Our perception of history might change slightly over the years, but much of it is seemingly fixed and it’s unlikely new evidence will change our perspectives. We all carry preconceived notions about certain aspects of history, and it is hard to shake those out.
But our unshakable notions might actually change after seeing the work of famed ethnologist Edward Curtis. This is in large part thanks to his revealing and breathtaking photos of Native American tribes in the early 1900s.
These photos may have been taken over 100 years ago, but they might just be more powerful today than they ever were. When you see these images, you’ll be struck by how they make history come to life!
In 1906, Edward Curtis was granted $75,000 from infamous tycoon J.P. Morgan. His task was to create a 20-volume series on the Native American people that would feature 1,500 images, like the one below. This image in particular depicts canoes bringing a Kwakiutwlwedding party ashore in 1914.
Curtis first caught the eye of the world in 1895 with his photograph of Kickisomlo, the daughter of Chief Sealth of Seattle. It was the beginning of a serious career photographing Native Americans. In this image, dancers from the Qagyuhl tribe perform a sacred rite in 1914.
This portrait depicts a woman of the Wishran tribe in 1910. The craftsmanship is just unparalleled. While J.P. Morgan was funding Curtis, the money itself came into his coffers over a period of five years, and all of it went towards the project itself. Curtis himself received no salary for this epic project.
This beautiful portrait of a young Jicarrilla girl was taken in 1910. The Jicarrillas are part of the Apache tribe. While photos like these are what made Curtis a legend, he also captured Native American life in other forms, included in motion pictures.
The beautiful and frank face of Hollow Horn Bear from 1907 would have been lost forever if these photos hadn’t been taken. Over the years, Native Americans from different tribes all over the country grew to respect Curtis and his work.
This photo of a Hidatsa man carrying an eagle is majestic. If it were not for the important relationships Curtis formed with each tribe, these hunts and sacred rituals might never have been captured on film. In that respect, Curtis’s work is integral to our understanding of Native American culture.
Sioux chiefs patrol their territory on horseback in 1905 while Curtis follows. Though Curtis himself was only able to speak a few words in most Native Americans dialects, he always made sure to hire someone to work as a translator.
This picture depicts three Piegan chiefs roaming the plains in 1900. In addition to taking photographs like these, Curtis also recorded biographical information about the customs of the different tribes and the lives of their chiefs. While oral tradition remains, in some cases Curtis’s work is the only written account of the lives of these tribesmen.
This photo is of two young Piegan girls in a goldenrod field, dated 1910. Curtis made over 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of Native American language and music. He took over 40,000 photographic images of members of over 80 tribes, even though that went well above what Morgan had requested of him.
Here Curtis snaps a photo of Medicine Crow, a man of the Apsaroke tribe, in 1908. Thanks to the relationships he made with men like Medicine Crow, Curtis was able to record tribal lore and history, and he described traditional foods, housing, garments, recreation, ceremonies, and funeral customs.
In this photo, dated 1904, Navajo men ride across the plains of Canyon de Chelly, Arizona. While many of the tribes who Curtis followed, studied, and photographed lived in the United States, he also spent lots of time working with tribes in Canada, too.
Here, we see a duck hunter from the Kutenai tribe as he pushes out on the river in 1910. Curtis lived among the tribe during these projects, which allowed him to blend in enough to be able to capture informal portraits like this one.
In this image, a Crow tribe mother and her child pose for a formal photo in 1908. The Crow did not believe in having their photographs taken until they formed a relationship with Curtis, who explained the mechanics of the camera to them along with his own beliefs about what a photograph could do.
A shaman from the Apsaroke tribe looks into the distance in 1908. While this photograph might seem incredibly posed, all Curtis did was take the photograph while this shaman was preparing to perform a standard ritual for his people.
Here we see a salmon spear fisherman in 1923. When he wasn’t taking photographs of the tribes, Curtis was living among them. You can feel the anticipation in this photo—most likely because it was a feeling Curtis knew from holding the spear himself.
A man of the Crow tribe on horseback appears ready for battle in 1908. For photographs like these, Curtis wasn’t afraid to put his life on the line. When competing tribes came head to head over territorial disputes, he often accompanied the men to capture those meetings regardless of whether or not a peaceful outcome was assured.
Curtis’s collection reveals the stunning beauty few were able to capture by camera so many years ago. We really do have him to thank for so much of what we know about Native America culture in the 20th century.
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