Capturing Native American Heritage

Edward Curtis was born in Wisconsin. His father was a wounded Civil War veteran who was unable to manage the family farm. Edward had a love for photography and built his own camera. Edward left school after 6th grade to pursue a career in photography.

After a short time as an apprentice photographer, Edward created his own photography studio. When Edward photographed Princess Angeline, the daughter of Chief Sealth of Seattle, he was the grand prize in an exhibition of the National Photographic Society. This became his life’s calling.

J.P. Morgan provided Edward with $75,000 to produce a series of photographs of Native Americans.  The Smithsonian had turned him down because they thought the project was too large.

Edward took upon the challenge of not just photographing Native Americans, but to capture their traditions. He captured sound recordings as well as images of over 80 tribes. His work is the only history of many Native American tribes.

Edward received no income for his work and his efforts to earn money largely failed. His wife divorced him, and he was arrested for failing to pay alimony. Edward was forced to sell the rights to all of his work. The company that bought his work never used it and the years of effort Edward spent in capturing the lives of Native Americans was forgotten for nearly 40 years. Much of his work is now available in the Library of Congress, museums, and university library collections. They are also available online here.

Edward Curtis was known as the Shadow Catcher by Native Americans. He spent most of his life capturing the heritage of those who our society had kept in the shadows. His life’s work was largely ignored during his lifetime. Hidden heroes have a passion that helps them persevere through the many struggles they face. Imagine what we would have lost without the passion of Edward Curtis. He preserved the heritage of Native Americans.

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“We will be known forever by the tracks we leave.” – Dakota Tribe

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