Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian: Photographic Images presents the 2226 photographs taken by Edward S. Curtis for his work The North American Indian. Included are images of tribes from Great Plains, Great Basin, Plateau Region, Southwest, California, Pacific Northwest, and Alaska.
These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.
These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection, although they may not be all-encompassing.
- Development of the Industrial United States, 1876-1915
- Emergence of Modern America, 1890-1930
Related Collections and Exhibits
These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.
- American Indians of the Pacific Northwest
- California As I Saw It
- History of the American West
- Indian Land Cessions in the United States
- Omaha Indian Music
- Pioneering the Upper Midwest
- Taking the Long View
Recommended additional sources of information.
Specific guidance for searching this collection.
For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.
Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian is a collection of photographs of eighty American Indian cultures from the Great Plains, Great Basin, Plateau Region, Southwest, California, Pacific Northwest, and Alaska. The digital collection presents more than 2200 sepia-toned photographs from Curtis's The North American Indian, originally published in 20 volumes between 1907 and 1930. The financier John Pierpont Morgan agreed to subsidize Curtis's expeditions, provided the photographs were published in a set of books. Theodore Roosevelt endorsed the project and wrote a preface for the first volume, extolling the publication as a remarkable art collection.
Although not a trained ethnologist, Curtis documented some aspects of the customs and lifestyles of American Indians of the trans-Mississippi West. The publication of Curtis's work, highly romanticized and most craftily staged, exerted a major influence on the image of Indians in popular culture. Curtis is reported to have retouched some of the photographs in order to remove modern objects, adding to the popular illusion of Native Americans as a primitive people.
The Special Presentation, "Edward S. Curtis in Context," presents several useful tools. While consulting online reproductions of the images and captions, the user can look up facts on a Curtis timeline and view a map identifying locations of the Native Americans when they were photographed by Curtis. Accompanying essays discuss how Curtis worked, what his work has meant to Native peoples of North America, and how he promoted the view, dominant in the early twentieth century, that American Indians were a "vanishing race." These essays provide an essential context for viewing the images in the collection.
This online collection contains all of the images and caption text as originally published in The North American Indian. Curtis's captions reflect a perspective that Indians were "primitive" people whose traditional cultures and ways of life were disappearing. In his representation of Indians as the "vanishing race," Curtis echoes the prevailing view held by Euro-Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Contemporary readers should interpret the captions in that context.
Curtis photographed some sacred ceremonial rituals that were not intended for viewing. These images are included in the digital collection in order to fully represent the work.
U.S. Policy and "The Vanishing Race"
The outbreak of a series of wars on the Great Plains in the mid-1860s led to the formation of a federal commission to determine the causes of increasing hostilities. The commission's initial report in 1868 indicated the hostile treatment of Indians and recommended steps to bring Indians into "white civilization." The Grant administration promoted a "reservation policy" to remove Native Americans from direct contact with the increasing numbers of white migrants who were putting pressure on territorial governments to annihilate what they considered the "Indian menace." Those Indian nations that refused to accept the reservation policy gave battle and experienced some limited success in staying the movement of their people from their ancestral homelands. For example, the defeat of General Custer in 1876 at the battle of the Little Big Horn only delayed the movement of the Oglala Sioux to a South Dakota reservation.
Recognizing that the reservation policy had not provided a solution to the "Indian problem," Congress passed the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887. The thinking behind the Dawes Act was that if individual Indians became farmers and were provided with a small tract of land, they would more easily assimilate — that is, adopt the ways of Euro-Americans. In essence, the act broke up tribal organizations. Reservation lands, formerly held by communities rather than individuals, were to be distributed to individual family units (up to 160 acres) with full ownership attained after farming the land for 25 years. Tribal lands remaining after individual allocations were declared surplus and sold to non-Indians.
