These Rare, Century-Old Native American Photos Will Transport You Back In Time
At the beginning of the 20th century, a Seattle-area photographer named Edward S. Curtis was financed by tycoon J.P. Morgan with a unique mission: to document the extremely diverse lives and cultures of the Native American peoples of the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, the Southwest deserts, the Alaskan tundra, and the Pacific Northwest coastal forests.
His staggering collection of thousands of Native American photos comprise his book, “The Native American Indian.” Published in 1930, a recent copy of the book went up for auction at Swann Galleries in New York. It was expected to gather in over £1,000,000 — and it’s easy to see why.
1. Bear’s Belly
Perhaps it’s something about the sepia tones, or something about the beautiful gleam of his skin, or the texture of the fur that he’s wrapped in, but this photo haunts somewhat differently and more poignantly in a way that makes it stand out from the rest of Edward S. Curtis’s collection of Native American photos.
Here we see Bear’s Belly, a member of the Arikara Nation, who migrated both willingly and forcibly north across the Great Plains to their final home in present-day North Dakota. Wrapped in a bearskin, Bear’s Belly is prepared to enter the sacred ceremony of the medicine fraternity, where participants give thanks and praise to the different animals and crops for their gifts.
2. In A Trance
Edward S. Curtis spent a prolonged amount of time among the indigenous nations of British Columbia, most notably the Kwakwaka’wakw, known also as the Kwakiutl. As a result, some of his most inspired Native American photos depict this particular nation. The man below is in the process of completing a secret and distinguished ritual: the hamatsa.
One of four secret societies among the Kwakwaka’wakw, the hamatsa take their initiates deep into the forest to educate them in their ways. When he is ready to be presented to the public, the pupil emerges, wearing spruce boughs, snapping his teeth at the audience as they dance. The ceremony recalls a traditional victory of mankind over a terrible ancient giant.
3. A Rare Identifier
Not all of the subjects in Edward S. Curtis’s prolific collection of Native American photos have their names listed in the footnotes, but Luzi is one such exception. Luzi is described as belonging to the Papago people, a term that dates the photo. This was a name given to the nation by Spanish conquistadors, and one this Native American people reject, preserving their own name: Tohono O’odham, meaning “Desert People.”
The Tohono O’odham Nation lives in the deserts of south-central Arizona, and on the other side of the border in the Mexican state of Sonora. They were the first Native American nation that Martin Luther King Jr. visited, while on a speaking tour of Arizona in 1959. Luzi is carrying a load on her head as is customary, in this case a woven basket, likely of yucca fiber.
4. Painted Face
The desert nation of the Mojave people inhabit lands following the course of the Colorado River, near the meeting of Arizona, Nevada, and California. This young girl, named Mosa, with traditional stripes painted on her face and clothing in the style of local craft work, belies with her bleary eyes a painful reality.
Behind the scenes of Edward S. Curtis’s Native American photos is a difficult truth: the forcible dismantling of tribes and traditions by the U.S. government. At the time this photo was taken, children of the Mojave people were sent to boarding schools and instructed in American customs and the English language. Speaking just a word of Mojave would be punished by whipping.
5. Chief Joseph
Chief Joseph is one of the most recognizable figures in modern Native American history, both for his leadership in the face of terrible odds, his eloquence, and the tragedy of his life as intertwined with the fate of his people, the Nez Perce. Trying to maintain their homelands in the Oregon-Idaho border region, the Nez Perce were chased by the U.S. Army.
After fleeing with his people for an exhausting and dangerous 1,170-miles to the Canadian border, Chief Joseph made the decision to end their exodus, uttering a speech ending with the famous phrase: “Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.” Decades later, Edward S. Curtis photographed him as seen here in 1903, as Chief Joseph maintained his dignity through traditional dress.
6. A Mother’s Love
In this beautiful, sunshine-filled moment of a mother’s love for her infant, we get a glimpse of an action exceedingly rare throughout Edward S. Curtis’s Native American photos: a tender instant of a smile. This Achomawi mother with her baby were photographed in northeastern California. Her beaming pride is palpable.
Although she still braids her hair in the traditional way, the mother’s costume is not dissimilar to those of European American women in her area. It is indicative of the processes that the Achomawi people had already gone through at the time of the photograph. Her baby, however, rests on a cradleboard, just as had been done for centuries of infants.
7. Happy Family
For one of his last journalistic missions for Native American photos, in 1929 Edward S. Curtis journeyed far north into Alaska. There, in the north of what was then a territory and not yet a state, he came to the small town of Noatak, and encountered this Iñupiat family, glowing with joy.
Bundled up in sumptuous furs against the bitter cold of their environment, these two parents seem thrilled to show their adorable child to the visiting photographer. The Iñupiat were hunter-gatherers both on land and on sea. Their foods depended on the seasons. One of their critically important communal events was the hunting of a whale, and dividing up its meat.
8. Chief’s Daughter
Seated atop a table supported by miniature totem figurines, this woman is the daughter of a chief belonging to the Nakoaktok clan of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation in British Columbia. As with many of Curtis’s Native American photos, the portrait has been staged so as to give a sense of exquisite balance.
