1,000+ Haunting & Beautiful Photos of Native American Peoples, Shot by the Ethnographer Edward S. Curtis (Circa 1905)


From the fig­ure­heads of ships to cig­ar store stat­ues to the car­i­ca­ture mas­cots of var­i­ous sports teams…. Unfor­tu­nate or den­i­grat­ing images of Native Amer­i­can peo­ples have per­sist­ed in pop­u­lar cul­ture, folk sym­bols of what Elis­a­beth W. Rus­sell refers to in her his­to­ry of the cig­ar store Indi­an as “The Van­ish­ing Amer­i­can.” The phrase comes from the title of a Zane Grey nov­el, which then became a 1925 silent film deal­ing, wrote the New York Times that year, “with the pass­ing of the Amer­i­can Indi­an.” Although both the nov­el and film attempt to protest the treat­ment of Native peo­ple by the U.S. gov­ern­ment, both under­write a com­mon, trou­bling assumption—that Native Amer­i­cans, like the Buf­fa­lo and the wild Mus­tang, were a threat­ened (and threat­en­ing) sep­a­rate species, whose “van­ish­ing” from the picaresque West (as they had “van­ished” from the East) was a lam­en­ta­ble, but per­haps unavoid­able, side effect of the march of Euro-Amer­i­can progress.

Curtis One

Each sym­bol­ic memo­ri­al­iz­ing of Native Amer­i­cans in U.S. iconog­ra­phy, how­ev­er solemn or offen­sive­ly car­toon­ish, ges­tures toward some mea­ger recog­ni­tion of a trag­ic loss, while eras­ing the cir­cum­stances that occa­sioned it. Of course Native Amer­i­cans didn’t van­ish, but were slow­ly killed or hound­ed into pover­ty and dis­pos­ses­sion, and out of sight of white America—their dress, reli­gions, and cul­tures made to dis­ap­pear through forced assim­i­la­tion, only to reap­pear in roman­ti­cized images of trag­i­cal­ly con­quered, but admirably war­like, prim­i­tives.


Those images pro­lif­er­at­ed dur­ing the mid-to-late 19th cen­tu­ry, the peri­od of intense West­ern set­tle­ment and expan­sion and the so-called Indi­an Wars. “It is a giv­en today,” writes his­to­ri­an Bri­an Dip­ple, “that the idea of the Amer­i­can Indi­an has been his­tor­i­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant. It shaped the atti­tudes of those in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry who shaped Indi­an pol­i­cy. Indi­an policy—be it removal of the East­ern tribes in the 1830s, reser­va­tion iso­la­tion­ism begin­ning in the 1850s, or allot­ment of reser­va­tion lands and assim­i­la­tion in the 1880s—cannot be under­stood with­out an aware­ness of the ideas behind it. Lit­er­a­ture and the visu­al arts pro­vide reveal­ing guides to nine­teenth cen­tu­ry assump­tions about the Indi­an.”


Native his­to­ri­an Vine Delo­ria describes the cul­tur­al sit­u­a­tion with more inci­sive wit in his “Indi­an Man­i­festo,” Custer Died for Your Sins: “The Amer­i­can pub­lic feels most com­fort­able with the myth­i­cal Indi­ans of stereo­type-land who were always THERE. These Indi­ans are fierce, they wear feath­ers and grunt. Most of us don’t fit this ide­al­ized fig­ure since we grunt only when overeat­ing, which is sel­dom.” By the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, “myth­i­cal Indi­ans” had become firm­ly embed­ded in pop­u­lar cul­ture, thanks to art and enter­tain­ment like the pre­sum­ably seri­ous attempts of Zane Grey and Fred­er­ic Rem­ing­ton, and J.M. Barrie’s deeply unse­ri­ous Peter Pan. It is in this cul­tur­al atmos­phere that pho­tog­ra­ph­er Edward Sher­iff Cur­tis’ huge, 20-vol­ume ethno­graph­ic project, The North Amer­i­can Indi­an emerged.

SIL7-058-021, 8/15/08, 3:01 PM, 8C, 5338x5873 (264+1428), 100%, Custom, 1/30 s, R39.5, G27.5, B38.9

Begin­ning in 1904, and with the even­tu­al back­ing of J.P. Mor­gan, writes Mash­able, Cur­tis “spent more than 20 years criss­cross­ing North Amer­i­ca, cre­at­ing over 40,000 images of more than 80 dif­fer­ent tribes. He made thou­sands of wax cylin­der record­ings of native songs and lan­guage, and wrote down oral his­to­ries, leg­ends and biogra­phies.” You can view and down­load more than 1,000 of these pho­tographs at the Library of Con­gress. Cur­tis thought of his work as doc­u­ment­ing “what he saw as a van­ish­ing way of life.” Moti­vat­ed by assump­tions about Native peo­ple as semi-myth­ic rem­nants from the past, the pho­tog­ra­ph­er “some­times med­dled with the doc­u­men­tary authen­tic­i­ty of his images. He posed his sub­jects in roman­ti­cized set­tings stripped of West­ern civ­i­liza­tion, more rep­re­sen­ta­tive of an imag­ined pre-Colom­bian exis­tence than the sub­jects’ actu­al lives in the present.”


