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Photographing Native Americans

The amazing story of the photographer who captured the last old ways of the Apache, the Hopi, the Sioux—Native Americans.

Chief Joseph by Edward Curtis.

Chief Joseph by Edward Curtis.

In the 1890’s, young Edward Curtis was a favorite portrait photographer in Seattle.  Nice little business in town.  Good clientele.  Then Curtis opened his eyes to the vanishing world of native America, and was transformed.  A man on a mission to capture the last great images of American Indians in their teepees and lodges, regalia and battered pride before their traditional world vanished.

It’s an amazing story.  Indiana Jones with a camera.  And a vanishing world of proud Apache, Navajo, Sioux, Cheyenne.

This hour, On Point:  capturing the last great images of traditional native America.

-Tom Ashbrook


Timothy Egan, Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist for the New York Times, his new book is Short Night of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis.

From Tom’s Reading List

Washington Post “Sometime in early 1896, a young Seattle photographer named Edward Sherriff Curtis, already well known for his polished studio portraits of local civic leaders and business tycoons, decided to challenge himself and photograph a very different kind of subject. He chose “Princess Angeline,” aka Kick-is-om-lo, the sole surviving child of the great Duwamish-Suquamish chief for whom the city of Seattle was named. Roughly 80 years old at the time, Angeline lived in a dilapidated shack on the shores of Puget Sound, eking out a marginal existence by washing other people’s laundry for coins. She was regarded as “the last Indian of Seattle,” and Curtis thought she might make an unusual model for an afternoon’s sitting.”

Cleveland Plain DealerTimothy Egan has made a bonny career writing books of highly readable Western history. He won a 2006 National Book Award for “The Worst Hard Time,” a haunting and well-researched volume that rescued the Dust Bowl from airy abstraction.”

LA Times “Edward Curtis was given many names by the native peoples he encountered in his journeys across the North American continent.”


Check out this collection of photos by Edward Curtis.


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  • donniethebrasco

    Any pictures of Elizabeth Warren?

    • J__o__h__n

      Do the photographed Native Americans look indian enough for Scott Brown?

      • ttajtt

        back in those days the photo pictures took a time, no one cracked a smiled.

    • Mike_Card

      That’s disgusting.  Sit down and shut the fuck up.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/YMV2HJ2TBKMCN2QRAVI3I2OOGM Jim Jim

    RIP Russell Means.

  • ttajtt

    How could this be “THE OLD WEST”, when the true “The Old West” died off with the Conquistadors in the early 1500′s. Over 100 years passed before The New Old World  Americans crossed the Mississippi river.  The people way and animals where excited, this disease via the invaders in their Unidentified Floating Objects, changed The True Americans way.  Coast to coast, top ta bottom and in-between.   John Wayne made million$ as playing a award winner Custer.  Pride smells.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/GYOKNNUKGSRTSA4RNFMUJRO5WE Greg

    It was already the last traces of the Native American civilazations. But at least he captured that.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/GYOKNNUKGSRTSA4RNFMUJRO5WE Greg

    This is one thing I’ve always wondered:

    why do the so many of the Native American Indian tribes look so different from the Asians they descended from?

    Were they already mixed with white races?

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

       Asia is a vast continent with many different ethnic groups.  In addition, the people who first came to the Americas did so over ten thousand years ago.

      • http://profile.yahoo.com/GYOKNNUKGSRTSA4RNFMUJRO5WE Greg

        Ten thousand years ago is a second in time for evolution.

        There is little evidence humans have physically changed for much, much longer then that.

        • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

           Take the whole point that I was making.  The people who came here were a variety of tribes from north and central Asia.  We’d expect to see considerable variation in external features from that mixture.

          • http://profile.yahoo.com/GYOKNNUKGSRTSA4RNFMUJRO5WE Greg

            I got your point.

            They look mixed is mine.

          • http://profile.yahoo.com/GYOKNNUKGSRTSA4RNFMUJRO5WE Greg

            I know the collection very well having studied it for some time.

        • Ray in VT

          I couldn’t find a quick link to the story, but I recall a couple of years ago a biologist, or some other sort of scientist with a relevant background, who talked about the changing complexion of South Asian Indians.  In a nutshell, he said that they had been relatively light-skinned, but that after a couple of hundred generations of living in a more tropical environment they have ended up much darker complexioned.

    • Roy-in-Boise

      Why do blond & blue Scandinavians look different from Mediterranean Greeks & Italians?

      • http://profile.yahoo.com/GYOKNNUKGSRTSA4RNFMUJRO5WE Greg

        Both were genetic mutations. And light skin happened over a long period of time.

        I don’t know of any such mutations in Native Americans.

    • Steve__T

       Have you looked at the Mongolian people, you will see the resemblance.


