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The Klamath tribes, which now include the Modoc and the Yahooskin people, didn't encounter a white person until 1826, when a fur trapper wandered into their territory. Just 28 years later, in 1864, the tribes agreed to cede 23 million acres of their land in exchange for a reservation.
In 1954, an act of Congress ended federal recognition of the Klamath tribes, which meant that they lost their reservation and the accompanying human services. Their rights as a federally recognized tribe were not restored until 1986.
A Klamath woman. 1923.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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Plains Indians wore this headdress, which was often called a horned war bonnet. They made these headdresses from a buffalo and attached the animal's horns to the final product.
The Crow Bull Chief. 1908.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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The Jicarilla people are members of the Apache Nation, and originally resided in Colorado and New Mexico. The Jicarilla posed a strong resistance to European encroachment on their lands: They fought relocation in conflicts with the U.S. Army like the The Battle of Cieneguilla. Eventually, President Grover Cleveland signed an executive order establishing the Jicarilla Indian Reservation in New Mexico in 1887.
A young Jicarilla girl. 1904.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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The Arikara warrior White Shield. Circa 1908.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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As soon as the 1860s, while the federal government systematically forced Native Americans onto reservations, it also began setting up day schools near the newly formed reservations. The government intended for these schools to re-educate and "civilize" young Indian children.
By 1878, a U.S. Army Lieutenant named Richard Henry Pratt had set up boarding schools dedicated to re-educating Native American tribes. School rules forbade students from speaking their native languages, and mandated that they had their hair cut, wear Western attire, and that they practice Christianity.
A Crow man named Lies Sideway. 1908.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 established the first Cheyenne reservation in Colorado, long before Edward Curtis began his project.
However, during the Gold Rush, the government revoked that treaty and in 1877 forced the Cheyenne onto an Oklahoma reservation. Some Cheyenne people resisted, and escaped to Montana. In 1884, the federal government established a reservation for them there as well.
A Cheyenne woman. 1910.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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The Najavo Nation is currently the second largest federally recognized Indigenous tribe in America. In 1864, around 9,000 Najavo people were forced to relocate to Fort Sumter, New Mexico on foot in the "Long Walk."
The Navajo who survived the journey were forced to live in internment camps. In 1868, a treaty between the U.S. government and the Navajo leadership established a reservation on their ancestral lands, and the once-displaced people were allowed to return to their homes.
A Navajo man. 1904.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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Today, the Najavo reservation spans 14,000 miles between Arizona and New Mexico and their population exceeds 250,000 people.
A Navajo man. 1904.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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Bullchief, a Crow warrior, crossing a ford in a war bonnet. Circa 1905. Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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Cheyenne men wearing body paint for the Sun Dance, a religious ceremony practiced by the Plains Indians — such as the Cheyenne, Sioux, and Cree tribes — in the 19th century.
Tribes perform the ritual at the Summer Solstice, and it includes dancing, singing, and sometimes self-mutilation. For this reason, and in an effort to suppress Indian culture and religion, the practice was banned in the U.S. and Canada. It wasn't until Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978 that Plains Indians could openly practice the Sun Dance.
Cheyenne men preparing for the Sun Dance. 1910.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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The Skokomish people lived in the Hood Canal region of Washington State. Many Pacific Northwest Indian tribes practiced the Potlatch, a traditional feast held on special occasions. In an effort to suppress Indian culture and traditions, Canada banned the Potlatch in 1884 as part of its Indian Act. The government didn't repeal this ban until 1951.
A Skokomish woman named Hleastunuh. 1913.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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The Zuni people (also known as the Anasazi) are Pueblo Indians who reside in New Mexico. The name Pueblo comes from the adobe settlements they have lived in for more than 1,000 years.
A Zuni man named Si Wa Wata Wa. 1903.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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A portrait of a young Hopi woman. Circa 1905. Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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During World War II, the Marines recruited several Navajo "code-talkers" to create a code for the military that the Japanese could not break.
A Navajo chief. 1904.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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In 1870, the U.S. government established the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation for three tribes — the Arikara, Mandan, and Hidatsa — after they joined forces following tremendous losses in population from smallpox epidemics and forced relocations.
An Arikara girl. 1908.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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Eighteenth-century French-Canadian fur traders called this tribe the Nez Percé ("pierced nose"). The tribe, which originally called itself the Niimíipu, eventually adopted the French name.
