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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.


Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian is a collection of photographs of eighty American Indian cultures from the Great Plains, Great Basin, Plateau Region, Southwest, California, Pacific Northwest, and Alaska. The digital collection presents more than 2200 sepia-toned photographs from Curtis's The North American Indian, originally published in 20 volumes between 1907 and 1930. The financier John Pierpont Morgan agreed to subsidize Curtis's expeditions, provided the photographs were published in a set of books. Theodore Roosevelt endorsed the project and wrote a preface for the first volume, extolling the publication as a remarkable art collection.

Horses and riders going through a canyon
CaƱon de Chelly - Navaho (The North American
Indian; v.01)

Although not a trained ethnologist, Curtis documented some aspects of the customs and lifestyles of American Indians of the trans-Mississippi West. The publication of Curtis's work, highly romanticized and most craftily staged, exerted a major influence on the image of Indians in popular culture. Curtis is reported to have retouched some of the photographs in order to remove modern objects, adding to the popular illusion of Native Americans as a primitive people.

The Special Presentation, "Edward S. Curtis in Context," presents several useful tools. While consulting online reproductions of the images and captions, the user can look up facts on a Curtis timeline and view a map identifying locations of the Native Americans when they were photographed by Curtis. Accompanying essays discuss how Curtis worked, what his work has meant to Native peoples of North America, and how he promoted the view, dominant in the early twentieth century, that American Indians were a "vanishing race." These essays provide an essential context for viewing the images in the collection.

This online collection contains all of the images and caption text as originally published in The North American Indian. Curtis's captions reflect a perspective that Indians were "primitive" people whose traditional cultures and ways of life were disappearing. In his representation of Indians as the "vanishing race," Curtis echoes the prevailing view held by Euro-Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Contemporary readers should interpret the captions in that context.

Curtis photographed some sacred ceremonial rituals that were not intended for viewing. These images are included in the digital collection in order to fully represent the work.

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U.S. Policy and "The Vanishing Race"

The outbreak of a series of wars on the Great Plains in the mid-1860s led to the formation of a federal commission to determine the causes of increasing hostilities. The commission's initial report in 1868 indicated the hostile treatment of Indians and recommended steps to bring Indians into "white civilization." The Grant administration promoted a "reservation policy" to remove Native Americans from direct contact with the increasing numbers of white migrants who were putting pressure on territorial governments to annihilate what they considered the "Indian menace." Those Indian nations that refused to accept the reservation policy gave battle and experienced some limited success in staying the movement of their people from their ancestral homelands. For example, the defeat of General Custer in 1876 at the battle of the Little Big Horn only delayed the movement of the Oglala Sioux to a South Dakota reservation.

Recognizing that the reservation policy had not provided a solution to the "Indian problem," Congress passed the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887. The thinking behind the Dawes Act was that if individual Indians became farmers and were provided with a small tract of land, they would more easily assimilate — that is, adopt the ways of Euro-Americans. In essence, the act broke up tribal organizations. Reservation lands, formerly held by communities rather than individuals, were to be distributed to individual family units (up to 160 acres) with full ownership attained after farming the land for 25 years. Tribal lands remaining after individual allocations were declared surplus and sold to non-Indians.

Several Indians in war costumes on horses
Planning a raid (The North American Indian; v.03). Note that this
picture was taken six years after the massacre at Wounded Knee,
a fact that Curtis does not acknowledge in his description of the photo.

Some Indians found solace in a new movement called the Ghost Dance religion founded by Wovoka, the Paiute Messiah. The movement taught that if Indians took part in a ritual Ghost Dance, all whites would disappear and dead Indians would return along with the great buffalo herds that would again provide for their livelihood. Adherence to the Ghost Dance religion alarmed officials, who attempted to repress the movement. In December 1890, tribal police were sent to arrest Sitting Bull because he refused to stop the Ghost Dance on the Standing Rock reservation. Sitting Bull was killed during the attempted arrest. Some followers of the Ghost Dance religion fled the reservation in panic and later surrendered to the 7th Calvary at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. While attempting to disarm the band of Indians, shots rang out. The massacre of Ghost Dancers at Wounded Knee ended Indian resistance.

