Images curated by Wolfgang Wild. Check out more of his work at Retronaut.
Unfortunately, a government-led expansion resulted in a disperse of indigenous peoples from their homes and into separate entities. These photos reflect the culture in the early 1900s.
The illustrious pride of the indigenous people of America is outwardly reflected in modern day pop culture. The traditions, garb, and elusiveness of the Native Americans are attractive due to the sheer mystery behind their historical way of living. Unfortunately, a government led expansion resulted in a disperse of Native Americans from their homes and into separate entities.
Andrew Jackson passed the Removal Act of 1829 that relocated Native Americans. The hope of Congress was to push out the Indigenous people of the United States jurisdiction and force them into Indian Territory. In an instant, their culture that was rich in tradition, agriculture, and simplicity was replaced with complexities beyond their ability.
Cherokee tribal members sought to abolish this forced removal by seeking independence from the United States. Although their plea was approved by the Supreme Court, other tribes didn’t join in this reform act. Tribal representatives previously signed treaties that governed assistance from legal entities to help with the relocation.
In reality, this legal assistance consisted of rape, murder, and violence to forcefully remove Native Americans and relocate them to Indian Territory.
The infamous “Trail of Tears” documents the Native Americans who were forced to walk 1,000-miles to the designated Indian Territory. Unfortunately, over 4,000 Cherokee natives lost their lives on this journey. The efforts of expansion brought about by the American government resulted in the utter destruction of families and the disappearance of a rich culture.
Through years of suffering and anguish, Native American tribes were facing matters of addiction, fatal disease, and a loss of monetary gain. Being forced to relocate to unfamiliar territory limited their ability to cultivate the land and navigate this new way of life.
Rights were limited as Native people were treated as second class. In fact, they weren’t even considered citizens in a land that was originally theirs. In an attempt to implement structure and sustainability, the 1887 Dawes Severalty Act was put into action.
This act dramatically decreased Native land by the millions. Now, Native American families were allocated only 160 acres of land; a dramatic decrease in sustainability.
This act destructively dissolved Native American communities as many tribal members were separated. In addition, the Native Americans were forced to cultivate land that was reproductively challenged. They were accustomed to lavish fields of crops and greenery. Western soil was tough, dry and ultimately unique. Since Native Americans relied heavily on agricultural assistance, this lack of cultivation was intense.
Making monetary income independently was virtually impossible. In fact, many Native Americans needed the government to provide food, money, and shelter. Despite being legally independent, they were ultimately held back by the governments control.
The Dawes Severalty Act completely altered the way Native American individuals previously lived. Being relocated to a new land meant different attire, new adaptations, and ultimately a new culture.
The need for assimilation was rampant and mandatory for Indian landowners. Member of Congress Henry Dawes coined the phrase “civilized” in reference to how the Native tribes needed to behave.
He declared that Indians needed to, “Wear civilized clothes, cultivate the ground, live in houses, ride in Studebaker wagons, send children to school, drink whiskey, and own property.” Instead of allowing the Native Americans to continue their traditional customs, the government expected them to “become Christian farmers.”
Native Americans who were previously adorned in traditional garb were now expected to wear Westernized suits and trousers. Their tribal jewelry was replaced with neckties and men flaunted short, manicured haircuts.
The only characteristic that placed a distinction between Westerners and Natives was skin color. The rich history, customs, and traditions of Native American tribes was eliminated. Sadly, this resulted in a culture being lost with no sign of returning.
Edward Sheriff Curtis romanticized the idea of Native life prior to assimilation. He believed in the vintage novelty of exposing the true nature behind this hidden culture. Born in 1868, he likely witnessed firsthand the effects of expansion and developed an interest.
He had a certain knack for photography as he began his apprenticeship at the tender age of 17. Relocating from Minnesota to Seattle, Curtis upheld his love for photography and continued shooting.
After marriage and the birth of his first son Harold, the Curtis family lived what is now considered a trendy artists life. Socialites from all over sought to be captured by the eye of Curtis as he completely transformed women from drab to fab.
He was presented with the opportunity to capture the novel timelessness of Duwamish Princess Angeline in 1895. Adorned with distinguished wrinkles and a face that’s seen too much suffering, Curtis brought to life the reality behind Western expansion with a simple pose.
The photoshoot provided inspiration to Curtis as he noted how happy this experience made Angeline.
He describes, “This seemed to please her greatly, and with hands and jargon she indicated that she preferred to spend her time having pictures made than in digging clams.” The notion of a princess having to “dig clams” in order to sustain speaks volumes on how Native Americans were treated during that era.
Three years later Curtis, as fate would have it, Curtis met George Bird Grinnell; an anthropologist who studied the culture of Native Indians. Upon seeing that Curtis was a photographer, Grinnell asked Curtis to leave his family and embark on a journey of epic proportions.
Instead of being confined to his studio, Curtis was to accompany Grinnell and his team on a mission to document the grandeur that is Alaska. 5,000 photos were taken of majestic glaciers, Eskimos, and rustic land.
One prominent photo is the home of an Indian Chief surrounded by foliage. The structure is painted with tribal images accompanied by a large totem-pole. The faces inscribed are animalistic in nature with a mythical appeal. Surely, the Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899 solidified Curtis’s obsession with Native culture.
When observing the customs of the Piegan people of Montana, Curtis noted his experience as “mystifying and intensely affected.” He goes on to describe his love for the “primitive customs and traditions” he witnessed.