In 1877, the Nez Percé split into two groups: Those willing to relocate to a reservation and those who refused. Led by Chief Joseph, nearly 3,000 Nez Percé tried to flee to Canada in June 1877, but the U.S. Army pursued and forced them to surrender in October. Today, their reservation is located in central Idaho.
A Nez Percé man named Three Eagles. 1910.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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A Klamath man in full costume. Circa 1923. Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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The Wishram people, or Tlakluit as they were known to each other, traditionally lived along the Columbia River in Oregon. In 1855, the government forced them to sign treaties that required them to cede most of their land. They were absorbed into Yakima Indian Nation in Washington State, where they live to this day.
A Wishham woman. 1910.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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The Cayuse people of Oregon and southeastern Washington merged with their close relations, the Umatilla and Walla Walla tribes, in 1855, after a treaty forced them to cede most of their ancestral land for the 250,000-acre Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon, where they still live today.
A Cayuse man. 1910.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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In the 1860s, cattle ranchers began to lay claim to the land in the Kittitas Valley, Washington. The growing industry dislocated Native American tribes living there. The Kittitas dispersed to the Yakima Valley, until they were absorbed into the Yakima Indian Reservation.
The Kittitas man Luqaiot in 1910.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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Titled "The Talk," this image depicts three Crow men resting with their horses. Circa 1905. Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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The Native American tribes inhabiting Clayoquot Sound are the Ahousaht and the Hesquiaht. They lived along the west coast of Vancouver. Around 1856, European settlers introduced diseases like smallpox and measles to this area, reducing the Indigenous population in the Clayoquot Sound by 90 percent.
A Clayoquot woman paddling her canoe. 1910.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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The name Sarsi was most likely given to this tribe by the Blackfoot people, with whom they had a long territory dispute. They now prefer to go by their own name, the Tsuu T'ina, and their official reservation is located in Alberta, Calgary, where the tribe originally lived before moving to the plains of the United States.
A Sarsi man named Aki-tanni, meaning Two Guns, in 1927.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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Edward Curtis wrote that the Asparoke, another name for the Crow people, first began treaty negotiations with the U.S. government in 1825. By 1868, "they relinquished their claim to all lands except a reservation... This area has since been reduce be cession to about 2,233,840 acres."
The Apsaroke man Lone Tree in 1908.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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An Apache baby in a cradle. Circa 1903. Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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The Nakoaktok belong to the Kwakiutl group of Pacific Northwest Indigenous peoples. They reside in British Columbia and Vancouver Island. From 1830 to 1880, the Kwakiutl population dropped 75 percent due to diseases that European settlers introduced to their tribes.
A Nakoaktok woman. 1914.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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Titled "Rigid and Statuesque," this Edward Curtis portrait depicts three Crow men looking off into the distance. The title also speaks to Curtis' tendency to romanticize his Native American subjects. Circa 1905.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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Though the Kutenai people of British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest first encountered European settlers in the early 1860s during the Gold Rush, they never signed a treaty with the federal government.
In 1974, the remaining Kutenai tribe declared war on the United States. Though the tribe remained peaceful, the display earned the attention of the government, which gave the tribe 12.5 acres of land that now constitutes the Kootenai Reservation.
A Kutenai woman with her canoe. 1910.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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A portrait of a Native American named One Blue Bead. Circa 1908. Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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The federal government tried to get the Atsina people, otherwise known by their French name of the Gros Ventre, to share a reservation with the Sioux in 1876, but the two tribes considered each other enemies and the Atsina refused to go. In 1888, the government established the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana as their official territory.
An Atsina man. 1908.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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A Crow man wearing a headdress and necklaces. Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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Titled "An Oasis," this Edward Curtis photo depicts six Navajo men on horseback. Circa 1904. Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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The Oglala Lakota people make up part of the Great Sioux Nation. The majority of them now live on the Pine Ridge Reservation, which Congress established in 1889 after it divided the Sioux Nation onto five different reservations. The Sioux Treaty of 1868 guaranteed the Lakota people ownership of the Black Hills in South Dakota, but the land was seized in 1877 after gold prospectors began crossing into the reservation. To this day, the Lakota continue to fight for the return of their land.
An Oglala woman with her child. 1905.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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Yellow Bull, a Nez Percé man. Circa 1905. Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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Running Rabbit, a Native American man holding a staff. Circa 1900. Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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A Navajo woman smiling in her doorway. 1904. Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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A Crow man named Two Whistles wearing a headdress made from a hawk. 1908.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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The Tewa are a group of Pueblo Native Americans who joined the Hopi people on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona following a 1680 revolt against Spanish settlers.
