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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.


A portrait is a painted or photographic likeness of a person. Often, a portrait shows only the person's face, but some portraits show part or all of the person's body. A good portrait captures not only appearance, but also character. Lighting, pose, where the subject's gaze is directed, props, and backgrounds are some of the ways a photographer can convey character.

Vash Gon - Jicarilla
Vash Gon - Jicarilla (The North American
Indian; v.01)

Curtis made many portraits of Native Americans. Below is a list of just a few of the many portraits in the collection. Access many more portraits by Browsing by Subject and clicking on Portraits under the Persons heading.

Examine several of Curtis's photographic portraits. Look carefully at the portraits before reading the captions. Notice the lighting in the photographs. Examine how the subjects are posed, where they are looking, which features are most dominant, and the expressions on their faces. Study the backgrounds and any other objects shown in the pictures. Then read the captions and answer the following questions.

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Photographic Composition

In his essay "Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952) and The North American Indian," Professor Mick Gidley says that Edward Curtis "kept abreast of national, even international, trends in photography — and in the visual arts more generally." In the second half of the 19th century, many photographers were concerned that photography be considered an art form. Taking what has often been called a "painterly" approach, they were at times more concerned about the visual effect of the finished photograph than about the subject matter.

Curtis was obviously interested in the subject of his work, as he devoted decades to photographing Native Americans. However, he also sought to make his work aesthetically pleasing. One way he did that was to stage the photographs (a strategy that also allowed him to manipulate the content or message of his photographs). Staging the photographs allowed him to control their composition, the way in which the elements of the picture are arranged to create a visually appealing image.

Men on horses in front of moutains
In the Bad Lands (The North American Indian; v.03)

Examine the picture to the right as you consider these elements of composition:

Locate ten photographs from the Curtis collection that you find visually appealing. Closely study the photographs you have selected, answering the questions below in your analysis.

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Persuasive Writing

Theodore Roosevelt, in his multi-volume Winning of the West, published in the 1890s, described American Indians as "lazy drunken beggars" who were bloodthirsty and cunning in war. Although Roosevelt wrote the preface for Curtis's work, praising it for its artistic merit, his view of Native Americans was distinctly different from Curtis's. What kinds of photographic evidence could be used to challenge Roosevelt's views? Select photographs from the collection that provide such evidence. Write an accompanying narrative to persuade readers that Roosevelt's description of Native Americans was inaccurate.

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Helen Hunt Jackson was born in Massachusetts but became known for writing about Native Americans in the West. After hearing a speech by Chief Standing Bear, she wrote a book entitled A Century of Dishonor (1881), in which she condemned the U.S. government for its treatment of Native Americans. She also wrote a novel, Ramona (1884),which she hoped would have an effect similar to that of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Read a selection from Helen Hunt Jackson's A Century of Dishonor or Ramona and compile a series of photographs from the Curtis collection to illustrate the selected reading. Write captions for the selected photographs to reflect Jackson's portrayal of the American Indian. Would these captions be consistent with Curtis's descriptions? Why or why not?

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Arts and Crafts: Pottery

San Ildefonso pottery (The North American Indian; v.17)

Several Native American groups in the Southwest are renowned for their pottery. Use pottery and kiln to conduct a Keyword search for photographs of pottery, the construction of a kiln, and firing pottery. Examine Curtis's photograph of the pottery burners at Santa Clara and the polished black pottery of San Ildefonso shown below. According to Curtis, the black pottery revived a style reported in the chronicles of Coronado's expedition into what is now New Mexico.

In the 1920s, Maria Martinez of San Ildefonso invented a new style of pottery making based on the pueblo's famous black pottery. Consult an encyclopedia or art books or locate Internet sources on Maria Martinez. Examine illustrations of her distinctive pottery and compare it to Curtis's photographs of Southwestern pottery in the collection. How are the two types of black pottery similar? Can you detect any differences? If so, describe the differences.

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Arts and Crafts: Basketry

Karok baskets (The North American Indian; v.13)

Baskets and the making of baskets were important to many different American Indian cultures. A Keyword search for basket will generate a lengthy list of photographs of a variety of different baskets; the following are just a few examples:

Study photographs of baskets from several different Native American cultures. Answer the following questions:

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Arts and Crafts: The Kachina

Kachina Dolls
Kachina Dolls (The North American Indian; v. 12)

In Hopi culture, Kachinas are sacred spirits. The carved figures representing the Kachinas, called Kachina dolls or Tihus, were originally used to teach children about deities and rituals. (They are not dolls in the sense of playthings.) The dolls were traditionally given to girls because women had less contact with the spirit world. Men had greater contact with the spirit world because they dressed in costumes to represent the Kachinas during important ceremonies. Some, dressed as ogre Kachinas, threatened disobedient children, whose mothers protected them by "bribing" the ogre Kachinas with food. The food collected during these ceremonies was distributed to priests and villagers.

Study Edward Curtis's photograph of nine Kachina dolls and answer the following questions:

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Last updated 02/23/2005