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

Published November 25, 2021
Updated September 28, 2023

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

Klamath Woman
Bull Chief Apsaroke
Edward Curtis Pictures
Edward Curtis Photos
44 Striking Portraits Of Native American Culture In The Early 20th Century
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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?

Native American Pictures

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."

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, who was interested in Curtis' work.

Princess Angeline

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.

Inside Edward Curtis' Mission To Take Native American Pictures

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.

But Curtis pressed on. He hoped to photograph every Indigenous tribe in North America — a nearly impossible task, especially in the early 20th century.

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 Herald crowed 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.

After looking at these Edward Curtis photos, see what Native Americans actually look like today in these incredible portraits from Project 562. Then, see turn-of-the-century Native American photography in vivid color.

Elisabeth Sherman
Elisabeth Sherman is a writer living in Jersey City, New Jersey. She holds a Master's in writing from Columbia University, and her work has appeared in Food & Wine, The Guardian, Yahoo, BBC, HuffPost, VICE, MSN, and Vulture.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.