The reservation policy and the Dawes Act had been implemented before Curtis began to consider a photographic study of American Indians, but evidence of these policies is difficult to find in the collection. Instead, Curtis focused on conveying American Indians as a "vanishing race." He produced images that appealed to what Professor David R.M. Beck, in his essay "The Myth of the Vanishing Race," refers to as "nostalgia for an 'almost extinct civilization.'"

Pick any ten photographs from the collection. You might want to Browse by Subject to find photographs on a range of topics. Look carefully at the photographs and the captions.

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American Indian Leaders

Portrait of Princess Angeline
Princess Angeline (The North
American Indian; v. 09)

Edward Sheriff Curtis began his career as a photographer in Seattle in the 1890s and became known as a landscape photographer. In 1899 he accompanied an expedition to Alaska as the official photographer. During the expedition he developed an interest in anthropology and ethnology. On his return to Seattle he pursued his interest in photographing American Indians. "Princess Angeline," the daughter of Suquamish Chief Sealth (Siahl) for whom Seattle was named, was among his first Native American models.

During his career, Curtis photographed a number of prominent Indian leaders, including Apache chief Geronimo, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, and Chief Red Cloud of the Oglala Sioux. Study these three photographs and the descriptions provided by Edward S. Curtis. Then choose one of these leaders to study further. Research the person's life and create a timeline of events in his life. Choose a quotation from the leader to serve as the caption for the photograph.

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Native American Rituals

Although photographs capturing sacred ceremonies were seldom if ever permitted, Curtis persuaded some nations to permit him to photograph ritual dances as a means of preserving a record of cultural traditions. Curtis staged some photographs of sacred rites, brushing out tourists who may have been captured in the background.

The Hopi snake dance ritual, performed as an incantation to bring rain for an abundant harvest, was one of the rituals photographed by Curtis. While the dancer clutched a rattlesnake in his teeth, he was followed by a "hugger," who calmed the snake with a feathered stick. Once the dance concluded, the snakes were released in the plaza, where women sprinkled them with cornmeal. Runners would pick up the snakes and carry them in four directions before releasing them in the desert. According to Hopi tradition, the snakes return to the underworld carrying prayers to the rain god. Examine Curtis's photographs showing different elements of the Hopi ritual dance, as well as photographs of other dances intended to bring rain:

Man in front of a cave
Snake Priest Entering the Kiva

Examine photographs of the Arikara medicine ceremony "The Ducks", the Qagyuhl ceremony to restore an eclipsed moon, and "Peyote Drummer". Analyze Curtis's captions for clues to his view of ceremonial practices.

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Shelter and Dress

Native Americans' adaptations to their regional environments are readily illustrated by different materials used to construct shelters or in the garments they wore. Using a piece of poster paper, make an enlarged copy of the map showing the "North American Indians as Witnessed by Edward S. Curtis". Next, locate the following photographs of dwellings and read the captions provided by Curtis:

Young Indian in costume posing by a tree
Flathead childhood (The North American
Indian; v.07)

Print out a copy of each photograph and mount it on the enlarged map in the appropriate location. Think about the climate and vegetation in the locations where you have placed the photographs.

Conduct a similar exercise to learn about the differences in clothing worn by women and men of different Indian cultures. Links to photographs illustrating clothing are provided in the "Basic Clothing" section of the subject index.

What materials were used in making this child's clothing? Where do you think the Flatheads lived?

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Cultural Exchange

Curtis's caption to the photograph entitled "Flathead Chief," notes that the Flatheads of the Rocky Mountain Plateau adopted much from Plains culture. "Not only their domicile, their garments, weapons, and articles of adornment...but many of their dances were in imitation of similar ceremonies practiced by the prairie tribes." Examine the captions to the photographs "A Klamath" and "Umatilla Maid" for similar examples of cultural exchange. Show these examples of exchange on a map. What inferences can be drawn from the exchange of cultures among American Indian nations?

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Last updated 02/23/2005