The Man Who Documented Native American Cultures

Born on a Wisconsin farm in 1868, Edward Sheriff Curtis became fascinated with photography early on, building his own camera at the age 10. As a teenager his family relocated to Seattle, where he photographed Princess Angeline (aka Kickisomlo), the daughter of the Duwamish chief Seattle, after whom the city is named. Curtis recognized his life’s calling as a documentarian of Native American cultures and quickly joined expeditions to Montana and Alaska to do just that.



In 1906, Curtis was approached by the financier J.P. Morgan about funding a project on the indigenous people of the continent. They planned a 20-volume series called The North American Indian, from which the images below are culled. He received no salary for the project, which lasted more than 20 years, during which he created an estimated 40,000 images of over 100 tribes. A photographer turned ethnologist, he also made thousands of recordings of native language and music, and transcribed oral histories.

Though Curtis often romanticized his subjects, at times photographing them in ceremonial attire not regularly worn and wigs to conceal contemporary hair styles, he was an outspoken opponent of the devastating use of relocation and reservations. His photographs remain one of the only historical documents that offer insight into the lives of a people nearly driven to extinction.


Apsaroke, 1908


Sioux, 1907


Apache, 1910


Tewa, 1906


Apsaroke, 1908


Cheyenne, circa 1900


Siksika, circa 1910


Arikara, 1907


Wishham, 1911


Jicarilla, 1904


Hopi, circa 1900


Apache, 1905


Hopi, 1922


Koskimo, 1914


Apsaroke, 1908


Zuni, 1926


Nakoaktok, 1914


Qagyuhl, 1914


Qahatika, 1907


Hesquiat, 1916


Nez Perce, 1899


Tewa, 1922


Navajo, 1904


Kwakwaka’wakw, circa 1905


Apsáalooke, 1908


Apsaroke, 1908


Qagyuhl, 1914


Nakoaktok, 1914


Kwakiutl, 1914


Nunivak, 1928


Qagyuhl, 1914


Kwakiutl, 1914


Navajo, 1904


Papago, 1907


Piegan, 1900


Piegan, 1900


Kalispel, circa 1905


Kwakiutl, 1914


Piegan, circa 1900


Wishram, 1911


Nez Perce, 1911

Comments

  1. Breathtakingly beautiful, these masterpieces move me from tears to joy. They are nothing less than a treasure. Thank you for sharing.

  2. This absolutely beautiful and breathtaking I 💜 the native culture it us truly phenomenal Thank you for sharing the absolutely gorgeous pictures it capativates the Native culture.

  3. Wow I Can See My Family’s Faces In Alot Pics! Thank You Very Much For Sharing Thiese Pics How Can I Get A Copy Of The Original Please

  4. Loved seeing these wonderful photographs. I had no idea there were so many different tribes.
    I agree with the idea that they should have a National Holiday in their own name.
    Wish we knew more about them

  5. So much wisdom, strength, resilience and culture lost because we chose not to respect and live in peace with the other or the earth. When we ever learn? These pictures are a beautiful reminder of the true history of North America and its earliest settlers.

  6. I have seen a number of Curtis photos living in WY and now Montana;
    In researching some Plein-aire painters i stumbled into a fine exhibit of a Curtis contemporary but i forgot the Photographers name, However it mirrored this cultural composition in every way…curated by the great great great granddaughter whose ancestors were the photos. The curators presentation came with a similar thread of knowing that there was a contingent that didn’t care for this photographer for stealing their spirit with his camera!
    Be that as it may, the curator did a splendid job and her written piece on the show is break out the kleenex fershere
    So when is saw this link i gravitated right away… Such gentile if not fragile Mr Curtis works.
    He had to deal with what is a GOOD Piece of Photographic production…and the 1st rule is Composition and that separates the pro from the ho hum shoot from the hip snap shots…NO Sir, He ARRANGED his compositions, carefully ~ each delicate face and body angles ~ there is nothing slam bam about Mr. Curtis’s work.
    Essentially the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. These works are saturated with TLC and Talent.

  7. POIGNANT Photographs!

    Edward Curtis…Has Literally
    Gifted Us With Visionary Documentation…An Historic
    Journey Through The Archives
    Of The Many Diverse Tribes
    That Inhabited This Entire
    Continent…
    Can You IMAGINE What Our
    Society Would Look Like
    Without These Magnificent
    Photographs That Have Given
    Us…A Glance Into The Lives
    Of These Incredible People…
    Who Lived In Harmony With
    Mother Nature…
    Thank GOD That Edward Curtis
    Devoted His Life ….:
    To The CREATIVE Pursuit
    Of These Poignant Pictures!

  8. A wonderful record of what was. Now let’s take care of what we have. There are human tribes and animal species that could do with our support.
    I always loved American Indian tribes. This is a celebration!

