An Exhaustive Photo Series of Native American Life


Starting in 1906, photographer Edward Curtis spent decades traveling across America to chronicle Native American populations, publishing 20 volumes of photos and text between 1907 and 1930. He titled the project The North American Indian (highlighted on Kottke). He took photos, recorded wax cylinder audio of music and language, and wrote down tribal histories and biographies, creating what was sometimes the only written record of some of the 80 tribes he visited.

Curtis, who was largely concerned with documenting Native American traditions rather than faithfully depicting contemporary indigenous life, undoubtedly romanticized Native American culture in his images. He considered the people he visited a primitive “other,” and wasn’t shy about tweaking his images to suit his intentions, reportedly going so far as to remove modern devices like clocks from the frame and eliminating traces of tribes’ relationships with white people in favor of a kind of nostalgic recreation of Native American culture that’s more diorama than photojournalism.

But his photos at least provide some visual record of these tribes and their traditions, and while his intentions mar his project, the imperfect work is ultimately still of value to historic record. Most Native American cultures never quite got the photographic treatment that, say, Dust Bowl farm workers received in gritty photos of Depression-era poverty by Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange, although the federal government did commission some photography of reservation life around the same time. Check out a few of his images:

The North American Indian is available in full digital form through the Northwestern University library.

[h/t Kottke]

All images by Edward Curtis courtesy the Library of Congress

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