Some Indians found solace in a new movement called the Ghost Dance religion founded by Wovoka, the Paiute Messiah. The movement taught that if Indians took part in a ritual Ghost Dance, all whites would disappear and dead Indians would return along with the great buffalo herds that would again provide for their livelihood. Adherence to the Ghost Dance religion alarmed officials, who attempted to repress the movement. In December 1890, tribal police were sent to arrest Sitting Bull because he refused to stop the Ghost Dance on the Standing Rock reservation. Sitting Bull was killed during the attempted arrest. Some followers of the Ghost Dance religion fled the reservation in panic and later surrendered to the 7th Calvary at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. While attempting to disarm the band of Indians, shots rang out. The massacre of Ghost Dancers at Wounded Knee ended Indian resistance.
The reservation policy and the Dawes Act had been implemented before Curtis began to consider a photographic study of American Indians, but evidence of these policies is difficult to find in the collection. Instead, Curtis focused on conveying American Indians as a "vanishing race." He produced images that appealed to what Professor David R.M. Beck, in his essay "The Myth of the Vanishing Race," refers to as "nostalgia for an 'almost extinct civilization.'"
Pick any ten photographs from the collection. You might want to Browse by Subject to find photographs on a range of topics. Look carefully at the photographs and the captions.
- To what extent do the photographs portray "nostalgia for an 'almost extinct civilization'"?
- To what extent do the photographs portray the influence of U.S. policy requiring Indians to live on reservations and placing pressure on them to assimilate into "white civilization"?
- Can you make any inferences about the problems facing Native Americans at the time Curtis was conducting his fieldwork? Explain your answer.
- In his essay "The Myth of the Vanishing Race," Professor David R.M. Beck argues that Curtis's work "contributed in no small way to the continued pervasive presence of the myth of the vanishing race in American society even into the present time." What evidence can you find in contemporary sources that the myth of the vanishing race is still pervasive?
American Indian Leaders
Edward Sheriff Curtis began his career as a photographer in Seattle in the 1890s and became known as a landscape photographer. In 1899 he accompanied an expedition to Alaska as the official photographer. During the expedition he developed an interest in anthropology and ethnology. On his return to Seattle he pursued his interest in photographing American Indians. "Princess Angeline," the daughter of Suquamish Chief Sealth (Siahl) for whom Seattle was named, was among his first Native American models.
During his career, Curtis photographed a number of prominent Indian leaders, including Apache chief Geronimo, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, and Chief Red Cloud of the Oglala Sioux. Study these three photographs and the descriptions provided by Edward S. Curtis. Then choose one of these leaders to study further. Research the person's life and create a timeline of events in his life. Choose a quotation from the leader to serve as the caption for the photograph.
Native American Rituals
Although photographs capturing sacred ceremonies were seldom if ever permitted, Curtis persuaded some nations to permit him to photograph ritual dances as a means of preserving a record of cultural traditions. Curtis staged some photographs of sacred rites, brushing out tourists who may have been captured in the background.
The Hopi snake dance ritual, performed as an incantation to bring rain for an abundant harvest, was one of the rituals photographed by Curtis. While the dancer clutched a rattlesnake in his teeth, he was followed by a "hugger," who calmed the snake with a feathered stick. Once the dance concluded, the snakes were released in the plaza, where women sprinkled them with cornmeal. Runners would pick up the snakes and carry them in four directions before releasing them in the desert. According to Hopi tradition, the snakes return to the underworld carrying prayers to the rain god. Examine Curtis's photographs showing different elements of the Hopi ritual dance, as well as photographs of other dances intended to bring rain:
- "Snake Priest Entering the Kiva"
- "Antelopes and Snakes at Oraibi"
- "Snake Dancers Entering the Plaza"
- "Snake Dancer and Hugger"
- "Flute Dancers at Tureva Spring"
- "Tablita Dancers and Singers - San Ildefonso"
- Why were ceremonial rain dances common in the American Southwest?
- In his captions, how does Curtis explain the ceremonies?
- Evaluate Curtis's portrayal of ritual ceremonies. Did he show respect for cultural traditions or do his captions ridicule the ceremonies? Explain.
