In 1906, American photographer Edward S. Curtis was offered $75,000 by financier J. P. Morgan to produce a series on North American Indians (Native Americans) and their culture. The 20-volume work, called The North American Indian, contained over 1,500 photographs, as well as records of tribal lore and history, biographical sketches, and descriptions of traditional foods, housing, clothing, ceremonies, and customs. The photographer’s goal was to document as much American Indian traditional life as possible before it disappeared. Although an extensive oral tradition remains among the tribes, Curtis’s fascinating work remains the only written recorded history of the North American Indian way of life in the early 20th century.
Three decades of work documenting North American Indians took the photographer all over the continent, as he traveled to remote locations in the Great Plains, the mountainous west, the Mexican border, and even the coast of the Arctic Ocean in Alaska and Canada. His rich pictorial records of over 80 tribes paint a romantic picture of the North American Indian way of life at a time when they were being forced from their land and stripped of their rights. Contrary to the popular depictions of American Indians as “savages” at the time, Curtis’s photos present an idealized view, portraying the subjects’ unique traditions and lifestyle surrounded by picturesque natural landscapes.
Perusing the thousands of stunning images is a breathtaking journey that transports the viewer to another time and place. To see The North American Indian in its entirely online, check out Northwestern University’s Digital Library Collections, here. Selections of the project are also available for purchase on Amazon and in other stores. Edward S. Curtis Gallery’s website
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