Edward Sheriff Curtis was born on a Wisconsin farm in 1868 and later grew up to become a commercial photographer based in Seattle. He photographed Princess Angeline, who was the daughter of Duwamish Chief Seattle in 1895. The city of Seattle was later named after this chief.
This photograph was the start of a new adventure for Curtis. He became fascinated with the lives and cultures of Native Americans and joined many expeditions in order to meet and document more of the people’s lives.
J.P. Morgan approached Curtis in 1906 to discuss the funding of a documentary project on the indigenous people of the North American continent. The result was a 20-volume series called The North American Indian.
Curtis spent more than 20 years on the project and in that time created 40,000 images of more than 80 different tribes. He also made thousands of wax cylinder recordings of native songs and languages. He wrote down oral histories, legends, and biographies.
It should be noted that Curtis somewhat romanticized the photos by choosing settings stripped of any signs of Western civilization. He wanted to give a feeling of pre-Columbian life and not what they were at the time. He saw that their way of life was vanishing.
“Noble savage” stereotypes aside, Curtis’ vast body of work is one of the most impressive historical records of Native American life at the beginning of the 20th century.
The passing of every old man or woman means the passing of some tradition, some knowledge of sacred rites possessed by no other…Consequently the information that is to be gathered, for the benefit of future generations, respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost for all time. ~ EDWARD S. CURTIS