The pho­tographs are beau­ti­ful, their sub­jects enno­bled by the dra­mat­ic light­ing and styl­ized pos­es, and the breadth and scope of the entire project is noth­ing less than breath­tak­ing. It set the stage for the sig­nif­i­cant work of lat­er pho­tog­ra­phers and ethno­g­ra­phers like Walk­er Evans, Dorothea Lange, and the Lomax­es. Cur­tis has even been cred­it­ed with pro­duc­ing the first doc­u­men­tary film. The images, his­to­ries, tra­di­tions, and biogra­phies Cur­tis pre­served con­sti­tute an invalu­able his­tor­i­cal record. That said, we should bear in mind that The North Amer­i­can Indi­an comes to us framed by Cur­tis’ assump­tions about Native Amer­i­can cul­tures, formed by a cli­mate in which myth vied with, and usu­al­ly sup­plant­ed, fact. What do we see in these staged images, and what do we not see?

One of Cur­tis’ enthu­si­as­tic ear­ly back­ers, Theodore Roosevelt—who authored the intro­duc­tion to Vol­ume One—was, “like many of Cur­tis’ even­tu­al sup­port­ers,” writes Valerie Daniels, “more inter­est­ed in obtain­ing a record of van­ish­ing Native Amer­i­can cul­tures as a tes­ta­ment to the supe­ri­or­i­ty of his own civ­i­liza­tion than out of any con­cern over their sit­u­a­tion or recog­ni­tion of his own role in the process.” Though Cur­tis did not nec­es­sar­i­ly share these views, and lat­er became “rad­i­cal in his admo­ni­tion of gov­ern­ment poli­cies toward Native Amer­i­cans,” he also had to please his financiers and his audi­ence, most of whom would have felt the way Roo­sevelt did. We should bear this cul­tur­al con­text in mind as we take in Cur­tis’ work, and ask how it shaped the cre­ation and recep­tion of this tru­ly impres­sive record of both Amer­i­can his­to­ry and Amer­i­can myth. Enter the archive of images here.

Curtis 9

via Mash­able

Relat­ed Con­tent:

226 Ansel Adams Pho­tographs of Great Amer­i­can Nation­al Parks Are Now Online

200 Ansel Adams Pho­tographs Expose the Rig­ors of Life in Japan­ese Intern­ment Camps Dur­ing WW II

Hand-Col­ored 1860s Pho­tographs Reveal the Last Days of Samu­rai Japan

New Rosa Parks Archive is Now Online: Fea­tures 7,500 Man­u­scripts & 2,500 Pho­tographs, Cour­tesy of the Library of Con­gress

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • AB says:

    Yes, thank you.

    In HS, I read Dee Brown’s “Bury My Heart at Wound­ed Knee.” Some­where in that book (I apol­o­gize for any errors I make in para­phras­ing) were notes from a reg­i­men­tal com­man­der lead­ing one of the tribes onto a reser­va­tion. In his jour­nal dur­ing the first few days of trav­el he describes them as “sav­ages.” After a few days, and inter­ac­tion with the chief, he writes, ‘I felt I was in the pres­ence of a supe­ri­or being.’ Over 3 decades lat­er that still res­onates some­where deep inside me. Whether it was because of a sim­ple and sud­den and short-lived under­stand­ing of what is tru­ly impor­tant or some pri­mor­dial voice that speaks of con­cern for the “least of these” I do not know. Accul­tur­a­tion seems to favor those will­ing to pur­sue some­thing more valu­able to them than life and our sto­ry is still being writ­ten…

    I espe­cial­ly enjoyed these two pic­tures:


    This lit­tle light of mine.
    I am going to let it shine.

  • Albert Hahnemannian (G+ username) says:

    Out­stand­ing, TY. That’s not 1000, though. Where are the rest?

  • Albert Hahnemannian (G+ username) says:

    Sor­ry, I just found the link. Don’t both­er respond­ing. Right, and THAT is out­stand­ing! TY

  • june whittle says:

    i am extrem­ly inter­est­ed in the Native Amer­i­can Indi­ans because for many years I have been tricked into believ­ing that the Native indi­an wasthe bad guy and were seen as sav­ages Iblame John Wayne movies.Ifeel as though I’ve been brain washed into believ­ing they were just sav­ages instead ofbe­ing the most intel­li­gen­tand resource­ful of natives.I was only able to under­stand their sit­u­a­tion because I browsed Pin­ter­est for pic­tures for my art. I am find­ing all infor­ma­tion I come across very help­ful for my under­stand­ing and the needs of these peo­ple Sin­cere­ly June

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