In the early 1900s, photographer Edward S. Curtis set out on an epic mission: to capture the experiences of Native Americans throughout the American West. Over the span of 30 years, Curtis documented more than 80 tribes west of the Mississippi, from the Mexican border to northern Alaska.
After decades of work (funded by financier J.P. Morgan), Curtis and his field team ended up with more than 40,000 photographs, 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of Native American music and stories, and stacks of notes and sketches. The collections were compiled into a 20-volume set of books, titled The North American Indian.
The photographs command respect for a group of people that had been marginalized over the span of the 19th century. But the work has also been met with criticism. Some have argued the photos, many of which were staged, present a romanticized version of Native American life—by a white photographer.
By the time Curtis approached various tribes, their way of life had already been forcibly changed by U.S. government policies, so he staged many of the photos. Curtis had his subjects dress in traditional clothing that most no longer wore. And he photographed people in settings seemingly untouched by time—sometimes even altering photos to remove modern artifacts from view.
As art historian Shannon Egan argues, Curtis may have been driven to preserve what the photographer described as a “vanishing race,” but his staged photos “suppressed the plight of the ‘real’ Indians and replaced it with a narrative of Indianness that served the artistic and political needs of an Anglo-American culture.”
At the time Curtis traveled throughout the West, Native Americans had already endured a century of encroachment. Since the age of colonization in America, the concept of a “New World” overlooked generations of people who had previously occupied the continent. Colonists' westward expansion accelerated at the start of the 19th century. Indigenous people faced losing their culture and homes as more white Americans wanted, and felt entitled to, the land.
To fix the “Indian Problem,” colonists tried to assimilate different tribes to more European-style ways in their speech, economic practices and lifestyles. In 1830, President Andrew Jackson championed the Indian Removal Act, which gave the government power to take over American Indian-occupied land east of Mississippi and forcibly move tribes out West to the “Indian colonization zone.” The series of forced relocations became known as the Trail of Tears, as thousands of Native Americans died in the long, arduous journey west.
By 1840, tens of thousands of Native Americans had been moved to land that was promised to be a safe designated space. However white settlement continued to push westward into indigenous territories and the land that Native Americans once could call their own was soon overtaken.
The images of Native American tribes captured by Curtis and his team may present an idealized perspective, but the work has nonetheless been celebrated for the beauty of the images and their documentary value.
In 1912, 227 of Curtis’s gelatin silver and platinum prints were displayed in the grand venue of the New York Public Library. That year, Arizona became the final contiguous state to achieve statehood in a milestone that was seen as a symbolic conclusion to the country's frontier phase. Native Americans, meanwhile, weren’t granted full U.S. citizenship for another 12 years.
“Taken as a whole, the work of Edward Curtis is a singular achievement,” wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and Kiowa Tribe member, Navarre Scott Momday. “Never before have we seen the Indians of North America so close to the origins of their humanity, their sense of themselves in the world, their innate dignity and self-possession.”
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