Examine photographs of the Arikara medicine ceremony "The Ducks", the Qagyuhl ceremony to restore an eclipsed moon, and "Peyote Drummer". Analyze Curtis's captions for clues to his view of ceremonial practices.
- What judgment does Curtis make regarding interference in Native American religious practices and rituals?
- Do the captions to these three photographs indicate that Curtis was an unbiased recorder or do they reflect his personal values regarding different Indian ceremonies?
Shelter and Dress
Native Americans' adaptations to their regional environments are readily illustrated by different materials used to construct shelters or in the garments they wore. Using a piece of poster paper, make an enlarged copy of the map showing the "North American Indians as Witnessed by Edward S. Curtis". Next, locate the following photographs of dwellings and read the captions provided by Curtis:
- The mat house of the Skokomish on Puget Sound in the Pacific Northwest
- The Hopi community house at Walpi
- A Cree tipi at Lac les Isles, Manitoba, Canada
- A Wichita grass house in the Southern Plains
- A Nimkish village at Alert Bay, British Columbia
Print out a copy of each photograph and mount it on the enlarged map in the appropriate location. Think about the climate and vegetation in the locations where you have placed the photographs.
- What accounts for the differences in construction?
- Which of the shelters appears to be more permanent? Why might shelters in some locations be more permanent than in others?
- What can you infer about the peoples who resided in these shelters?
Conduct a similar exercise to learn about the differences in clothing worn by women and men of different Indian cultures. Links to photographs illustrating clothing are provided in the "Basic Clothing" section of the subject index.
What materials were used in making this child's clothing? Where do you think the Flatheads lived?
Curtis's caption to the photograph entitled "Flathead Chief," notes that the Flatheads of the Rocky Mountain Plateau adopted much from Plains culture. "Not only their domicile, their garments, weapons, and articles of adornment...but many of their dances were in imitation of similar ceremonies practiced by the prairie tribes." Examine the captions to the photographs "A Klamath" and "Umatilla Maid" for similar examples of cultural exchange. Show these examples of exchange on a map. What inferences can be drawn from the exchange of cultures among American Indian nations?
Chronological Thinking: Interpreting a Timeline
The Special Presentation section of the collection home page presents a "Biographical Time Line for Edward S. Curtis." Use the timeline to trace the major events in Curtis's life and his fieldwork in the development of his twenty-volume study of the American Indian.
- In his "General Introduction," Edward S. Curtis wrote that the work of writing The North American Indian began in 1898. What happened that year that marked the beginning of his work?
- Select three other events in Curtis's life prior to 1907 that you think were especially important in preparing him to undertake this huge task. Justify your selections.
- No activities are listed on the timeline between 1907 and 1912. Use other resources in the collection to fill in Custis's activities in those years.
- Why do you think the timeline shows so few events during the last years of Curtis's life? What might you conclude about how events are selected for timelines or other accounts of a famous person's life?
Historical Comprehension: Identifying Historical Perspectives
The captions Curtis wrote for his photographs are primary sources, just as the photographs themselves are. By drawing the viewers' attention to certain aspects of a photograph or labeling objects or people in particular ways, Curtis was attempting to frame the viewer's response to the photographs. Examine Curtis's caption to the photograph "The Apache" and compare it to the description accompanying the photograph of Genitoa.
"This picture might be titled 'Life Primeval.' It is the Apache as we would mentally picture him in the time of the Stone Age. It was made at a spot on Black River, Arizona, where the dark, still pool breaks into the laugh of a rapids."
"No picture could better show the old renegade type of the Apache than this one of Genitoa. It is the type of Indian who has yielded to the inevitable and lives in peace - not because he prefers it, but because he must."
- Why do you think Curtis used such expressions as "Life Primeval," "Stone Age," and "renegade type" in the captions? What do these expressions reveal about his views?
- What was Curtis's purpose in describing the setting of the photograph titled "Apache"? Why did he use such metaphorical language as "the laugh of a rapids"?
