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Spirit of the First Americans

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 2 2

Self-portrait of Edward S. Curtis (detail), 1899(112137)

Photography by Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952)

If there is one thing that can be said about Edward S. Curtis, it is that he had persistence. He worked tirelessly in his profession as a photographer, and was doubly committed to documenting – in image, word and film – the Native American culture over a thirty year period.

Rarely does a person make a name for themselves without vision and desire, and it is safe to say, Curtis possessed both. He, like painter George Catlin, had the ambition and necessary skill and talent, to achieve his dream of recording Native American culture before it all but disappeared. 

At no point did Curtis turn from the task at hand or give up. He completed his project, even if it meant pushing himself to the verge of breakdown by the 1930s. The result of his life's work was The North American Indian. Published from 1907 to 1930, it consisted of approximately 300 sets of 20 leather-bound volumes and contained detailed information about tribal life and golden sepia-toned photogravures on fine art paper. 

His focus was expressly on native tribes of Alaska, the Southwest, California, Pacific Northwest, the Plateau and Basin areas, and the Great Plains. With a singular mind, Edward Curtis "wished to understand the Indian and strove to treat his subjects with the respect he felt they deserved." (Youngblood, p. 46)

Edward S. Curtis with Native American Indians, date and location unknown

The Beginning

Edward Sheriff Curtis was born in Wisconsin, USA on February 16, 1868 to a poor farming family. During his youth, he was largely inspired by the outdoors and developed a love of photography. At the age of 12, he built his own camera from scratch and taught himself the basics of picture-taking.

By 17, Curtis was employed at a photographic studio and in time, became a sought-after photographer in Seattle. As his passion for the outdoors grew, so did his interest in mountain climbing and photographing the native people who lived around Puget Sound, in Washington state. 

In 1895 at the age of 27, Edward Curtis photographed the daughter of Chief Siahl (Seattle). This moment marked the early beginnings of a pictorial journey that would eventually take him to Canada and across the USA, to experience what few others ever would – living with, and photographing the First Americans

Nesjaja Hatali - Navaho – medicine man, Edward S. Curtis, c. 1904

The People

When viewing the photographs taken by Edward Curtis, it is possible to feel the gentleness and depth of the people who were fundamental to his creative work. The images are timeless and enduring, bringing to life a culture, that we can do more than just understand, but embrace as part of our own.

During his life, Curtis spent extended periods of time living with various tribes, and was desirous to learn of their customs and beliefs, and where possible, take part in their ancient ceremonies. Thirsty for knowledge, he was open to seeing and relating to native people and a way of life that differed from white society. "He was driven to photograph everything he saw . . . he wanted to know more . . . to understand these people from the inside." (Gulbrandsen, p. 12)

Eventually gaining the trust of chiefs and other tribal members, Curtis found it possible to witness firsthand, the essence of what it was to be 'native'. However, the experience also intensified his awareness of the pressures many tribes were facing to assimilate into white culture.

Piegan Blackfeet encampment, Edward S. Curtis, 1900

As early as 1905, he was realizing the extreme toll that poverty, hunger, disease and merciless killings were having on the native people he visited. "Curtis found himself documenting the desperate lives of conquered and impoverished people largely ignored by the rapidly modernizing and affluent culture surrounding them." (Gulbrandsen, p. 14)  

Despite suffering and hardship, those he photographed were not in hiding, nor had they deserted their existence. Edward Curtis found men, women and children continuing to survive as best they could in accordance with their traditional ways

Pure in their conviction, native tribes were free to honor their beliefs and rituals until the banning of the 'old ways' was made absolute by the American and Canadian governments. This action taken by authorities made it all but impossible to carry out sacred ceremonies of any kind.

Haiyahl – Nootka, Edward S. Curtis, 1916

The Legacy

Despite being famed for his work earlier in his career, Edward S. Curtis died in relative obscurity in Los Angeles, at the age of 84. Only since the 1970s has recognition grown of his creative efforts to preserve the North American Indians and their culture

With a body of work comprising 40,000 photographs, Curtis accomplished an extraordinary amount for one person. He had received official encouragement from President Roosevelt and the financial support from banker, J. Pierpont Morgan, to publish – quite literally – volumes of data and photographs collected from his travels, documenting indigenous people in Canada and the USA. 

Looking back, the feat Edward Curtis achieved in his written research and fieldwork is impressive, given the fact he had received little education during the course of his life and was not trained as an anthropologist. Even so, "his photographs and ethnographic data played an essential role in educating the country about its Indian tribes and their culture." (Gulbrandsen, p. 6)

Jicarilla woman – Apache, Edward S. Curtis, c. 1907

Native Soul

True art is never without purpose. It speaks to us in a visual language that is symbolic and emotional. Its voice is ‘perceived’ through imagery that is directed by the soul. In my understanding, the work of Edward S. Curtis was created with great vision, and for great reason

Monumental in quantity, the thousands of photographs he took, do not act as some kind of record of the demise of a race or culture on North American soil. Rather, they depict, with reverence, the diversity of indigenous people across North America and actively contribute to the resurrection of their culture in modern times. 

A source of inspiration, his images bear strength and courage of heart, showing the lesson all of humanity has needed to learn – that no person has ever deserved to die because of the color of their skin. Edward Curtis’s photographs speak of a truth that can never be erased – the spirit of First Americans is still alive and breathing.




Sep 14, 2012 8:11am
Wow--Great article, Great pictures and great, insightful writing. It is interestig to me but not surprising that a great many "white" and "black" Americans chose to live with the Inidians during the time our country was unfolding prior to the Revolutionary War, and there are no known Indians that left tribal life for so-called civilization. Anyway, truly enjoyed this piece and 2 BIG thumbs up for U
Sep 16, 2012 9:29pm
Hi Marlando, I appreciate your comment. Edward Curtis is one of my favorite photographers and I enjoyed writing this article very much. I feel inspired by the great focus and vision he had for life and the indigenous culture of North America. The world would be lost without the beauty and presence of Native American Indians today. Thanks for your thumbs up!
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  1. The Library of Congress "Edward S. Curtis's North American Indian." Edward S. Curtis's North American Indian (American Memory, Library of Congress). 13/07/2007. 8/09/2012 <Web >
  2. Gulbrandsen, D. & Youngblood, W. L. Edward Curtis – The Collection – Early Photographs of the First Americans. New Jersey: Chartwell Books, Inc, 2008.
  3. Campagna, J. – Smithsonian Institution Archives "Getting Negative with Edward Curtis." American Indian I Around the Mall - Page 2. 22/03/2011. 13/09/2012 <Web >

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