A Tewa man named Pose-a yew, meaning Dew Moving, in 1905.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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The Acoma tribe has lived on the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico for more than 800 years.
An Acoma man. 1904.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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Three Crow men participating in what Curtis terms "The Oath." 1908.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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An unidentified Crow man. 1908. Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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The Teton Sioux encountered Louis and Clark's expedition in 1804. The tribe refused to allow the explorers to pass through their territory without, according to National Geographic, paying a "toll of a tobacco" that would guarantee they could continue their travels unimpeded.
Two Teton girls, the daughters of a chief, on horseback. 1907.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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A Native American man who Edward Curtis identified only as "Big Head." 1905.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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Navajo men dressed as the war gods Tonenili, Tobadzischini, and Nayenezgani, for the Yebichai ceremony, otherwise known as the Night Chant. 1904.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
44 Striking Portraits Of Native American Culture In The Early 20th Century
Edward Curtis spent much of his professional life taking pictures of Native Americans. His incredible photographs came at a great personal cost — but he fervently believed in the importance of his work.
When it came to documenting Native American culture, Curtis understood he was in a race against time. And he was determined to capture every photo he could before it was too late.
Who Was Edward Curtis?
Wikimedia CommonsAn Edward Curtis self-portrait. Circa 1889-1899.
Born in 1868 in Wisconsin, Edward Curtis' interest in Native Americans likely took off when his family relocated to the Pacific Northwest in 1887. By that point, Curtis had already shown an early aptitude for photography. Before moving with his family to Port Orchard, Washington, he had served as an apprentice photographer in St. Paul, Minnesota.
After the move to Washington, Curtis got married — and bought a share in a photography studio in Seattle. At first, Curtis spent most of his time taking pictures of society ladies. But he was far more interested in photographing Princess Angeline, the oldest daughter of Chief Sealth of the Duwamish tribe. (Seattle is named for her father.)
"I paid the princess a dollar for each picture I made," Curtis recalled. "This seemed to please her greatly, and she indicated that she preferred to spend her time having pictures taken to digging clams."
Edward Curtis/Wikimedia CommonsPrincess Angeline in 1896.
The existence of Edward Curtis' pictures — that is, his iconic collection of Native American portraits — is arguably due to this chance meeting. Their quick friendship led to Curtis being appointed as the official photographer for the Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899, where he'd photograph Eskimo settlements. The following year, Curtis was asked to visit the Piegan Blackfeet people in Montana — a life-changing experience.
"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 more than 40,000 photos of Native Americans.
Native American Portraits By Edward Curtis
Edward Curtis/Library of CongressIn later prints of this photo, Curtis and his assistants removed the clock. They sought to erase traces of modernity in Native American pictures.
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.
In 1906, he approached banker and financier J.P. Morgan and asked him to back his project. While Morgan initially turned him down, Curtis was able to persuade him by showing him the stunning photos he had already taken. Morgan agreed to sponsor Curtis by paying out $75,000 over the course of five years in exchange for 25 sets of volumes and 500 original prints.
But just when Curtis started producing volumes of The North American Indian, Morgan died suddenly in 1913. And although J.P. Morgan Jr. contributed to Curtis' work, he didn't offer nearly as much money.
Curtis' work took about 30 years to complete — and it wreaked havoc on his mental health along the way. It also ruined his marriage. His wife filed for divorce in 1916, and won his Seattle photography studio in the process.
His project ultimately yielded 40,000 pictures of nearly 100 tribes. He reproduced around 2,200 of them for his 20-volume set, The North American Indian, which was published between 1907 and 1930.
Almost immediately after the first volume was published, it was considered a masterpiece and elicited rave reviews. The New York Heraldcrowed that The North American Indian was "the most gigantic undertaking since the making of the King James edition of the Bible."
The Legacy Of Edward Curtis Photos Today
Curtis had a reputation for romanticizing Native American culture. He photographed his subjects in ceremonial wear that was not regularly worn and used wigs to hide modern haircuts.
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. He also recorded more than 10,000 examples of songs, music, and speech in more than 80 tribes, most of which were in their native languages.
However, Curtis' attempt to capture the past has attracted criticism today. Joe D. Horse Capture — the associate curator at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. — suggested that 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. Sometimes, he and his assistants even retouched the images to take out traces of modernity. Notably, they removed the image of a clock in Curtis' photograph "In a Piegan Lodge."
This complicated legacy was recently examined at a 2018 exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM). SAM described the exhibit — titled Double Exposure — as "150 images by a historic photographer, 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 rarely seen today.