish Native American tribes. And it was a huge success.. He paid her a dollar for each pose and noted, “This seemed to please her greatly, and with hands and jargon she indicated that she preferred to spend her time having pictures made than in digging clams.”

Curtis was always interested in Native American lifestyle, and around beginning of 1900s, a friend of his invited him to the highlands of Montana so that he can observe and photograph Native Americans. That trip sparked Curtis’s lifelong fascination with cultures and lives of Native Americans. And his journey to create “The North American Indian” book has begun.

“I want to document North American tribes. I want to make them live forever.”

What started as an interest, became a supporting cause and passion, where Curtis felt deeply towards tribal people to disappear, therefore wanted to be able document all of the tribes who were living in the US at that moment.

During those times, managing to take pictures of the all different tribes wasn’t easy. He needed to hike, cross, walk many distances to be able to reach where the tribes were living, plus he needed translators, so the costs of the projects weren’t cheap. He needed the budget. He went to financier, an avid art collector, J.P. Morgan to sponsor his trip. But first he has refused. Then shortly after Edward Curtis showed him another picture and Morgan was convinced. Curtis found the money to move forward.

The main idea of the project was always to document the tribe lifestyle, before they extinct, though Curtis made them pose, set them in romanticized settings to be able to make them look like more representative of an imagined pre-columbian existence than the subjects’ actual present.

Still, it is one of the most impressive historical records of the Native American life at the beginning of the 20th century. with 2000 published portraits of Native Americans, representing more than 80 tribes, the world has shaped first perspectives on the First Nation peoples. Today this work stands as a landmark in the history of photography, book publishing, ethnography, and the history of the American West, producing an art historical record of enormous and irreplaceable importance.