Window into the past by Edward Curtis

After reading Charles de Lint’s “Moonheart”, I was reminded of my old interest in Native American history and culture.  So I started searching for images as inspiration for my own drawing.   And this is how I stumbled across the work of Edward S Curtis:


Apparently, Edward Curtis is something of a controversial figure.  He spent about 30 years, from 1900 to 1930, documenting many aspects of traditional Native American life more than 45 000 photographs.  He also recorded music and stories.  So why is he controversial?  Well, its actually quite interesting.

Edward Curtis believed that the culture of Native American people was disappearing and that he had a duty to record as much as he could, for future generations.

Apparently, that in itself is an offensive attitude.  I am not living in America and so am obviously out of touch – but it seems that this belief in the inevitable erosion of Native American culture is a disempowering myth.


Edward Curtis had some troubling beliefs on racial purity, and his views were reflected in his methods. Any object that he considered to be to modern, or not fitting with the culture he wished to preserve – such as a wristwatch – was removed from his photographs. People were asked to perform ceremonies that they had not done for years – or ceremonies that were considered sacred and private.

Its clear that this is not a straight forward issue.  Native American people and their culture has proved more resilient than Edward Curtis believed.  But whatever one feels about his methods and beliefs – its its hard to be unmoved by photographs that depict such a startling range and richness of humanity and do, after all, show a way of life that no longer exists.

I found this interesting article by the nonist – which includes this statement:

Regardless of exactly the nature of what his photographs evoke, they are evocative, and very often beautiful, which is possibly the best one can say about a photograph from the artist’s standpoint. Not from a documentarian’s, or an ethnologist’s standpoint certainly, but from an artist’s.

And the photographs themselves? Here is a small selection.  Firstly some portraits:

A Jicarilla Apache girl wearing ceremonial dress from


A Cheyenne girl – the daughter of Bad Horse, wearing a feathered headdress from


Kenowun, a Nunivak Eskimo woman from


The Ogalala Women on horseback  from library of congress / American memory


Some ceremonial costumes from – I find these especially powerful and evocative:


And finally this beautiful image of Reuben Black Boy,  pictured in 1910 from


Have a look at  the nonist’s article – which is a thoughtful look at this question and also has a lot of lovely and startling images.

Or you could browse through  more of Edward Curtis’s photographs here.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Orrion
    Jul 22, 2009 @ 18:47:08

    I am 3/5 native and i must know if natives are from africa and mongolia or wher are they from

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