- How do these descriptions reflect society's view of the American Indian in the early years of the 20th century?
Historical Comprehension: Identifying the Central Question a Narrative Addresses
Historians and others who write about the past begin their research by asking questions. The narratives they write then answer those questions. Examine the caption Curtis wrote to accompany "As it was in the old days." What central question does this narrative answer?
"In early days, before white men invaded the Great Plains and ruthlessly slaughtered them by the hundreds of thousands, bison were of prime importance to the hunting tribes of the vast region in which those animals had their range. The bison was not only the chief source of food of the Plains Indians, but its skin was made into clothing, shields, packs, bags, snowshoes, and tent and boat covers; the horns were fashioned into spoons and drinking vessels; the sinew was woven into reatas, belts, personal ornaments, and the covers of sacred bundles; and the dried droppings, 'buffalo-chips,' were used as fuel. So dependent on the buffalo were these Indians that it became sacred to them, and many were the ceremonies performed for the purpose of promoting the increase of the herds."
Browse by Subject to identify a topic in which you are interested. Before you examine any of the photographs, list two questions you have about this topic. Browse through several photographs on the topic. Do the photographs or captions answer your questions? If not, what questions do they answer?
Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Understanding the Author's Purpose
Curtis selected this darkened photograph of Navajo riders "passing into the darkness of an unknown future" as the first illustration in Volume 1 of his twenty-volume study. He wrote this caption:
"The thought which this picture is meant to convey is that the Indians as a race, already shorn in their tribal strength and stripped of their primitive dress, are passing into the darkness of an unknown future. Feeling that the picture expresses so much of the thought that inspired the entire work, the author has chosen it as the first of the series."
Examine the photograph and analyze the caption.
- How did Curtis use this photograph to establish the theme of his entire work?
- What emotions does the photograph evoke?
- How effective are this photograph and its caption in conveying Curtis's premise that the American Indian is a "vanishing race"?
Historical Issue Analysis and Decision-Making: Photographing Rituals
In his "General Introduction" to The North American Indian, Curtis described the difficulty of convincing Indians to allow their private lives and rituals to be photographed:
"The task has not been an easy one, for although lightened at times by the readiness of the Indians to impart their knowledge, it more often required days and weeks of patient endeavor before my assistants and I succeeded in overcoming the deep-rooted superstition, conservatism, and secretiveness so characteristic of primitive people, who are ever loath to afford a glimpse of their inner life to those who are not of their own. Once the confidence of the Indians gained, the way led gradually through the difficulties, but long and serious study was necessary before knowledge of the esoteric rites and ceremonies could be gleaned."
Given that many ceremonies were not intended for public viewing, why do you think Curtis wished to photograph them? Why do you think the Indians eventually agreed? With a partner, write a dialogue between Curtis and a Native American spiritual leader, discussing the pros and cons of photographing religious rituals. If you were Curtis, would you have decided to photograph sacred ceremonies? Why or why not? If you were the Native American spiritual leader, would you have granted permission for the ceremonies to be photographed? Why or why not?
Historical Research Capabilities: Researching the Lives of Native Americans
Curtis played upon stories of Indian warriors and staged photographs invoking by-gone images of Indians on raiding parties for his 20th-century audience. In his essay, "Edward Curtis: Pictorialist and Ethnographic Adventurist," Professor Gerald Vizenor describes Curtis's photographs as "simulations of the real." Curtis provided costumes and paid Native Americans to pose in staged scenes. Vizenor highlights "Oglala War-Party" as an example.
This photograph was published in 1907, at a time, according to Vizenor, "when natives were starving on reservations." Research the Oglala people to find out where they were living in 1907 and under what conditions they lived. What was the history of their relationship to the U.S. government? Given the information you uncover, is Curtis's photo an accurate representation of the Oglala people? Why might Curtis have chosen to create this particular depiction of Native Americans?
- What is the image of the American Indian reflected in these photographs?
- Choose one of these groups to research. Does the picture of that group accurately reflect the "spirit of the past"? Does it romanticize the lives of the American Indians? Use your research to explain your answers.