      • Steve__T

         I tried unsuccessfully to post to the above post.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-S-Allen/1542337641 John S. Allen

    The guest said that “the streets of America were cluttered with sputtering little autos” in 1900.

    Not so. The streets were cluttered with horses and wagons, and bicycles, in 1900. Autos were a rarity, a rich person’s extravagance, at that time. They did not become common until several years later.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/GYOKNNUKGSRTSA4RNFMUJRO5WE Greg

    Whites. Built this country on genocide and hypocrisy.

  • Roy-in-Boise

    ((Hello Mr. Egan! We met at a “Big Burn” talk in Boise back in 2010.))

    The picture of the Native American spear fishing above Celilo Falls has always been haunting to me. Few tourists traveling on I-84 realize those falls are now beneath the lake created by the Dalles Dam or the impact on the fisheries.

    Just as western expansion forever impacted the buffalo, so it did the salmon as well. This is a great subject area and ads to an effective chronicling of the ever changing American West.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/QMDZ3LH5U2B4GAT7J2HS4TCP6E Jim

    ironically, the same indians that got wiped out by white men were the same ones who helped white settlers survive…

    I hope we can see the fault we made and correct the wrong.

  • ttajtt

    it seams the first people died must be the true full breeds.  heard of sailors lost at sea might have landed.  maybe India indians.  manifest destiny give the old world rights, like mormons to have a right to clam the True Americans’ right.   so Germany and Japan got there territory back.  if Mitt wins will he to give the Americans back? 

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/GYOKNNUKGSRTSA4RNFMUJRO5WE Greg

    Enrique, that is why he was called the spirit capturer.

    Because he surely did capture their spirits.

  • Steve__T

    Russel Means  Passed away today at the age of 72. May his spirit find peace and his name be not forgotten. Toksha Ake.

  • alligatordave

    I love Edward Curtis’s the North American Indian!! I used his images as inspiration for my Skate Deck Art!!! http://www.davidgrizzleart.blogspot.com I will be displaying these at the City Tavern on Main Street, December 1st. in Dallas Texas!! 

    I love your show Tom Ashbrook!!! Thanks, David Grizzle

  • Søren Selstrom

    This is off topic – as the contact instructions state to post show topic suggestions in todays show comments….

    I started thinking, ever wonder why the USA has only twice had a President with a “common” last name.  There is no President Smith or President Jones.  Actually, President Johnson is #2 and President Wilson’s surname ranks #8.  A friend insisted Bush, but it ranks 346th.  There’s some 14 million Americans today with surnames ranking in the top ten who’s name has never been Presidential – Smith, Johnson, Williams, Jones, Brown, Davis, Miller, Wilson, Moore, Taylor.  

    Historically, what does this say about US politics? 

  • TinaWrites

    THANK YOU for a wonderful show!!!

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/4FU774NDDA33K74UMX4HATHPPE Keith

    Very good program. My grandfather took the only known photos of an active Hopi Kiva back in 1932. I was honored to attend the snake dance several seasons while they were still traditional. I spent many years visiting the Hopi land before corporate America destroyed it with coal mines, dams and powerlines. I was so moved by this destruction I started a movement called Food Not Bombs seeking to motivate the public to take action to save our wonderful native lands. Russel Means died today which might be fitting to note as he too worked to protect our natural places. Native people all over the world are striving to protect the land. Many were arrested today in Canada in just this struggle. The photos are beautiful. I hope they inspire this generation to join us in stopping the ravages of corporate power.  

  • http://twitter.com/heavenscalyx heavenscalyx

    Tom: Not A proud nation.  HUNDREDS of proud nationS.  Please don’t make Native Americans monolithic.

  • Pingback: Photographing Native Americans | Clearing House for Environmental Course Material

  • Caitlin Hartnett

    “The amazing story of the photographer who captured the last old ways of the Apache, the Hopi, the Sioux—Native Americans.”
    Are you sure these old ways are gone? I think this statement is a little problematic…

  • Mosagra

    Edward Curtis’s achievement was remarkable.  What I’ve always wondered is if there was an equivalent elsewhere.  Is there an Australian Edward Curtis?  Central America?  South America? Africa? New Guinea?

  • Mosagra

    What I have always wondered is about other continents, other areas.  Does Austaralia have the equivalent of Edward Curtis’s work?  Central America? South America? Africa?

    If so, I’ve not heard of it.

  • Caitlin Hartnett

     I suggest listening to part two of Thomas King’s Massey lectures to get a different (First Nations) take on Curtis. http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/massey-archives/2003/11/07/massey-lectures-2003-the-truth-about-stories-a-native-narrative/
    This, too, about Curtis’ manipulation of the photographs (from the Smithsonian) is interesting: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X3zuiC1NdFA

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