Lakota Sioux chiefs of the Great Plans, perched atop their horses, wind blowing through the feathers of their headdresses, look positively regal. Crouched in front of a blank screen during a ritual, Nakoaktok dancers in the Pacific Northwest wear grass skirts and long wooden Hamatsa masks that appear to outweigh them in size. Portraits playing with light offer minute details of people from cultures that are now largely extinct.
These are just some of the prints in Edward Sheriff Curtis’s Indians of North America collection, which was later turned into a book.
Curtis, who was born in Wisconsin, became enthralled with cultures that were different than his own while living in Seattle at the turn of the 20th century. In 1906, with the backing of financier J.P. Morgan, Curtis began a photography project documenting Native American tribes—a project that spanned an entire continent and more than three decades and eventually produced some 40,000 images from 80 different tribes. It also included written text of oral histories, biographies, and recordings of native songs.
In his quest, Curtis spend many years living with different tribes throughout North America. While some critics have frowned upon Curtis’s occasional use of staged photos, art curator and scholar Bruce Kapson, argued the opposite.
“He was the first photographer to ever work with the American Indian as an equal and not an object of curiosity,” Kapson said. “He involved the American Indian in their portrayal of how they wanted to be viewed for future generations.”
Today, Curtis’s work is recognized by the Library of Congress as one of the most important historical records of Native American life.