Atop the carved figurines, the chief’s daughter wears various examples of traditional Kwakwaka’wakw clothing. Her ears and nose are decorated with jewelry, her head adorned with a woven basket-like hat, and she has wrapped herself against the Pacific Northwest chill in a cloak made of woven strips of shredded cedar bark.
9. Unique Hairstyle
The Hopi women of present-day Arizona had a special way of presenting their eligibility for marriage. This matrilineal society decorated its young girls’ hair in special whorls, patterned after squash blossoms, or in the case depicted below, butterflies. The hair is parted in the middle, and its locks are twisted around a dowel of wood.
Modern audiences reviewing Edward S. Curtis’s Native American photos who come across this portrait often call into memory a particularly famous film figure: Princess Leia from Star Wars. They are not necessarily incorrect in the comparison. Creator George Lucas has said he was inspired by turn-of-the-century Mexican revolutionaries, but he had most likely confused them with Hopi maidens.
10. Fearsome Figure
For his series of Native American photos, Edward S. Curtis spent an especially extended period of time among the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation of British Columbia. He depicted through his work the diverse plethora of intricate masks and costumes used in their complex system of rituals and festivals. The carved masks usually represent either a totem animal or a mythological creature.
This dancer is dressed as Bakwas, a forest ghost out of Kwakwaka’wakw folklore. One of many otherworldly spirits in the nation’s tradition, he is covered in hemlock boughs. He lives in the woods, eating out of cockle shells, offering food to wayward humans in the attempt to lure them into the ghost world.
11. Pride Of The Navajo
Today the second largest tribal nation in the United States is the Navajo, who primarily make their home in present-day Arizona and New Mexico. Calling themselves the Diné, this nation’s traditional lands encompassed wealthy silver mines, and Navajo jewelry-making and silversmithing are well-renowned. The nation excels at weaving, and their works of art, particularly multicolored sand paintings used for healing purposes, are celebrated nationwide.
The man pictured here is one of the most striking portraits among Edward S. Curtis’s catalog of Native American photos. A chief in a largely matrilineal society where clan identity was inherited from one’s mother, he looks off-camera with wide eyes. He is wrapped in a woven wool serape with traditional geometric patterns.
12. Surprisingly Unique
For his epic series of Native American photos, Edward S. Curtis found endless inspiration in the many fascinating costumes used in Kwakwaka’wakw rituals of the Canadian Pacific Northwest. Easily among the most surprising is this representation of Hami, “dangerous being,” a mythical character portrayed during the dances and performances of a ceremony.
This dancer belongs to the Quatsino, or Koskimo, clan of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation, whose home is in the temperate rainforests of the northern end of Vancouver Island. Barefoot, mouth agape, he is covered in a fur suit that has been tied together along its front. He waves his intentionally-oversized gloves.
13. Welcome Inside
The Piegan are one of three main nations that comprise what is known as the Blackfeet Confederacy. Their lands straddle the United States-Canada border in Montana and Alberta. In this image, Edward S. Curtis photographed these three chiefs in the interior of their lodge. This photo actually captured a more intimate moment than the iconic photographs on horseback in war bonnets that are often embedded in the American consciousness.
These braided men are representatives of a semi-nomadic people for whom bison hunting on horseback was an integral part of their way of living. Their clothing is made of buckskin, with the embroidery and intricate bead work that the tribe is known for. Archaeological records indicate that these Plains nations have called their lands home for over 5,000 years.
14. Not Just For Men
Not far from the traditional lands of the Nez Perce, the Cayuse people live on the border between southeastern Washington and northeastern Oregon. With her hair in tight braids, this Cayuse woman poses on horseback, her steed decorated all over. In Cayuse society, horses meant everything, particularly as a symbol of wealth.
A century before this historical photo was taken, the wealthiest of Cayuse families could proudly boast owning a mind-boggling amount of around 2,000 horses. But throughout the 19th century, as settlers moved into Oregon, their numbers plummeted, and the Cayuse language itself was extinct by the end of the century.
15. The Eyes Of A Child
This child with shimmering eyes is a member of the Qahatika Nation. This people made their home in Arizona south of the meandering Gila River. Because of the extreme conditions of their desert surroundings, the Qahatika had to work around the climate in order to grow crops to survive on.
Using a method known as “dry farming”, the Qahatika worked the land around their five villages in order that the soil could retain moisture from brief bouts of winter rainfall. They used that moisture throughout the year for wheat farming. They made their homes, not far from their Pima and Tohono O’odham neighbors, out of enormous hollowed-out dried cactus.
Few words are more associated with the experience and modern history of the Native American nations across the United States than the name ‘Geronimo.’ It has entered into the pop culture lexicon as its own expression, largely due to U.S. Army parachutists excited from a Western film, who decided to shout his name as they jumped. But who was the man behind the name?
Born into the Bedonkohe band of the Apache nation in what is now New Mexico, Geronimo was never a chief among his people, but distinguished himself as a bold military leader. After his children, wife, and mother were killed by Mexican troops, he spent several decades of the 19th century raiding and defying both the American and Mexican armies. As an elderly man, he became a U.S. celebrity.