  9. Curtis was an amazing ethnographer and photographer . He genuinely loved the aboriginal people’s of America. His work was lost for many years and once recovered gave the world an incredible gift.

  10. Beautiful images. As one commenter noted, the artistry of the work is beyond compare. One observation, if I may be permitted, from the perspective of a descendent of the Uncompahgre Ute Tribe. Can we please just appreciate this collection for what it is, and not use it as a reason to hate on White North Americans? The indigenous peoples of North America were as vast and as varied in genetics and culture as are the current inhabitants of the continent. There never was, and never could be, any single “Indian nation” or culture. Tribes made war against each other, often committing genocide and practicing torture and the taking and keeping of slaves for millennia before Europeans ever found their way across the oceans. Please, people. Let us stop with the guilt, the accusations, and the divisiveness. Let us all endeavor to see ourselves as members of the human race. Only then can we find peace, and begin to heal ourselves.

  11. Wonderful. I gave a “Book” of Curtis’s
    photos to a lovely lady in Lincoln neb.
    She part charakee sorry it’s misspelled.

  12. Beauty preserved. Very educational , had no idea there are so many tribes. Thank you for your land. They need a national holiday just for themselves.

  13. Incredibly BEAUTUFUL peoples!! Love the photos depth…. Loved seeing some with sasquatch attire!! I am a believer…i believe these shoukd be in our historical teachings in every school. Just sad that so many are no more. Im so thankful to have seen these .

  14. It’s not just the fantastic historical and anthropological value. This is photography of the highest level, a sustained work of art with powerful composition and depth of field, lighting, and framing. This is a photographer in perfect control of his craft, producing work that would be immortally beautiful even if we knew nothing of the context

  15. THIS IS BEAUTIFUL WORK OF ART I REALLY ENJOYED READING AN LOOKIN AT THE PICTURES GREAT WORK .

  16. Ámultam ennyi büszke-szép arcú ember láttán , egy tiszteletlenül leigázott nép utolsó sarjai… Én kislányként az Irokézek fia című gyerekregényen szocializálódtam, azóta is érdeklődéssel figyelem sorsukat. Bízom benne,hogy sokakban kelt részvétet, tiszteletet az esztétikai élményen túl ez a fotósorozat.

  17. I feel so much gratitude for these photos as well as deep grief for the near extinction of these beautiful peoples and great shame that we Euro-Americans have perpetrated these unspeakable crimes. We have robbed them of life, dignity and freedom and we have deprived ourselves and the world of so much of their wisdom and the beauties of their life ways.

  18. Beautiful thank you for sharing as a Native myself Nez Perce Nimiipuu in our language

  19. A delightful and informative historical record. We much to learn from these tribes. A group that values the wisdom of and cares about their elders.

  20. Mesmerizing, magnificent and poignant images…
    as an Anglo Saxon I am just coming to learn so much about these peoples lumped together as ‘native Americans’, and most often referenced in the ‘past tense’…
    I am learning that the ‘Indian wars’ are still being fought, and big time! It is a viscous war of attrition…

  21. I was interested in the lack of facial hair on the men. The one man with a mustache stood out.
    These photos show tribes I have never heard of as well as Navajo and some I have. Wonderful images!

  22. Did any Indians have facialrow hair, grown out? Didn’t see any Iroquis. Lovely photos.

  23. An Amazing Collection…never seen anything like it before…he really new what he was doing with his camera…EXQUISITE Images…..

  24. Gr8 have much a look like Asian people, even the hair cutting style of a Hopi Mady reminds to anient Noble Lady from Tibeg

  25. I really would like to know more about the Sioux woman. I look just like her. My grandfather was given up for adoption I’m Montana or one of the dakotas. I’m very curious if anyone has information on her.

  26. This is just wonderful I’m Chippewa European and I’m proud of my heritage and I’ve always been thank you for this wonderful site
    LFA

  27. My soul is singing and crying in gratitude and grief. My tribe is from the Pacific Northwest. Thank-you Susie for thinking of me and sharing them with me. My grandmother’s name was Suzan.

  28. Extremely interesting. Thank you for shareing these photos and historical comments.

  29. The detail captured in each and every photograph was remarkable. I perused them for a long while and every time I returned to a photograph I found something I had missed. Such a treasury of keepsake memorabilia.

  30. TRULLY AMAZING ! FOR THE VERY FIRST TIME I SAW PICTURES FROM THE Kwakiutl TRIBE THAT I WAS STUDYING FOR 3 OUT OF MY 4 YEARS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF SOCIAL AND ANTHROPOLOGICAL STUDIES…

  31. The best collection of Native American photos that I have seen to date. I need days to study all that is captured by this artist.

  32. Oh, the beautiful faces, amazing. What a magnificent body of work he’s left us. Would love to sit in a quiet library and take in every page. Thank you, thank you.

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