These Rare Photos Reveal How Native Americans Lived 100 Years Ago

1. Photographing A People Tied To The Land

Edward S. Curtis was a commercial photographer and ethnologist. His work investigated the lives and culture of Native Americans in the early 20th century.

2. It Started With A Native Princess

His claim to fame started with the portrait of Princess Angeline, the daughter of Chief Seattle. By the time Curtis found her she was living in poverty and living outside the limits of the city named after her father (the laws of the time banned Native Americans from the area of Seattle.)

3. The Size Of Curtis’ Project Was Incredible

Curtis started his project in documenting the tribes of North America in 1901 when he was 33 years old. Almost thirty years later he had studied more than 80 tribes and made more than 40,000 photos.

4. A Record Of The North American Indian

The work of Edward S. Curtis with indigenous cultures of North America was put in a multi-volume work called The North American Indian. The Library Of Congress has digitized thousands of the photos which were not originally published by Curtis.

5. A Chief And His Lake

This shot of Crater Lake, one of deepest and purest bodies of water in North America, shows how it is a region of the Klamath tribe. Their territory is filled with lakes and marshes. Here, a chief in full regalia overlooks Crater Lake.

6. The Water Sprinkler

In this photo, a Navajo man is covered in hemlock boughs and the mask of a clown connected to Tó Neinilii, the trickster rain god. They are dressed this way during the Yeibichai, a ceremonial dance.

7. Two Kinds Of Fame

On the left is Geronimo, the famous Apache chief, when he was around 74 years old. On the right is Bear’s Belly, a respected warrior from the Great Plains. His bearskin comes from a battle where he single-handedly killed three bears.

8. The Canoe Wedding Party

This 1914 photo shows a Kwakiutl wedding party arriving by canoes. There are a multitude of images of the Kwakiutl that Curtis’ made with Canadian ethnographer George Hunt, but unfortunately that collaboration has gone mostly unpublished.

9. His Work Wasn’t Entirely Honest

Curtis’ narrative of the “noble savage” in his photos sometimes clashed with modern life and had to fix it. This is the original photo of two men in a lodge with a clock between them, but in the published photo the clock was rubbed out.

10. The Wings Of The Thunderbird

Qunhulahl – Qagyuhl. 1914

This photo shows a dancer from the Kwagu’l nation of British Columbia. The portrayal is of Qunhulahl the thunderbird, a primary symbol in the Pacific Northwest. Oral traditions say that the spirit creates thunder from the flapping of its wings.

11. On The War Path

From Curtis’ notes, these warriors of the Atsina tribe were the war path. He continued, saying they “made a thrilling picture as they rode along, breaking out now and then into a wild song of the chase or the raid.”

12. Connecting Tribal Dances To Film

Curtis’ volumes captured the true spirituality of Native Americans in many photos. Here, Kwakiutl dancers perform during a winter ceremony in full dress, surrounded by totem poles.

13. Curtis’ Words On His Monumental Work

A total of 222 sets of The North American Indian were published. In the introduction to the first volume, Curtis said: “The information that is to be gathered…respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost.”







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