He then made it his duty to immerse himself in the Native culture and expose their lost traditions. He placed the photos from his Alaskan journey in his Seattle studio; thus receiving a renowned applause.
Magazines longed to have these beautiful photos published and Curtis began to receive presidential attention. Former president Theodore Roosevelt used Curtis to capture personal family photos and even his daughters wedding.
His small life of apprenticeship was now an established career. Like most photographers, Curtis longed to bring a purpose to his work. His past experience with documenting Native Americans was his true passion, and he was burning with desire to fulfill a personal project.
Curtis knew that an expedition of this kind needed a strong financial backing. Although his current photography career was successful, he needed a large payout.
The popular name J.P. Morgan rings with wealth and Curtis knew that with his backing, he could create quality art for the masses.
After multiple rejections, Morgan agreed to sponsor Curtis’s project after being won over by his beautiful photos.
Morgan stated, “I want to see these photographs in books-the most beautiful set of books ever published.” In 1906, the $75,000 dollar project began.
This project was extensive as Curtis utilized researchers, advanced equipment, and individuals who could openly communicate with Indian tribes. Individuals hired by Curtis would request permission from tribal members to participate in the project.
After acquiring permission, he would face harsh, elemental obstacles along his journey. In-climate weather, uncomfortable travel, and even unpleasant people along the way made the challenge great.
However, Curtis and his team endured the difficulties and arrived safely on Indian land.
By conducting interviews and photo sessions in the homes of tribal members, Curtis was able to win their trust. He was even deemed “Shadow Catcher” due to his ability to utilize natural lighting to emphasize beauty.
This grand effort was provided to really capture the essence of their lifestyle.
Curtis explored the high and lowlands of kindred North America. Showcasing 80 distinct tribes over the course of 20 years, Curtis produced 40,000 known colorized photos of Native Americans.
Many of which were photos of prestigious figures such as Geronimo, Chief Joseph, Red Cloud and Medicine Crow. In an effort to preserve a precious culture, Curtis would place his subjects in inherited settings.
One noteworthy publication described his efforts as, “Recognition that the present is a result of the past, and the past dimension must be included.” He wished to represent their traditional culture as opposed to displaying a Westernized view of Native people. In addition to showcasing glorious photos of Indian culture, he found another artistic way to preserve their traditions.
Wax cylinder recordings were old school devices used to capture and preserve sound. Curtis used these units to document 10,000 recordings of their language and traditional music. He recorded stories passed down from ancient times, tried their customary foods, and attended customary ceremonies. Curtis fully immersed himself in their culture through respectful efforts.
The images have a copper, Sepia overtone that rings of vintage value. Photos of the proud chief’s crowned with immense headdresses of feathers and women with intricate yet bold fashion statements are amongst the most captivating of the series. Masked representations paired with primitive tribal clothing incorporate much of what we assume Native culture to be.
Men and women dress in mythical costumes that shed light on their connection with nature, animals, and the soul. Communities adorned in grass skirts and masks replicate a tribal dance filled with pride.
Women with straight, thick braids are portrayed in high grasslands gathering crops. Dominate faces with prominent features stare directly into the eyes of onlookers. Their disposition is almost chilling yet inviting.
Rehearsed settings merged idealistic presumptions of Native culture with reality.
By far, the photo of the Kwakiutl shaman encompasses the soul of a culture rich in passion and spirituality. “The North American Indian” was condensed into a 20-volume book set filled with dialogue, text, and of course compelling photos.
The project has been described as, “The most ambitious enterprise in publishing since the production of the King James Bible.” Rightly so, with the amount of detail and intricacy applied to completing this project, it’s no wonder it became the largest book compilation of Native American history.
Although Curtis captured the most thrilling and raw photos of Native Americans to date, his personal life began shattering. In 1913, the sole sponsor for the project J.P. Morgan. Curtis was left with small monetary installments provided by Morgan’s son. Although generous, the contributions were just not enough for Curtis to continue shooting.
His wife who was relentlessly tired of the constant travel and untraditional manner of living, filed for divorce is 1916. In addition, the cultural phenom surrounding Native Americans was soon overshadowed by World War I. He dabbled in film for a brief period, but the income wasn’t satisfactory.
In order to supplement his profit and continue shooting his passion, he again paid visits to Native tribes only to be left disappointed.
Unlike his earlier encounters, these Natives had been “Americanized” and far removed from their traditional culture.
The photos didn’t encompass that originality he craved.
Due to the high amount of stress and tolls on his mental health, Curtis died of a heart attack in 1952.
Although the public didn’t revere his passing in a monuments fashion, his legacy lives on as “A real and great service to the world of scholarship.” Today, the 20-volume sets are amongst some of the hardest publications to acquire.
With limited editions and prices starting at $5,000, the North American Indian reigns superior. In fact, the most recent original copy was sold for almost $3 million dollars.
This body of work unapologetically displays the beauty, customs, and way of living that many are blissfully unaware of.
His rightful interest in Native American tribes of the early 1900’s created an impressive body of work that sheds light on a brilliant culture and pays homage to hidden jewels.Sources
- THE NORTH AMERICAN INDIAN REPUBLICATION
- Native History: Dawes Act Signed Into Law to ‘Civilize’ Indians
- Removing Native Americans from their Land
- Life on the Reservations
- Edward Curtis: Shadow Catcher
- Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899
- Edward Curtis’ Epic Project to Photograph Native Americans
- ‘The North American Indian’