October 19, 2021 — When Edward Curtis died on this date in 1952, he left behind a massive body of work – 20 volumes of photographs attempting to capture a way of life that had largely ceased to exist.

Curtis was born in Wisconsin in 1868 but grew up near Cordova, MN. When he was 21, he moved with his father to Washington Territory, where he eventually owned a photography studio. Sometime during the mid-1890s, he began photographing Native Americans digging for clams and mussels on the tidal flats of Puget Sound.

Later, he became an official photographer for the 1899 Harriman Expedition, during which he documented indigenous people in Alaska. The experience greatly increased Curtis’s personal interest in Native cultures, and he began visiting tribal communities in Montana and Arizona to document what he termed “a vanishing race.”

In 1904, Teddy Roosevelt hired Curtis to photograph his children and then later hired him to photograph a family wedding. The president also wrote a letter of recommendation to J. P. Morgan, who, two years later, agreed to finance Curtis’s North American Indian Project. Curtis described it as an effort “to form a comprehensive and permanent record of all the important tribes of the United States and Alaska that still retain to a considerable degree their...customs and traditions.”

To capture his “vision”, Curtis hired people to pose for him and removed any semblance of modernism (for example clocks) from the scenes. He also had tribal members reenact scenes such as war parties, even though those days were over and tribes were now starving on reservations.

University of California professor Gerald Vizenor writes, “Curtis was a man of nature, a mountaineer and adventurist, but surely he could not have been unaware of...these native miseries. His first pictures must have drawn him into many conversations about natives. Curtis was motivated, after all, to pursue a photographic record of the last natives, and he did so with romantic, pictorial images that ran against the popular notions of the savage.”

Thus is was that Curtis softened the image of American Indians then held by the public and was simultaneously criticized for recreating history and presenting it as “real.” On occasion, for example, he asked tribal members to stage ceremonies out of context and out of season, not realizing the spiritual significance of what he was asking. In an effort to comply, his subjects sometimes faked their way through these sessions to hide their spirituality from the public, which in turn assumed the images were authentic.

Whatever your view, the vast body of work Curtis created is simply astounding. He spent 30 years visiting and photographing more than 80 tribes across the country, in Alaska and parts of Canada. Working alone or with various assistants, he took more than 40,000 pictures, published 20 volumes of work, recorded more than 10,000 examples of Native speech and music, and much more.

The first volume of “The North American Indian” was published in 1907, with a forward written by Roosevelt. It was about this time that he was in North Dakota photographing men, women and children from the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikira tribes. Photos taken of these tribes were published in Volumes 4 and 5 of the series in 1909.

“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast, or buy the Dakota Datebook book at shopprairiepublic.org.

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