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Edward S. Curtis - images of North American Indians

Updated on June 17, 2017
Phyllis Doyle profile image

Phyllis has a strong affinity to Native American traditions, beliefs and spirituality.

Edward Sheriff Curtis

Edward Sheriff Curtis Self-portrait circa 1889.
Edward Sheriff Curtis Self-portrait circa 1889. | Source

Preserving the Past

Edward S. Curtis left us a valuable legacy with his images of North American Indians. Curtis was an ethnologist, photographer and author. He was born February 16, 1868 and died on October 19, 1952 at the age of 84, in the home of his daughter in Whittier, California.

Curtis had visionary instincts about the Native American people and dedicated most of his life to preserving their culture through images. His desire was to let the people of the tribe to live forever in his photos. He compiled all his images and work in a twenty volume collection titled 'The North American Indian'.

Early days of the Camera

Man, since early cave days, has always desired to record history in an artistic manner. For centuries masters of paintings have given us truly remarkable portrayals of history and mankind.

In 1826 Joseph-Nicephore Niepce of France took this a step further and developed a method of taking a picture, which he called a heliograph, which produced an image after eight hours of exposure. About ten years later Macques Mande Daguerre found another way to reproduce an image. The 'Daguerreotype' gave a permanent image after just 20 minutes of exposure and photography then became the 'thing' to give us lasting memories.

By the time Edward S. Curtis took it upon himself to photograph and document the life of the Native Americans, the camera had developed into a much better version, able to take images quicker and transfer them to glass plate negatives. The images were called photogravures.

Canyon de Chelly 1904, by Curtis

Canyon de Chelly within the Navajo Nation,  Arizona
Canyon de Chelly within the Navajo Nation, Arizona | Source

A Love of Outdoor Life

As a boy, Curtis spent a lot of time in the outdoors with his father, Johnson Curtis. Johnson was a preacher for United Brethren Church. The family moved to Minnesota in 1874. Edward would often go on the canoe trips with his father and camp outdoors with him as they visited members of the congregation.

Johnson taught his son river navigation and good camping skills. Father and son shared a love of outdoor life. This type of life prepared Edward well for the journeys he would take later in life while photographing Native Americans in their natural life styles. Curtis became one of the finest photographers and ethnologists of all time.

The documentation of Native American culture and history could have been lost if not for the invention of the camera and the dedication of people like Edward Sheriff Curtis. In his life he managed to portray the Native American as no one had done before or since. He made wax cylinder recordings of their language and music, took over 40,000 images, documented mythologies, history, population, the types of foods they ate, what their dwellings were like, their customs and beliefs.

There is not a more beautiful collection of memories and history of these peoples than the photography of Curtis, who gave us the historical images of Native Americans from 1900 - 1930, which he put into a collection of 20 volumes with 300 pages of text and 75 photogravures each. He also provided a portfolio of at least 36 photogravures to accompany each volume.

Storytelling, Apache men

Storytelling by Edward S. Curtis c.1906
Storytelling by Edward S. Curtis c.1906 | Source

Hopi Snake Gathering for a Ceremony

Snake Gathering by Edward S. Curtis c.1907
Snake Gathering by Edward S. Curtis c.1907 | Source

Life With the Tribes

For 30 years Curtis traveled lands from the Mexican border to Northern Alaska to document the images and lives of over 80 tribes west of the Mississippi. Often, his wife and children accompanied him, along with his assistant, William Myers. It was his determination and goal to make sure that the Native American people and their cultures, ceremonies, customs and beliefs would have a place in history before they vanished, which was the common opinion of scholars in his day.

Curtis did not just take pictures of the Indians in their daily life patterns and their landscapes and leave on another journey. With his assistant William Myers he stayed with them, talked with them and lived their daily life with them -- he became a part of their culture.

