Today, the 4th of July, marks the Independence Day of the United States, which makes it the perfect excuse for festivities, fireworks, fanfare, and fun of all forms for people across the country. Today is also good day to remind Americans about the first settlers of the continent, the American Indians. Many records were made of these people and their culture before great changes came into their way of life, but none equal the beauty and scope of the works of photographer Edward S. Curtis.
The North American continent was already settled as far back as 12,000 years ago, and before the earliest European explorers arrived around the 15th century, there were already several hundred distinct cultures and languages that stretched from the Eastern United States to the Great Planes to Alaska.
By the end of the 19th century however, Native American Nations were under pressure by the US government and white settlers to either relocate or assimilate into the European-American culture. While some natives were able to adapt to the western culture, this meant that much of their traditional ways were being forcefully removed.
At around this time, Edward Curtis was just beginning his career in photography, having just opened a studio in Seattle. He was more of a society portrait photographer, but by 1900, he had joined a scientific expedition to Montana to photograph the Blackfeet Indians living there.
Curtis' began his documentation of the North American Indian people in earnest when famed industrialist J.P. Morgan granted $75,000 to the photographer in exchange for a series of 1,500 photographs on the subject. Curtis accepted the offer but went above and beyond the requirement by documenting tribal history, traditions, housing, foods, activities and customs of the people that he encountered.
In total, Curtis took more than 40,000 photographs from 80 different tribes, ultimately taking him over 30 years to complete. His photographic and written record of some of these tribes and notable individuals are the only recorded accounts of some of these indigenous groups, making his entire documentary career invaluable to American history.
Today, much of his photographs are praised for their authenticity and beauty, but there have been some controversy over the manner in which he made and edited some of his images. There have been cases where the same garment is found in different photographs of different tribesmen. He was also known to alter or retouch his negatives and positives by removing umbrellas, western accessories and anything that wasn't intrinsically Native American. There have also been cases where he paid individuals to reenact scenes in lavish attire.
Many others defend his work stating that these inaccuracies were not intentionally dishonest in nature, but were Curtis' way of providing a permanent visual record to future generations of what would otherwise be a lost tradition. Many agree that this was an unfortunate result of the kind of ethnographic romanticism that Curtis had for the American Indian people, resulting in the quality of photographs that portray these people in their seemingly unspoiled state.
Many different collections of Curtis' negatives and prints are scattered all over the US, but probably the best resource for modern day photography and history enthusiasts is Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian by the Library of Congress and Northwestern University. Over 2,000 digital images are freely available in good resolution, along with accompanying descriptive texts. The site is definitely worth a visit if you have a few hours to spare.
The different collections of Curtis' work are also available in many publications. Among the best reviewed are Edward S. Curtis: Visions of the First Americans, Edward S. Curtis: The Great Warriors, and The Many Faces of Edward Sherriff Curtis: Portraits and Stories from Native North America.