10 breathtaking photographs of Native American life

When Edward S Curtis, a professional photographer from Seattle, set out to document Native American culture from 1907 to 1930, that way of life was vanishing thanks to the forced migration, genocidal slaughter and the wholesale cultivation and abuse of traditional lands that had begun early in the previous century.

Curtis’ The North American Indian contained over 2,000 photographs which have since been donated to the Smithsonia. 

Though accused of perpetuating the “nobel savage” myth and directing some the images, this small sample, complete with their incredible notations, opens up just a small window on an incredible way of life then on the verge of being lost to history.

1. Hastobiga, Navajo Medicine Man


2. Masked Dancers – Qagyuhl

A group of masked and costumed performers in the winter ceremony. The chief who is holding the dance stands at the left, grasping a speaker’s staff and wearing cedar-bark neck-ring and head-band and a few of the spectators are visible at the right. At the extreme left is seen a part of the painted mawihl through which the dancers emerge from the secret room; and in the centre, between the carved house-posts, is the Awaitlala hams’pek, showing three of the five mouths through which the hamatsa wriggle from the top to the bottom of the column.


3. In The Land Of The Sioux

This picture illustrates the general character of the Sioux country. The broad, rolling prairie is broken by low hills, while here and there lie pools of stagnant water in old buffalo-wallows. The subjects of the pictures are Red Hawk, Crazy Thunder, and Holy Skin, three Ogalala who accompanied the author on a trip into the Bad Lands.


4. The Apache


5. Vash Gon – Jicarilla


6. Kotsuis and Hohhuq – Nakoaktok

These two masked performers in the winter dance represent huge, mythical birds. Kotsuis (the Nakoaktok equivalent of the Qagyuhl Kaloqutsuis) and Hohhuq are servitors in the house of the man-eating monster Pahpaqalanohsiwi. The mandibles of these tremendous wooden masks are controlled by strings.


7. Wedding party – Qagyuhl

After the wedding ceremony at the bride’s village the party returns to the husband’s home. The newly married pair stand on a painted “bride’s seat” in the stern of the canoe, and the bridegroom’s sister or other relative, dances on a platform in the bow, while the men sing and rhythmically thump the canoes with the handles of their paddles.


8. Nakoaktok Chief’s Daughter

When the head chief of the Nakoaktok holds a potlatch (a ceremonial distribution of property to all the people), his eldest daughter is thus enthroned, symbolically supported on the heads of her slaves.


9. Dancing To Restore An Eclipsed Moon

Several Kwakiutl people dancing in a circle around a smoking fire, in an effort to cause a sky creature, which they believe swallowed the moon, to sneeze thereby disgorging it.


10. The Apache Reaper

Here the Apache woman is seen in her small wheatfield harvesting the grain with a hand sickle, the method now common to all Indians of the Southwest.


For amazing scenes from 20th Century American history, pick up the new issue of All About History.