In 1900 he observed the Sun Dance of the Blood, Blackfoot and Algonquin tribes in Montana. He stayed with them that whole summer, experiencing their ceremonial traditions. That same year he visited on the Hopi reservation in Arizona. He journeyed to and lived with many other tribes during his years of work.

His determination and enthusiasm drove him to document as much as he could, sending the glass plate negatives to his studio in Seattle where Adolph Muhr developed the images. After Muhr died in 1913, Ella McBride, his assistant, took over the dark room work.

Piegan Lodge

Inside a Piegan lodge by Edward S. Curtis c. 1910
Inside a Piegan lodge by Edward S. Curtis c. 1910 | Source

A Legacy and Refusal to Vanish

In 1904 Curtis travelled to the east coast to meet with Frederick Webb Hodge of the Smithsonian Bureau of American Ethnology. Hodge listened to Curtis' plan, was as enthusiastic as Curtis and became the editor of the entire North American Indian project. He believed in Curtis and his vision and they became lifelong friends.

The Native American tribes, their traditions, cultures, beliefs and ceremonies have not vanished. They are still very much alive, and thanks to dedicated photographers like Curtis, their images from the past are still with us today, giving these people beautiful memories and images of their ancestors and making others aware of the people that refused to vanish.

Curtis left us with a legacy of how life was in the Northwest Indian tribes. These beautiful images come alive when gazed upon. When looking at these photographs that Curtis took, it is as though one is transported back in time, standing next to him and seeing a proud and noble people. Curtis was able to grasp the beauty and pride of the Native American and preserve it for all to see and enjoy.

President Roosevelt was a strong supporter of Curtis' work and wrote the following comments in the foreword to Volume I of The North American Indian.

In Mr. Curtis we have both an artist and a trained observer, whose work has far more than mere accuracy, because it is truthful. …because of his extraordinary success in making and using his opportunities, has been able to do what no other man ever has done; what, as far as we can see, no other man could do. Mr. Curtis in publishing this book is rendering a real and great service; a service not only to our own people, but to the world of scholarship everywhere.

— Theodore Roosevelt

The Old Time Warrior, Nez Perce, by Curtis, 1910

The Old Time Warrior, Nez Perce, 1910, in vol. 8 of The North American Indian by Edward S. Curtis
The Old Time Warrior, Nez Perce, 1910, in vol. 8 of The North American Indian by Edward S. Curtis | Source

Sons of a Yakima Chief, 1910, by Curtis

Sons of a Yakima chief, 1910, vol. 7 in The North American Indian by Edward S. Curtis
Sons of a Yakima chief, 1910, vol. 7 in The North American Indian by Edward S. Curtis | Source

Edward S. Curtis

Note From Author

All images by Edward S. Curtis are in the Public Domain and courtesy of the Library of Congress. Since I have a very strong affinity to all Native American tribes, their cultures, traditions, and beliefs, I am grateful to Edward Sheriff Curtis who dedicated so much of his life to documenting valuable information on the life and times of the Native American peoples.

© 2013 Phyllis Doyle Burns

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    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
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      Phyllis Doyle Burns 2 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Hi PhoenixV. You are most welcome. I love the old photos from Curtis and other photographers. The one of Hattie Tom is probably my favorite of all of them. I see the same thing in her that you do and am just drawn to her photo, as if I know her and feel her emotions. I am very glad you enjoy my Native American hubs. Thank you so very much.

    • PhoenixV profile image

      PhoenixV 2 years ago from USA

      Hello Phyllis. I was going through your hubs and was really surprised at how many old photographs of Native Americans there are and I think its wonderful that you shared some with us along with the in-depth insight and information you provided. I especially enjoyed the Hattie Tom, Chiricahua Apache, 1899 photograph on your Apache Women - Keepers of The Way article. The lady seems sad but very pretty and it's just a striking photo to me for some reason, I can't quite explain why. I also liked the Ancient Hopi Rituals and Ceremonies hub you wrote and ceremonial apparel or costumes. Thanks for bringing all that history back to life via your hubs.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
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      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Thank you, Jodah, for your kind compliment. Edward S. Curtis truly was incredible -- he saw a need to document the way of life for many tribes in words and pictures. He did a remarkable job of it. Thanks again, Jodah, for your visit and reading.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Wonderful hub Phyllis. What an incredible man Edward S Curtis must have been. His photos are beautiful and are a great tribute to the Native American culture. Voted up.