A portrait is a painted or photographic likeness of a person. Often, a portrait shows only the person's face, but some portraits show part or all of the person's body. A good portrait captures not only appearance, but also character. Lighting, pose, where the subject's gaze is directed, props, and backgrounds are some of the ways a photographer can convey character.
Curtis made many portraits of Native Americans. Below is a list of just a few of the many portraits in the collection. Access many more portraits by Browsing by Subject and clicking on Portraits under the Persons heading.
- Chief of the desert - Navaho (The North American Indian; v.01)
- Inashah - Yakima (The North American Indian; v.07)
- Ogalala woman (The North American Indian; v.03)
- Esipermi - Comanche (The North American Indian; v.19)
- Arikara girl (The North American Indian; v.05)
- Black Eagle - Nez Perce (The North American Indian; v.08)
- Hopi mother (The North American Indian; v.12)
Examine several of Curtis's photographic portraits. Look carefully at the portraits before reading the captions. Notice the lighting in the photographs. Examine how the subjects are posed, where they are looking, which features are most dominant, and the expressions on their faces. Study the backgrounds and any other objects shown in the pictures. Then read the captions and answer the following questions.
- What, if anything, can you determine from examining the facial features and expressions in the portraits you studied?
- What do you notice about the lighting in the photographs? How does the lighting influence your response to the pictures?
- What do you notice about the ways the subjects are posed? What do you think Curtis was trying to suggest about the character of his subjects when he photographed them in profile ? Facing the camera but looking away from it? Facing the camera and looking into it?
- Are there any other objects or details in the background that suggest something about the subject's character?
- How do the captions tend to influence the reader's opinion of the individuals? What clues in the captions may indicate a bias?
- Which portrait is your favorite? Why? Write a caption for that portrait explaining why you think it is an excellent example of the art of portraiture.
In his essay "Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952) and The North American Indian," Professor Mick Gidley says that Edward Curtis "kept abreast of national, even international, trends in photography — and in the visual arts more generally." In the second half of the 19th century, many photographers were concerned that photography be considered an art form. Taking what has often been called a "painterly" approach, they were at times more concerned about the visual effect of the finished photograph than about the subject matter.
Curtis was obviously interested in the subject of his work, as he devoted decades to photographing Native Americans. However, he also sought to make his work aesthetically pleasing. One way he did that was to stage the photographs (a strategy that also allowed him to manipulate the content or message of his photographs). Staging the photographs allowed him to control their composition, the way in which the elements of the picture are arranged to create a visually appealing image.
Examine the picture to the right as you consider these elements of composition:
- Balance. Formal balance involves showing objects of equal size in a picture. Formal balance can create a boring or uninteresting image. Informal balance involves using small objects to balance a larger object.
- The Rule of Thirds. The Rule of Thirds has to do with where the main object of interest is placed in a photograph. Using the Rule of Thirds, an image is divided into thirds vertically and horizontally, creating a tic-tac-toe grid on the image. According to the Rule of Thirds, important objects should be placed at the intersections of the grid; also according to this rule, the horizon should be either at either the one-third or two-thirds line on the grid (rather than in the center).
- Line. Lines created by objects help to hold a picture together and imply certain meanings. Trees, mountains, or other vertical objects can provide a sense of strength or dignity. A flat expanse of land, a lake, or other horizontal objects can convey calm or peacefulness. The slope of a mountain, a person on horseback who is leaning into the wind, or other diagonal objects imply force or motion.
Locate ten photographs from the Curtis collection that you find visually appealing. Closely study the photographs you have selected, answering the questions below in your analysis.
- What type of balance does Curtis use in these photographs? Do you prefer formal or informal balance? Why?
- Does Curtis apply the Rule of Thirds in composing the photographs? Try cropping one or two photographs by placing a white piece of paper over the top, bottom, or sides of the photographs. Does cropping change the attractiveness of the photographs? The content or meaning of the photographs?
