Over one hundred years ago, Edward Sheriff Curtis began a thirty-year odyssey to photograph and document the lives and traditions of the Native Peoples of North America. This monumental project, The North American Indian, was hailed by The New York Herald as "the most gigantic undertaking since the making of the King James edition of the Bible."
Edward S. Curtis and THE NORTH AMERICAN INDIAN
"I like a man who attempts the impossible.".
— J. P. Morgan
Edward Sheriff Curtis not only attempted, but actually achieved the impossible. With The North American Indian, he created an irreplaceable photographic and ethnographic record of more than eighty of North America's native nations — a record first published between 1907 and 1930, which after decades of obscurity in rare book rooms and private collections, has experienced its renaissance. Comprising twenty volumes, twenty portfolios, thousands of pages of text, and more than twenty- two hundred photogravures, The North American Indian remains not only an unparalleled artistic and historic achievement, but a watershed in publishing history.
Encouraged by great public hoopla and imbued with blind faith, Curtis did not foresee the unremitting sacrifices the project would exact from him. He hoped to complete the study in five or six years within a budget of $25,000. In fact, what the New York Herald hailed as "the most gigantic undertaking since the making of the King James edition of the Bible," required for its completion more than thirty years, one and a half million dollars and the assistance of a vast array of patrons, researchers, scientists, editors, master craftsmen, interpreters, sympathetic creditors, tribal elders, and medicine men. Ultimately, the study cost Curtis his family, his financial security and his health. Nevertheless, to the end, he single-mindedly pursued his intense and powerful vision with an extraordinary sense of mission to document how Indians lived prior to their contact with the white man.
Curtis believed, 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.
His vision was prophetic. By 1930, the year the last volume was published, few visible vestiges remained of the peoples who had once been the continent's sole inhabitants.
Edward S. Curtis was born in 1868 near Whitewater, Wisconsin and ended his formal education with the sixth grade. Soon thereafter he built his own camera and taught himself to expose and develop film and to make photographic prints. By age seventeen, Edward was working as an apprentice photographer in St. Paul, Minnesota. In 1898 a chance event radically altered the direction of Curtis' life. During an extended season spent photographing on Mount Rainier, Curtis rescued a group of lost mountaineers. The party included several members who were nationally recognized for their work in the areas of conservation, Indian ethnography, publishing, among them, head of forestry, Gifford Pinchot, Chief of the U.S. Biological Survey, C. Hart Merriman, and naturalist, conservationist, and renowned Indian authority, George Bird Grinnell.
Not only were they grateful, several became interested in Curtis' photographic work. These contacts led to appointments to two important photographic expeditions. On the second of these expeditions, in 1900, Grinnell took Curtis to the Sun Dance ceremony of the Blackfeet tribe in Montana and instructed him in the systematic methods required for gathering scientifically valid information. Only weeks after his experiences with Grinnell, Curtis initiated his own expedition to photograph Indians in the southwest.