Edward S. Curtis
A century ago Edward S. Curtis made striking images of Native Americans.
Today we reckon with their legacy.
Every artist frames a story, pursues a narrative, shapes and shares a perspective—which can live on to shape others’ perspectives long after the original work was made.
In the early 1900s, photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis began a 30-year project to preserve in images and words the cultures of American Indian tribes. But in many ways, Curtis’ work also framed Native people in a past he believed was more “real” or “authentic” than contemporary life.
Curtis’s North American Indian project
40,000 images of 80 tribes
20-volumes of The North American Indian
2,200 etched metal images, or “photogravures”
5,000 pages of text
10,000 wax cylinder audio recordings
In Curtis’s view, for Indians, “the present was all of decline, the future practically nonexistent, the past glorious.”
Timothy Egan, Short Nights of the Shadowcatcher
The Frame Curtis Made
Curtis didn’t hide his grim view of Natives’ circumstance. He called the opening image of The North American Indian, “Vanishing Race,” writing, “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.” Sometimes he underscored their decline by photographing Native people in retreat at sunset. Backlight from the sun also helped to hide modern dress.
For Natives, the 20th century had familiar ups (electricity, cars, radio!) and significant downs (like Native youth being taken from parents and stripped of their culture in government Indian schools). Neither was the story Curtis told. In one famous image, he used techniques of the day to remove an alarm clock from lodge that otherwise appeared from the mists of history. The episode is included in the University of Southern California’s free digital media study, “Performing Archive: Edward S. Curtis + "the vanishing race"
Curtis preferred to make images of Natives in traditional dress, as the Yakama member and Chief Joseph are shown here. On several occasions, when a subject did not have traditional Native clothing, Curtis himself provided attire from other tribes. The image of Wilbur Peebo here is notable for Peebo’s Western clothing and short hair. It was unusual for Curtis to create photos of Natives who had assimilated in 20th century culture.
Many of Curtis’ portraits feature people wrapped in blankets, as these three Northwest women are, reflecting the prominence of blankets in Native culture. In 2014, Tohono O’odham students responded to Curtis’s blanket portraits with images of their own.
Native people aren’t tokens of yesteryear. We’re your neighbors and coworkers, the folks next to you on the bus.
In the century since The North American Indian’s first pages were published, Curtis’ images have not just preserved history. To many people, those images defined it—beginning, middle, and end. Our lives were boxed up and put on history’s shelf.
That view shortchanges a lot of actual history. Curtis didn’t make room in his frame for Natives adapting to modern life, or suffering under U.S. government policies to erase our cultures.
It also shortchanges all of us today—Natives and non-Natives alike.
We’re standing up to challenges. Some, like Native homelessness, are rooted in our historic struggles. Others, like climate change, we face shoulder to shoulder with the global community. We’re enjoying triumphs: in art, in language renewal, in business, and on the lands and waters we’ve tended for millennia.
Today, as in Curtis’ day, to be Native is a concept that’s larger than a single frame.
When Native Americans were moved onto reservations, owning their past and their imagery became a novelty for the well-to-do, according to Deanna Curator of Native American Art Portland Art Museum. Contemporary Native Photographers and the Edward Curtis Legacy.