Curtis, Morgan, and "The North American Indian"

Edward Curtis and J. Pierpont Morgan
After building a successful career as a studio photographer in Seattle, Edward S. Curtis (1868–1952) embarked on his large-scale project The North American Indian. Published between 1907 and 1930, each of the twenty illustrated volumes was accompanied by a portfolio of large-format photogravures. The series intended to document the traditional culture of every Native American tribe west of the Mississippi. Working with eighty different Indigenous communities, and alongside a constantly rotating field team of ethnologists and Native American assistants, Curtis collected ethnological data and made thousands of photographs, motion pictures, and wax cylinder recordings. The bulk of Curtis’s glass lantern slides were made during the first decade of the project, the period when it was best funded and most active.

In January 1906, Curtis approached financier J. Pierpont Morgan in the hopes that he would finance the venture. Morgan, impressed by the quality of Curtis’s photographs and ambitious scope of the project, offered to fund the fieldwork—but none of the publication costs—at the rate of $15,000 per annum for five years. The project ended up taking twenty years longer and many thousands more dollars to complete. While Morgan’s sponsorship of The North American Indian is widely known, less often discussed is the fact that the details of the agreement required Curtis to aggressively promote the project, and the elaborate (and ultimately unsuccessful) lengths to which he went in his attempts to gain the additional needed funds.

Curtis was responsible for selling subscriptions to cover the costs of printing. The sumptuous leather-bound books were originally priced at $150, with the entire set costing $3,000. The enormously expensive series remained out of reach for most (the average worker earned around $400 per year in 1907), and the prices rose as the project progressed. Subscription agreements from 1924 show that the cost was as high as $4,200, depending on the choice of paper. To make matters worse, the entire project unfolded between financial crises—the Bankers’ Panic of 1907 and the Great Depression. Even with Morgan’s backing, Curtis constantly faced financial precarity. Ultimately, due to his failure to secure subscribers, of an intended edition of 500, fewer than 300 were published. When the final volume of The North American Indian was published in 1930, it entered the market with little fanfare or financial success, only gaining renewed interest in the 1970s.

The Collaborative Nature of The North American Indian
Over the course of nearly three decades, Curtis made approximately 40,000 photographs, of which over 2,000 are featured in The North American Indian. It remains the largest, longest, and most expensive photographic book series ever attempted. The series is much more than a set of photographs created by one individual. The volumes feature 5,000 pages of narrative texts, vocabularies, and musical transcriptions based on wax cylinder recordings. To accomplish this feat, Curtis worked alongside a shifting cast of ethnographers, research assistants, editors, photographic technicians, and printers. One of the most significant contributors to fieldwork was William Edward Myers (1877–1949), a former journalist and skilled stenographer, who started as a field assistant and later became lead researcher. Myers was the primary author of the texts for Volumes 1 through 18. Furthermore, hundreds of Native Americans served as photographic subjects, and Curtis’s research was reliant upon the skills of Indigenous translators, informants, and cultural brokers.

Two Native collaborators whose contributions to The North American Indian were indispensable were Alexander B. Upshaw (1875–1909) and George Hunt (1854–1933). Upshaw, an Apsáalooke (Crow/Absaroke) translator and informant, worked with Curtis from 1905 until his death in 1909. The most important Native assistant working on the project during its first decade, Upshaw’s contribution to research was critical in the creation of Volume 4. Hunt, a British/Tlingit anthropologist, had already established himself as an ethnographer prior to collaborating with Curtis. Hunt translated, arranged models, and created props while working on Volume 10. Both Hunt and Upshaw are depicted in several of Curtis’s photographs, though not always named in the original captions, and can be seen in lantern slides ARC 1176.065 and ARC 1176.193.

Cultural Context and Native Agency
Throughout the duration of the project, federal policies shaped the daily lives of the Indigenous peoples represented in The North American Indian. In the decade leading up to Curtis’s project, the United States confined Native peoples to just 138,000,000 acres of land. By the early 1930s, that space was whittled down to only 48,000,000 acres. Potlatch and other important ceremonies of cultural significance were outlawed, and Native children were forcibly removed from their parents to attend schools promoting cultural assimilation. Curtis’s photographs often gloss over these realities, and the myth of a “vanishing race”—the inaccurate but widely promoted belief that Indigenous Americans would soon be extinct—is a key trope throughout the project. However, The North American Indian is not just a colonialist fantasy, but also a complex document of encounters, portraits of ancestors, and records of survival.

Curtis’s photographs are often understood today as inauthentic or inaccurate, particularly when they are viewed through the lens of documentary photography, a practice popularized later in the twentieth century. Curtis employed photography towards his aims of salvage ethnography, the documentation of Native American cultures considered to be dying or extinct. He often posed his sitters wearing a range of historic and modern clothing. Importantly, hundreds of Native individuals who sat for pictures were also essential collaborators in the creation of the images, through their self-fashioning and lending their images to the series. Thus, The North American Indian, a project inextricably bound to American imperialism and marketed on the premise of Indigenous decline, can also be read, in part, as a work of Native American autobiography and visual self-representation. The project preserves a vital cultural legacy for present and future generations.