“I am beginning to believe that that nothing is quite so uncertain as facts,” revealed American ethnographer and photographer Edward S. Curtis, a revealing observation for a man who dedicated his life to the preservation of a vanishing race. Born in 1868, near Whitewater, Wisconsin, Curtis left school in the sixth grade. Soon after that, he built his own camera, fostering a trade that would grow to be a calling by his life’s end. Beginning in 1906, Curtis set forth on a quest to create a comprehensive record of Native Americans, declaring, “ I want to make them [live forever. It’s such a big dream I can’t see it all.”
None less than J. P. Morgan himself financed the project with $75,000. Morgan’s terms were precise: the work was to be in 20 volumes with 1,500 photographs. The funds were disbursed over five years and were to cover only the fieldwork (and not the writing, editing, or production of the volumes). Curtis received no salary for the project, which was to last over three decades. In total, Curtis took over 40,000 photographic images from over 80 tribes west of the Mississippi River, from the Mexican border to northern Alaska. He also recorded tribal lore, history, traditions, ceremonies, and customs, as well as biographies of tribal leaders.
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Photo: Edward S. Curtis, Canyon de Chelly - Navaho, 1904, photogravure. Courtesy of the Christopher G. Cardozo Collection