44 Historic Photos Of Native Americans Brought To Life In Striking Color

Published July 12, 2010
Updated November 16, 2020

As Native American tribes were increasingly wiped out at the turn of the 20th century, a few photographers were determined to preserve their history.

A Crow Dancer
Arrowmaker Ojibwe Man
Big Turkey
Blackfeet Girl
44 Historic Photos Of Native Americans Brought To Life In Striking Color
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As the 20th century approached, Native Americans faced mounting challenges to their lives, cultures, and traditions. After the Civil War, white settlers moved in droves toward the West. The completion of railroads leading that way only accelerated this migration — which would change the frontier forever.

Not only did farmers plow through the natural grasses to plant their crops, they also wiped out countless American bison that roamed the land. In the conflicts that followed, Native Americans often found themselves outnumbered by not only white settlers but also the U.S. government.

By the 1880s, most Native Americans had already been confined to reservations, many of which were placed in the least desirable areas. Many feared that their traditional way of life would soon be wiped out for good.

Meanwhile, some photographers like Edward Curtis, Walter McClintock, and Herman Heyn sought to preserve Native American culture through film. The colorization of these images adds a striking element — which can be seen in the gallery above.

Photographing A Disappearing People

Edward Curtis Photo

Edward Curtis/Library of CongressTitled "The Vanishing Race," this Edward Curtis photo depicts Navajos on horseback in 1904.

At the turn of the 20th century, the construction of railroads had dramatically and aggressively changed the western United States. It allowed white settlers to have easier access to the West. So it didn't take long for them to force Native American tribes onto reservations so they could take advantage of the best land.

To make matters even more difficult, the bison population — which was a food source for many tribes — had been decimated. Herds once numbered in the millions. By 1889, only about 1,000 bison were estimated to remain.

Edward Curtis, a photographer from Seattle, believed he was in a race against time when it came to capturing the culture of Native Americans. By the time he had arrived on some reservations, he had already lost the race. Many Native American children were in boarding schools, forbidden from speaking their own languages or practicing their cultures.

Still, Curtis persisted. He sought to preserve what he called a "vanishing" people on camera. In his lifetime, Curtis took over 40,000 pictures of Native Americans. Although he sometimes leaned heavily on the traditional — encouraging his subjects to pose in ceremonial clothing — Curtis succeeded in producing an incredible body of work.

But Curtis wasn't the only photographer interested in capturing Native American culture. Walter McClintock — a Yale graduate whose photos are featured in the gallery above — also journeyed West to take pictures.

At first, McClintock was supposed to simply work on a federal commission investigating national forests. But along the way, he became friends with the expedition's Blackfoot scout, Siksikakoan (also known as William Jackson). After McClintock's official work was done, Siksikakoan introduced him to the Blackfoot communities in northwestern Montana.

Much like Curtis, McClintock believed that he had a chance to preserve a vanishing people with photography. And, like Curtis, McClintock tended to focus on the traditional. Historian William Farr notes that McClintock was "curious about what he could still find of the fabled American West before the last remnants of it had slipped away."

McClintock, however, took things one step further than Curtis when it came to presenting his photographs. McClintock added color.

Capturing Color In Old Photos

Magic Lantern

Wikimedia CommonsBefore the modern-day image projector, there was the "magic lantern."

Between 1903 and 1912, McClintock took more than 2,000 photographs of the Blackfoot people in Montana. He sent a selection of his negatives to a Chicago slide colorist named Charlotte Pinkerton.

Using McClintock's field notes, Pinkerton worked to add the appropriate shades to his photographs. She likely employed the techniques of colorists of her day — applying pigments with oil, varnish, watercolor, or aniline dyes.

McClintock showcased his photographs by using a "magic lantern" — which was basically an early version of the image projector used for showing photographic slides. This machine would shine light through an image on a glass sheet in order to produce a larger picture — and wow your audience.

Most of Curtis' photos, on the other hand, do not employ color. Only a small number of his photographs were colorized, using watercolors and oils.

Why Add Color To These Photographs?

Seeing photographs of Native Americans in color breathes new life into their history. In color, the viewer can appreciate the vibrancy, depth, and texture of their lives. In addition, people are more likely to remember a color photo than a black and white photo.

In fact, a new generation of artists and historians have sought to color old photographs. Marina Amaral, a Brazilian artist who specializes in colorizing historical photographs, says, "Color has the power to bring life back to the most important moments."

Mads Madsen, a Danish artist who colorizes old photos, notes that the reaction to his work is often one of empathy and connection. "I love how colorized photos enable me to imagine these guys walking around today," one commenter raved.

Another powerful modern example is They Shall Not Grow Old, a colorized World War I film by director Peter Jackson. A New Yorker review mused that the addition of color adds a new intimacy to a well-known story: "Things that we're accustomed to experiencing abstractly through a distancing veil of archaisms and antiquity are suddenly real before us."

As for the colorized photos of Native Americans, you can make out facial expressions, the color of the sun as it dips behind a teepee, and the vibrant blankets used to wrap babies. With a touch of color, the photographs in the gallery above pull the past closer to the present.


Next, check out century-old photos of Native Americans taken by Edward Curtis. Then, have a look at some stunning Native American masks from the early 20th century.

All That's Interesting
All That's Interesting is a Brooklyn-based digital publisher that seeks out the stories to illuminate the past, present, and future.