Today is the birthday (1868) of Edward Sheriff Curtis who is known primarily as a photographer of the U.S. West and of Native American peoples. Curtis was born on a farm near Whitewater, Wisconsin. His father, the Reverend Asahel “Johnson” Curtis (1840–87), was a minister, farmer, and American Civil War veteran born in Ohio. His mother, Ellen Sheriff (1844–1912), was born in Pennsylvania. Around 1874, the family moved from Wisconsin to Minnesota to join Johnson Curtis’s father, Asahel Curtis, who ran a grocery store and was a postmaster in Le Sueur County. Curtis left school in the sixth grade and soon built his own camera.
In 1885 at the age of 17, Edward became an apprentice photographer in St. Paul, Minnesota. In 1887 the family moved to Seattle, Washington, where Curtis bought a new camera and became a partner in an existing photographic studio with Rasmus Rothi. Curtis paid $150 for his 50% share in the studio. After about six months, Curtis left Rothi and formed a new partnership with Thomas Guptill. The new studio was called Curtis and Guptill, Photographers and Photoengravers.
In 1895, Curtis met and photographed Princess Angeline (c. 1820–1896), a.k.a. Kickisomlo, the daughter of Chief Sealth of Seattle. This was to be his first portrait of a Native American. In 1898, three of Curtis’ images were chosen for an exhibition sponsored by the National Photographic Society. Two were images of Princess Angeline, “The Mussel Gatherer”, and “The Clam Digger”. The other was of the Puget Sound, titled “Homeward”. The latter was awarded the exhibition’s grand prize and a gold medal. In that same year, while photographing Mt. Rainier, Curtis came upon a small group of scientists. One of them was George Bird Grinnell, an expert on Native Americans. Curtis was appointed Official Photographer to the Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899, probably as a result of his friendship with George Bird Grinnell. Having very little formal education Curtis learned much during the lectures that were given aboard the ship each evening of the voyage. Grinnell became interested in Curtis’ photography and invited him to join an expedition to photograph people of the Blackfoot Confederacy in Montana in the year 1900.
In 1906, J. P. Morgan provided Curtis with $75,000 to produce a series on Native Americans. This work was to be in 20 volumes with 1,500 photographs. Morgan’s funds were to be disbursed over five years and were earmarked to support only fieldwork for the books not for writing, editing, or production of the volumes. Curtis himself would receive no salary for the project, which was to last more than 20 years. Under the terms of the arrangement, Morgan was to receive 25 sets and 500 original prints as his method of repayment.
Once Curtis had secured funding for the project, he was able to hire several employees to help him. For writing as well as with recording Native American languages, Curtis hired a former journalist, William E. Myers. For general assistance with logistics and fieldwork, Curtis hired Bill Phillips, a graduate of the University of Washington. Perhaps the most important hire for the success of the project was Frederick Webb Hodge, an anthropologist employed by the Smithsonian who had also researched Native American peoples of the southwestern United States. Hodge was hired to edit the entire series.
222 complete sets were eventually published. Curtis’ goal was not just to photograph, but to document, as much of Native American traditional life as possible before that way of life disappeared. He wrote in the introduction to his first volume in 1907: “The information that is to be gathered … respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost.” Curtis made over 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of Native American language and music. He took over 40,000 photographic images from over 80 tribes. He recorded indigenous lore and history, and he described traditional foods, housing, garments, recreation, ceremonies, and funeral customs. He wrote biographical sketches of leaders, and his material, in most cases, is the only written recorded history although there is still a rich oral tradition that documents history. This work was exhibited at the Rencontres d’Arles festival in France in 1973.
Curtis had been using motion picture cameras in the fieldwork for The North American Indian since 1906. He worked extensively with ethnographer and British Columbia native George Hunt in 1910, which inspired his work with the Kwakiutl, but much of their collaboration remains unpublished. At the end of 1912, Curtis decided to create a feature film depicting Native American life, partly as a way of improving his financial situation and partly because film technology had improved to the point where it was conceivable to create and screen films more than a few minutes long. Curtis chose the Kwakiutl of the Queen Charlotte Strait region of the Central Coast of British Columbia, Canada, for his subject. This film, entitled In the Land of the Head Hunters, was the first feature-length film whose cast was composed entirely of Native North Americans.
In the Land of the Head-Hunters premiered simultaneously at the Casino Theatre in New York and the Moore Theatre in Seattle on December 7, 1914. The silent film was accompanied by a score composed by John J. Braham, a musical theater composer who had also worked with Gilbert and Sullivan. The film was praised by critics but made only $3,269.18 in its initial run.
Around 1922, Curtis moved to Los Angeles with his daughter Beth, and opened a new photo studio. To earn money he worked as an assistant cameraman for Cecil B. DeMille and was an uncredited assistant cameraman in the 1923 filming of The Ten Commandments. On October 16, 1924 Curtis sold the rights to his ethnographic motion picture In the Land of the Head-Hunters to the American Museum of Natural History. He was paid $1,500 for the master print and the original camera negative. It had cost him over $20,000 to film.
On October 19, 1952, at the age of 84, Curtis died of a heart attack in Los Angeles, California in the home of his daughter, Beth. He was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. His terse obituary appeared in The New York Times on October 20, 1952:
Edward S. Curtis, internationally known authority on the history of the North American Indian, died today at the home of a daughter, Mrs. Beth Magnuson. His age was 84. Mr. Curtis devoted his life to compiling Indian history. His research was done under the patronage of the late financier, J. Pierpont Morgan. The foreward [sic] for the monumental set of Curtis books was written by President Theodore Roosevelt. Mr. Curtis was also widely known as a photographer.
Critical appraisal of Curtis’ work is mixed. From an anthropological perspective his work has limited value because he staged and posed many of the shots, which are well known for their inaccuracies – such as in the misuse of authentic clothing. At the time of shooting Native American peoples had largely moved away from their original way of life, so Curtis was attempting to re-create it, rather than document it with his camera. He frequently doctored images to remove modern objects, and staged events, such as war parties, that were impossible actions in his day. On the other hand, his portraits, whilst obviously posed, are deeply evocative of a people and their time, and, if nothing else, are great art. They are also reliable documents of numerous famous people, such as Geronimo. Here’s a small gallery:
Native American cooking is rather basic, and I have documented it before. Here, I present a simple and popular dish throughout North America: corn pudding. It is a blend of Native American and European, very popular for Thanksgiving dinner. Basically it’s corn baked in an egg custard and is very simple to make. A lot of cooks prepare it very simply using canned corn kernels and creamed corn, but I think it is better if you use fresh corn. Most cooks also add sugar, but I don’t because I don’t like the sweetness.
3 tbsp butter, melted (plus extra)
2 cups freshly scraped corn kernels
2 large eggs, beaten
2 cups whole milk
freshly grated nutmeg
Heat the oven to 350°F.
Butter a 3-pint baking dish.
Place the corn, salted to taste, in a bowl. Mix the beaten eggs and milk together, and stir them into the corn mixture. Add melted butter and mix thoroughly.
Spoon the mixture into the prepared dish and sprinkle with nutmeg. Place the dish in a larger baking dish or roasting pan. Transfer to the oven and carefully pour hot water into the larger dish until it comes about halfway up the sides of the smaller baking dish. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the center of the pudding comes out clean.