Photographs: Native Americans of the early 1900s


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10,000 wax cylinder recordings of language and music?

I don’t want to downplay the artistic and anthropological value of the photography, but the sound recordings could be a treasure beyond price.

I hope they have been transcribed to more durable media with the highest possible fidelity. Some of those languages might already have no living speakers.


They aren’t in one place, and I don’t think very many survived. I know the Library of Congress (US) has a few, but I think the largest collection is at Indiana University, they maybe have a couple of hundred.

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The weird-looking circular blur in the top photo is where Curtis obscured a clock, which he thought didn’t seem “right” for a photo of Native Americans. Curtis took historically important photos, but his manipulations sometimes have to be taken into consideration.


I usually have a pretty good eye for these things, but i’m not seeing the blur, could you point it out? would that have been done directly on the glass plate by smudging the negative? did he manipulate the setups/staging for the photos as well?

I’m super glad he captured all those images even if he did try and remove the already encroaching and ultimately unstoppable European influences. Likely in his mind he was trying to preserve the authenticity of these cultures that was slipping away so quickly…

I’m assuming that this roundish blob is it. Probably masked it out and then touched it up by hand.

Edit: Here’s the untouched photo
File:In a Piegan lodge.jpg - Wikimedia Commons


thanks @crenquis !!! especially for finding the original for contrast.

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Princess Leia, eat your heart out…


Curtis’s pics were staged. He made native Americans wear garb, and inserted objects in the pics that he thought were typical of “Indians”. Please don’t celebrate these uncritically as representations of “authentic” native cultures.


Edward Curtis’ images and the captions that went with them, are probably the number one inspiration for a lot of the clichéd and inaccurate depictions of native Americans. Many of the photos of ‘braves’ wearing ‘traditional war headdresses’ of feathers down to the knees were most likely copied by the Westerns and cartoons that cropped up 20-30 years later in the 1930s and 1940s. Those images, reproduced in popular culture through Warner Bros. and Disney, are what lead to reductivist views of aboriginal people in North America, and a majority cultural acceptence of the concept of the “noble savage”. This is why people feel that naming an American football team with a racial slur, derogatory to native Americans, actually “honors” them. Be careful of how you honor Edward Curtis.


Whatever might be said of Curtis’s apparent ethnocentrism, his obvious sentimentality, or his questionable sense of ethics, he undoubtedly produced a rather astonishing body of work. It seems hard to believe that even a fraction of these images and recordings would have been made without the willful cooperation of his subjects, subjects who must have believed in or trusted Curtis, at least on some level.

That said, it’s a shame Curtis’s work continues to overshadow that of his native contemporaries, like Jennie Ross Cobb, for instance. Such images portray a rather more complex and, frankly, interesting sense of identity and culture than do those made by Curtis.


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