- What types of lines are depicted in the photographs? Do the lines convey the meaning described above? How does combining two or three types of lines in one photograph influence the viewer of the photograph?
- Do you think Edward Curtis was more concerned about the artistic quality of his photographs or the information they conveyed? Explain your answer.
Theodore Roosevelt, in his multi-volume Winning of the West, published in the 1890s, described American Indians as "lazy drunken beggars" who were bloodthirsty and cunning in war. Although Roosevelt wrote the preface for Curtis's work, praising it for its artistic merit, his view of Native Americans was distinctly different from Curtis's. What kinds of photographic evidence could be used to challenge Roosevelt's views? Select photographs from the collection that provide such evidence. Write an accompanying narrative to persuade readers that Roosevelt's description of Native Americans was inaccurate.
Helen Hunt Jackson was born in Massachusetts but became known for writing about Native Americans in the West. After hearing a speech by Chief Standing Bear, she wrote a book entitled A Century of Dishonor (1881), in which she condemned the U.S. government for its treatment of Native Americans. She also wrote a novel, Ramona (1884),which she hoped would have an effect similar to that of Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Read a selection from Helen Hunt Jackson's A Century of Dishonor or Ramona and compile a series of photographs from the Curtis collection to illustrate the selected reading. Write captions for the selected photographs to reflect Jackson's portrayal of the American Indian. Would these captions be consistent with Curtis's descriptions? Why or why not?
Arts and Crafts: Pottery
Several Native American groups in the Southwest are renowned for their pottery. Use pottery and kiln to conduct a Keyword search for photographs of pottery, the construction of a kiln, and firing pottery. Examine Curtis's photograph of the pottery burners at Santa Clara and the polished black pottery of San Ildefonso shown below. According to Curtis, the black pottery revived a style reported in the chronicles of Coronado's expedition into what is now New Mexico.
In the 1920s, Maria Martinez of San Ildefonso invented a new style of pottery making based on the pueblo's famous black pottery. Consult an encyclopedia or art books or locate Internet sources on Maria Martinez. Examine illustrations of her distinctive pottery and compare it to Curtis's photographs of Southwestern pottery in the collection. How are the two types of black pottery similar? Can you detect any differences? If so, describe the differences.
Arts and Crafts: Basketry
Baskets and the making of baskets were important to many different American Indian cultures. A Keyword search for basket will generate a lengthy list of photographs of a variety of different baskets; the following are just a few examples:
- Washo baskets of the Diegueños of Southern California
- Hupa basket from Northern California
- Nunivak baskets of Alaska
Study photographs of baskets from several different Native American cultures. Answer the following questions:
- How did the baskets differ in design? Consider shapes, patterns, and materials used.
- What were the different uses of baskets? How functional were they? Are baskets used in the same ways today?
- What inferences can be made about the culture of American Indian groups from their baskets?
Arts and Crafts: The Kachina
In Hopi culture, Kachinas are sacred spirits. The carved figures representing the Kachinas, called Kachina dolls or Tihus, were originally used to teach children about deities and rituals. (They are not dolls in the sense of playthings.) The dolls were traditionally given to girls because women had less contact with the spirit world. Men had greater contact with the spirit world because they dressed in costumes to represent the Kachinas during important ceremonies. Some, dressed as ogre Kachinas, threatened disobedient children, whose mothers protected them by "bribing" the ogre Kachinas with food. The food collected during these ceremonies was distributed to priests and villagers.
Study Edward Curtis's photograph of nine Kachina dolls and answer the following questions:
- The roots of cottonwood trees were the preferred material for carving tihus. What other materials do the dolls appear to be made from? Why do you think these materials were used by the Hopi?
- Which of the dolls in Curtis's photograph would you consider ogre Kachinas? Why?
- What do you think the two tihus on the bottom left are doing? How do they reflect the cultural heritage of the Hopi?
- Today, Kachina dolls are prized by modern collectors. What do you think accounts for the current popularity of these carved objects?