17. The Potlatch
While Edward S. Curtis’s collection of Native American photos document many of the intricate ceremonies of the peoples with whom he sojourned, sometimes there was more than met the eye. This 1914 moment of Kwakwaka’wakw dancers at a potlatch is completely staged: the ceremony was officially banned by Canadian authorities from 1885 until 1951.
More often than not, Curtis’s tableaux sadly portray things not as they are now, but as they once were. The potlatch was a massive gift-giving occasion among various Pacific Northwest tribes, forming the spine of their economies. The Canadian government, however, saw it as the key event preventing the tribes from becoming Christian, and sought to end it.
18. Feathered Hair
Residing today in New Mexico but once ranging across the Great Plains region, the Jicarilla Apache were among the first North American nations that the Spanish conquistadors came into contact and conflict with. This photo was taken after centuries of attempts by the Mexicans, Americans, French, and Spanish to push them out of their homeland.
The soft calm in this Jicarilla Apache’s long lashes and serene expression cannot reflect the turmoil the nation was undergoing at the time of this photograph. Their way of life was nearly eradicated by being moved onto a reservation, whose land was too arid for agriculture. Sadly, just a decade after this portrait session, up to 90% of the nation suffered from tuberculosis and other diseases.
19. What A Beak
Of the many costumes used in Kwakwaka’wakw ritual performance, these ones are easily some of the most striking, purely because of their sheer size. While many of the characters in the nation’s ceremonies represent animals such as the mountain goat, or ghosts and goblins, those seen here were meant to be true monsters.
The enormous masks atop these performers from the Nakoaktok clan in the Kwakwaka’wakw Winter Dance are seen portraying enormous mythical birds. They were called Kotsuis and Hohhuq, and they were servants in the home of a terrible man-eating monster. The performers could snap the formidable beaks open and shut using strings inside.
20. Bull Neck
If you can make out the weathered face on Hukós-tatínu, or Bull Neck, it will be of no surprise that he was already in his seventies when Edward S. Curtis began his project of Native American photos among the nations of the Northern Plains. He wears a headdress made from the horns and shaggy fur of the plains bison.
As a representative of the buffalo in the medicine fraternity ritual, he would dance in front of a central altar festooned with corn, representing the female Creator energy. In the midst of the dance, an extremely central ritual for the Arikara people, Bull Neck would imitate the movements of the bison.
21. Rabbit Tail
Rabbit Tail was a guide and scout for the United States Army, hailing from the Shoshone Nation whose home was in the mountains of modern-day Idaho and Wyoming. This follows decades of warfare launched by the military against the nation. Here, Rabbit Tail poses for a portrait with gleaming bracelets and a decorated vest.
Roughly a century before this portrait was taken was the era of the most famous Shoshone, whom herself became one of the most famous indigenous Americans in history: Sacajawea. The legendary young Shoshone woman became a guide, navigator, translator, and key figure in the Lewis and Clark expedition exploring the lands of the Pacific Northwest.
22. A Face Filled With Expression
With her piercing gaze, this grandmother challenges the eye of the photographer. She is a member of the Skokomish tribe, part of the Coast Salish Nation. A people of the Pacific Northwest, their home is in the Hood Canal area of western Washington state. This area also bore special importance for Edward S. Curtis.
At the beginning of his career, Edward S. Curtis transplanted his family from Minnesota to Seattle, commencing his career as a professional photographer. Among the first images he ever took, long before his series of Native American photos for The North American Indian, were tribal figures in Washington state.
23. A Classic Scene
The picture portrayed below echoes in the collective American imagination. It shows a group of Oglala Sioux warriors on horseback, surveying their surroundings. Because of Western film and television, this image has become one of the most famous and instantly-recalled Native American costumes — but it represents a small fraction of tribes.
Feathered war bonnets and horseback-riding typified the lives and traditions of Plains Nations. Though these men represent the warriors charged with defending the tribe, Oglala Sioux society was strongly led by women, who performed almost all other duties. The men of the Oglala Sioux were hunters and leaders. For them, the introduction of the horse and rifle were critical to their society.
24. Beads And Bells
This woman’s hesitant gaze cuts out severely from a creased face crowned with a fur hat. The hat has been decorated with beads, shells, and jingle bells. A member of the Klamath peoples of southern Oregon and the forested far northern regions of California, the century to come would bear many hardships for her clan.
Half a century before this portrait, the Klamath had ceded 23 million acres of their land. They then lived on a reservation. In 1954, however, the United States Congress ceased federal recognition of the tribe. They would lose their reservation and services associated with it for the next 32 years.
Taken in the 1920s, this image of a Hupa fisherman in Oregon is a perfect example of how Edward S. Curtis’s photography tells an imperfect story. From this pastoral scene of a person spear fishing in a river, the viewer would come to think that Curtis had simply happened upon this action.
This is a way of life that had been all but pushed out of existence by the 1920s through disease, reservations, war, and religion. Historians of Old West images are quick to note that even in the 1870s, before Curtis’s time, many Native American photos depicted their subjects already having adopted denim instead of traditional clothing.
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