The story of Edward Curtis, photographer of American Indian tribes

Bill Riley

By A Contributor

While it is likely few people in today’s society have recognition of Edward Curtis it is also likely most have seen examples of his 30-year commitment to photographically document the traditional lives of all of the North American Indian tribes. Describing his becoming, by default, a Seattle photographer in the late 1900s and the acclaimed family photographer of the Theodore Roosevelt family is an oversimplification of an incredible effort to create a permanent record of the American Indian.

Those of us who have enjoyed his works in our homes and galleries generally have no idea the fascinating story of how they came into existence through journeys of dedication and tenacity, bordering on single focused fanaticism.

He determined he had to create a permanent record of the customs and rituals of The North American Indian. Achieving this vision required gaining the Indian trust required to witness sacred dances and rituals. He wanted to show the true culture of the real American Indian before they became contemporary “Native Americans.”

Timothy Egan, known to many as the Pulitzer Prize winning author of “The Worst Hard Time” and five other books, including “The Big Burn,” has produced another highly entertaining story. In this book he focused on an unusual man by any measure.

Edward Curtis became fixated on creating a comprehensive photographic and linguistic record he called simply the North American Indian.

Over a 30-year span he took “more than 40,000 photographs, preserved 10,000 audio recordings and is credited with making the first narrative documentary film.”

Curtis spent weeks and months living with over 80 tribes throughout the western United States. This included the “Havasupai at the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the Acoma on a high mesa in New Mexico to the Salish in the rugged Northwest rain forest.” He eventually included the Eskimos of Alaska in 1927, visiting Nunivak Island, Nome and Kotzebue above the Arctic Circle. The time period of his work is significant.

His vision was to capture the traditional lives and cultures of these tribes. For example, the Kotzebue had already lost much of original Eskimo lifestyle. When this reviewer visited that same village some 85-years later there was little which remained evident.

Curtis was a large, handsome and charismatic individual with the ability to enthuse others with his vision. The vision was increasingly fueled by the realization that the tribes themselves were dropping in number.

He was able to enlist J. P. Morgan, at the time one of the wealthiest Americans, to fund his expenses for several decades. It was reported to the tune of over 2.5 million dollars, even though Curtis took no salary for his work.

This expense reflected the size and complexity of his entourage traveling to the most remote regions of the west and spending extensive periods of time in those locations. The intrigue of the Curtis story is magnified when we realize he also was an innovative pioneer in sophisticated high-quality photographic techniques.

He consistently used glass plate negatives and printing methods, which gave his photographs a distinctive and artistic quality. They also added to the challenge of the transporting the equipment. His story is not remarkable just for the scope of the project.

He was recognized in eastern United States and European galleries and museums for the quality of his work.

Egan has detailed several of the focused aspects of Curtis’s effort to present accurate and respectful images of the Indian culture as well as several of the iconic stories of the early west. He gives a perspective of Indian religion, which he submits played a more deeply sophisticated role in Indian culture than is generally portrayed.

Those familiar with Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce stories of his leadership in their running 1877 combat with the soldiers will find it fascinating that Curtis knew and photographed Chief Joseph. He was able to recount his personal views of that iconic chase.

Curtis also became a student of the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn and General Custer’s last days. Curtis was able to re-trace the battle with living Sioux battle participants and three Crow Army scouts who had escaped.

They had feared the results of being captured by their enemy, the Sioux. His careful conclusion in 1907, based on surveying and walking the battleground and their collective version, gave an early and new perspective on Custer’s actions.

His version was of course hotly contested by Custer’s widow, Libbie, and gave Curtis even higher visibility for his work.

Cutis cannot be credited with leading a balanced life. His wife eventually became bitter with him spending most of each year with remote Indian tribes and essentially the rest of his time traveling to promote his work. They had a bitter divorce and only after his children became adults did he again find a warm relationship with them. A number of serendipitous events placed him in surprising contact and friendship with several iconic figures of those times.

These included George Bird Grinnell, founder of the Audubon Society; John Muir; Clint Merriam, founder of the National Geographic Society; and Teddy Roosevelt. Egan shows how Cutis was influenced and supported by these well-known public figures.

As occurs too often, Curtis found disappointment and little public appreciation for his monumental work during his lifetime. In recent years a set of his completed volumes has sold in excess of one million dollars and his work is valued by numerous museums. Curtis died in 1952 essentially alone and penniless.

Bill Riley is the owner of Pathfinder and a Manhattan resident.

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