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Go directly to the collection, Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian: Photographic Images, in American Memory, or view a Summary of Resources related to the collection.
Chronological Thinking: Interpreting a Timeline
The Special Presentation section of the collection home page presents a "Biographical Time Line for Edward S. Curtis." Use the timeline to trace the major events in Curtis's life and his fieldwork in the development of his twenty-volume study of the American Indian.
- In his "General Introduction," Edward S. Curtis wrote that the work of writing The North American Indian began in 1898. What happened that year that marked the beginning of his work?
- Select three other events in Curtis's life prior to 1907 that you think were especially important in preparing him to undertake this huge task. Justify your selections.
- No activities are listed on the timeline between 1907 and 1912. Use other resources in the collection to fill in Curtis's activities in those years.
- Why do you think the timeline shows so few events during the last years of Curtis's life? What might you conclude about how events are selected for timelines or other accounts of a famous person's life?
Historical Comprehension: Identifying Historical Perspectives
The captions Curtis wrote for his photographs are primary sources, just as the photographs themselves are. By drawing the viewers' attention to certain aspects of a photograph or labeling objects or people in particular ways, Curtis was attempting to frame the viewer's response to the photographs. Examine Curtis's caption to the photograph "The Apache" and compare it to the description accompanying the photograph of Genitoa.
"This picture might be titled 'Life Primeval.' It is the Apache as we would mentally picture him in the time of the Stone Age. It was made at a spot on Black River, Arizona, where the dark, still pool breaks into the laugh of a rapids."
"No picture could better show the old renegade type of the Apache than this one of Genitoa. It is the type of Indian who has yielded to the inevitable and lives in peace - not because he prefers it, but because he must."
- Why do you think Curtis used such expressions as "Life Primeval," "Stone Age," and "renegade type" in the captions? What do these expressions reveal about his views?
- What was Curtis's purpose in describing the setting of the photograph titled "Apache"? Why did he use such metaphorical language as "the laugh of a rapids"?
- How do these descriptions reflect society's view of the American Indian in the early years of the 20th century?
Historical Comprehension: Identifying the Central Question a Narrative Addresses
Historians and others who write about the past begin their research by asking questions. The narratives they write then answer those questions. Examine the caption Curtis wrote to accompany "As it was in the old days." What central question does this narrative answer?
"In early days, before white men invaded the Great Plains and ruthlessly slaughtered them by the hundreds of thousands, bison were of prime importance to the hunting tribes of the vast region in which those animals had their range. The bison was not only the chief source of food of the Plains Indians, but its skin was made into clothing, shields, packs, bags, snowshoes, and tent and boat covers; the horns were fashioned into spoons and drinking vessels; the sinew was woven into reatas, belts, personal ornaments, and the covers of sacred bundles; and the dried droppings, 'buffalo-chips,' were used as fuel. So dependent on the buffalo were these Indians that it became sacred to them, and many were the ceremonies performed for the purpose of promoting the increase of the herds."
Browse by Subject to identify a topic in which you are interested. Before you examine any of the photographs, list two questions you have about this topic. Browse through several photographs on the topic. Do the photographs or captions answer your questions? If not, what questions do they answer?
Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Understanding the Author's Purpose
Curtis selected this darkened photograph of Navajo riders "passing into the darkness of an unknown future" as the first illustration in Volume 1 of his twenty-volume study. He wrote this caption:
"The thought which this picture is meant to convey is that the Indians as a race, already shorn in their tribal strength and stripped of their primitive dress, are passing into the darkness of an unknown future. Feeling that the picture expresses so much of the thought that inspired the entire work, the author has chosen it as the first of the series."
Examine the photograph and analyze the caption.
- How did Curtis use this photograph to establish the theme of his entire work?
- What emotions does the photograph evoke?
- How effective are this photograph and its caption in conveying Curtis's premise that the American Indian is a "vanishing race"?
Historical Issue Analysis and Decision-Making: Photographing Rituals
In his "General Introduction" to The North American Indian, Curtis described the difficulty of convincing Indians to allow their private lives and rituals to be photographed:
"The task has not been an easy one, for although lightened at times by the readiness of the Indians to impart their knowledge, it more often required days and weeks of patient endeavor before my assistants and I succeeded in overcoming the deep-rooted superstition, conservatism, and secretiveness so characteristic of primitive people, who are ever loath to afford a glimpse of their inner life to those who are not of their own. Once the confidence of the Indians gained, the way led gradually through the difficulties, but long and serious study was necessary before knowledge of the esoteric rites and ceremonies could be gleaned."
Given that many ceremonies were not intended for public viewing, why do you think Curtis wished to photograph them? Why do you think the Indians eventually agreed? With a partner, write a dialogue between Curtis and a Native American spiritual leader, discussing the pros and cons of photographing religious rituals. If you were Curtis, would you have decided to photograph sacred ceremonies? Why or why not? If you were the Native American spiritual leader, would you have granted permission for the ceremonies to be photographed? Why or why not?
Historical Research Capabilities: Researching the Lives of Native Americans
Curtis played upon stories of Indian warriors and staged photographs invoking by-gone images of Indians on raiding parties for his 20th-century audience. In his essay, "Edward Curtis: Pictorialist and Ethnographic Adventurist," Professor Gerald Vizenor describes Curtis's photographs as "simulations of the real." Curtis provided costumes and paid Native Americans to pose in staged scenes. Vizenor highlights "Oglala War-Party" as an example.
This photograph was published in 1907, at a time, according to Vizenor, "when natives were starving on reservations." Research the Oglala people to find out where they were living in 1907 and under what conditions they lived. What was the history of their relationship to the U.S. government? Given the information you uncover, is Curtis's photo an accurate representation of the Oglala people? Why might Curtis have chosen to create this particular depiction of Native Americans?
- What is the image of the American Indian reflected in these photographs?
- Choose one of these groups to research. Does the picture of that group accurately reflect the "spirit of the past"? Does it romanticize the lives of the American Indians? Use your research to explain your answers.