    • BigBlue54 profile image

      BigBlue54 3 years ago from Hull, East Yorkshire

      Definitely would be awesome Phyllis.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
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      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Hi BigBlue - I love the sepia tones of the photogravure that Curtis achieved. You are probably right about the value of other photogravures, which is sad. I think a wall grouping of framed prints of his photos along with one of himself would be really awesome. Thank for reading and commenting.

    • BigBlue54 profile image

      BigBlue54 3 years ago from Hull, East Yorkshire

      One of the sad things about the photogravure photographs is that today they are very much under rated by dealers. The method was chosen at the time because it gave the best results as far a prints were concerned. But because it is the same method which was used in producing illustrations for books they are not held in the same regard as other prints from that era. People like Curtis are exceptions of course.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
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      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Hi Peg. You are most welcome. I am glad you enjoyed it. And thank you so much. Edward S. Curtis had great foresight and left us so much to look back on and learn from. I am so glad he did. I find his photos stunning. Thanks again for reading and commenting.

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 3 years ago from Dallas, Texas

      This was a fascinating lesson on Native American history and you made it all sound so interesting. The pictures are incredible and thanks to the foresight of Edward S. Curtis we can glimpse back and see some of those times. Thanks for this great read.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
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      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Hi BigBlue, you are most welcome. Thank you for reading and commenting. Yes, both Curtis and Adams left us with a lot of beauty to gaze at. He was very handsome, yes. Thanks again.

    • BigBlue54 profile image

      BigBlue54 3 years ago from Hull, East Yorkshire

      Thanks for sharing this hub with us Phyllis. I have long thought that Curtis did for the Native Americans what Ansel Adams did for the for the Landscape of America with each recording their beauty.

      He was a very handsome guy.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
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      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Hi purl3agony. I am in envy that you were able to see some of Curtis' collection in person -- the experience must have been wonderful for you. Thank you so much for the visit and sharing your experience.

    • purl3agony profile image

      Donna Herron 3 years ago from USA

      This is such a great hub! I've seen and enjoyed Curtis's images but didn't know much about the artist himself. Andy Warhol actually had a collection of photos by Curtis and I was lucky to see them when they were on display at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Curtis's photographs are even more amazing and beautiful in person. Thanks for sharing his story and work with all of us!!

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
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      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Thanks, Alastar -- so glad you enjoyed the hub. I love the Curtis photo collection.

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 3 years ago from North Carolina

      These are some great pics and vids to go along with your hub, Phyllis, super enjoyed!

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
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      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Eddy, happy new year and all the best for 2014. I so appreciate your visit and glad you enjoyed the article. Thank you.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
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      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Thank you, Bill. I am glad you enjoyed it. I really appreciate your visit and comment.

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 3 years ago from Wales

      This is a truly wonderful hub Phyllis ; I love reading on the ways and lives if Native Americans and this one indeed a true gem. Voting up and wishing you a great year ahead.

      Eddy.

    • DrBill-WmL-Smith profile image

      William Leverne Smith 3 years ago from Hollister, MO

      A fine story of a remarkable collection. I enjoyed reviewing it all, very much. Thank you for sharing with us. ;-)

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
      Author

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Thank you, Jodah. I appreciate your visit and comment. Yes, Curtis really helped to preserve the Indian culture and way of life. Thanks again.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Interesting hub Phyllis,

      Edward Curtis did a lot to help preserve Indian culture with his photography, and he obviously felt an attachment to them by spending so much time staying with the tribes and learning their culture. Voted up.