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Edward Curtis - The North American Indian

In 1906, J. P. Morgan provided Curtis with $75,000 to produce a series on the North American Indian. The work was to be in 20 volumes with 1,500 photographs.

Morgan’s funds were to be disbursed over five years and were earmarked to support only fieldwork for the books, not for writing, editing, or production of the volumes. Curtis himself would receive no salary for the project, which was to last more than 20 years. 

Curtis’s goal was not just to photograph, but to document, as much American Indian (Native American) traditional life as possible before it disappeared.

He wrote in the introduction to his first volume in 1907:

The information that is to be gathered…respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost. 

Curtis made over 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of Indian language and music.

He took over 40,000 photographic images from over 80 tribes.

He recorded tribal lore and history, and he described traditional foods, housing, garments, recreation, ceremonies, and funeral customs.

He wrote biographical sketches of tribal leaders, and his material, in most cases, is the only written recorded history although there is still a rich oral tradition that documents history.”

1. Klamath Indian at Crater Lake

2. Two Whistles, Apsaroke

3. Dancing to Restore an Eclipsed Moon

4. Tobadzischini

5. Haschogan 

6. Haschezhini

7. Bear Bull - Blackfoot

8. Red Cloud

9. Apache Gaun

10. Offering to the Sun - San Ildefonso

What a picture of Indian character this affords: a mere infant starting out alone into the fastnesses of the mountain wilds, to commune with the spirits of the infinite, a tiny child sitting through the night on a lonely mountain-top, reaching out its infant’s hands to God! On distant and near-by hills howl the coyote and the wolf. In the valleys and on the mountain side prowl and stalk all manner of animals. Yet alone by the little fire sits the child listening to the mysterious voices of the night.

—Edward Curtis

Curtis has been praised as a gifted photographer but also criticized by some contemporary ethnologists for manipulating his images. Although the early twentieth century was a difficult time for most Native communities in America, not all natives were doomed to becoming a “vanishing race.”[26] At a time when natives’ rights were being denied and their treaties were unrecognized by the federal government, many natives were successfully adapting to western society. By reinforcing the native identity as the noble savage and a tragic vanishing race, some believe Curtis detracted attention from the true plight of American natives at the time when he was witnessing their squalid conditions on reservations first-hand and their attempt to find their place in Western culture and adapt to their changing world.[26]

In many of his images Curtis removed parasols, suspenders, wagons, and other traces of Western material culture from his pictures. In his photogravure In a Piegan Lodge, published in The North American Indian, Curtis retouched the image to remove a clock between the two men seated on the ground.[27]

He also is known to have paid natives to pose in staged scenes, wear historically inaccurate dress and costumes, dance and partake in simulated ceremonies.[28] In Curtis’ picture Oglala War-Party, the image shows 10 Oglala men wearing feather headdresses, on horseback riding down hill. The photo caption reads, “a group of Sioux warriors as they appeared in the days of inter tribal warfare, carefully making their way down a hillside in the vicinity of the enemy’s camp”. In truth, headdresses would have only been worn during special occasions and, in some tribes, only by the chief of the tribe. The photograph was taken in 1907 when natives had been relegated onto reservations and warring between tribes had ended. Curtis paid natives to pose as warriors at a time when they lived with little dignity, rights, and freedoms. It is therefore suggested that he altered and manipulated his pictures to create an ethnographic simulation of native tribes untouched by Western society. (x)