45 Striking Portraits Of Native American Culture In The Early 20th Century

Published October 23, 2016
Updated October 22, 2020

Edward Curtis' portraits document Native American culture in the early 1900s -- as reservations and assimilation threatened to destroy it forever.

White Shield Arikara
Bullchief At The Ford
Hopi Maiden
Klamath In Costume
45 Striking Portraits Of Native American Culture In The Early 20th Century
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Edward Curtis spent his professional life taking pictures of Native Americans. His incredible photographs came at a great personal cost -- but Curtis fervently believed in the importance of his work.

When it came to preserving Native American culture, Curtis understood he was in a race against time.

Who Is Edward Curtis?

Edward Curtis' interest in Native Americans was likely born when his family relocated from the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest. Curtis had shown an early aptitude for photography. Before moving with his parents to Port Orchard, Washington -- near Seattle -- he served as an apprentice photographer in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Edward Curtis

Wikimedia CommonsAn Edward Curtis self-portrait. Circa 1889-1899

With a family of his own, Curtis bought a share in a photography studio in Seattle. Curtis spent most of his time photographing society ladies. But he was more interested in Princess Angeline, the eldest daughter of Chief Sealth. (Seattle is named for her father.) "I paid the princess a dollar for each picture I made," Curtis recalled.

Princess Angeline

Edward Curtis/Wikimedia CommonsPrincess Angeline in 1896.

In 1898, Curtis' photograph of Native Americans on the Puget Sound won a gold medal and the grand prize at an exhibition put on by the National Photographic Society. That same year, while photographing Mt. Rainier, Curtis ran into a group of lost scientists. They included George Bird Grinnell, an expert on Native American cultures.

The existence of Edward Curtis' pictures -- that is, his iconic collection of Native American portraits -- is arguably due to this chance meeting. Grinnell invited Curtis to Montana. They departed in July 1900 to see the sacred Sundance of the Piegan and Blackfoot tribes.

"It was at the start of my concerted effort to learn about the Plains Indians and to photograph their lives," Curtis later wrote. "I was intensely affected."

Curtis would go on to take thousands of photos of Native Americans.

Native American Potraits by Edward Curtis

This trip marked the beginning of Curtis' most ambitious project: A nearly comprehensive record of the Indigenous peoples of America and their disappearing way of life.

Six years later, banker and financier J.P. Morgan -- who had initially informed Curtis that he would not be able to fund his project -- awarded Curtis $75,000 to produce a 20-volume compendium called The North American Indian.

The volume --quickly considered a masterpiece -- elicited rave reviews. The New York Herald crowed that The North American Indian was, "the most gigantic undertaking since the making of the King James edition of the Bible."

Curtis' work ultimately took 30 years to complete and ruined his health along the way. It certainly ruined his marriage -- his wife filed for divorce in 1916, and won Curtis' Seattle photography studio in the process.

But Curtis pressed on. He hoped to photograph every Indigenous tribe in America -- a nearly impossible task, especially in the early 20th century -- but he came close.

The project yielded 40,000 pictures of 100 tribes. He reproduced around 2,200 of them for The North American Indian, published between 1907 and 1930. He furthermore recorded songs and speech from about 80 tribes, all in their native languages.

The Legacy of Edward Curtis Pictures Today

Curtis often romanticized Native American culture. He sometimes photographed his subjects in ceremonial wear that was not regularly worn and used wigs to hide modern hair cuts.

To Curtis, this was an important strategy. In the introduction of his first volume of work, Curtis wrote: "The information that is to be gathered... respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost."

In other words, Curtis felt he was in a race against time. He had to photograph Native Americans and their traditions while they still existed -- and insisted on doing so, even when "time" had the upper hand.

However, Curtis' attempt to capture the past has created critics today. Joe D. Horse Capture -- Vice President of Native Collections and the Ahmanson curator of Native American History and Culture at the Autry Museum of the West, as well as the descendent of one of Curtis' subjects -- suggested Curtis had a "romanticized idea" of Native Americans.

"It was unsmiling and sepia-toned," Capture said in an interview with The New York Times. "What he was trying to portray didn't exist anymore, so he recreated it."

Indeed, Curtis often went to great lengths to preserve the traditional look of his Native American portraits. He and his assistants sometimes retouched the images to remove traces of modernity. Notably, they removed the image of a clock in Curtis' photograph In a Piegan Lodge.

In A Piegan Lodge

Edward Curtis/Library of CongressIn later prints of this photo, Curtis and his assistants removed the clock. They sought to erase traces of modernity.

This complicated legacy was recently examined at an exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM). SAM describes the exhibit -- called Double Exposure -- as "150 images by [Curtis], alongside immersive experiences from three contemporary artists. Across a spectrum of media rooted in lens-based processes, all four artists contribute to a complex and ever-expanding portrait of Native America."

Double Exposure, SAM went on, "offers an opportunity to explore Indigenous identities from multiple, sometimes conflicting, viewpoints."

Despite the controversy around Edward Curtis' photos, they certainly capture something beautiful. Curtis' pictures of Native Americans present a vision of land, people, and tradition that is rare today.

Above, see 45 of Edward Curtis' most captivating photos.

Next, see what Native Americans actually look like today in these incredible portraits from Project 562. Then, see turn-of-the-century Native American photography like you've never seen it before: rendered in vivid color.

Elisabeth Sherman
Elisabeth Sherman is a writer living in Jersey City, New Jersey.