Fortunately for future generations, Edward S. Curtis was a multi-media expert more than a century ago, well before anyone knew what that was, or thought to coin the phrase.
Using photographs, film, sound recordings and text, the Wisconsin native created a massive body of work documenting Native American culture in the early 20th century. The North American Indian project provides rare ethnographic information about more than 80 American Indian tribes from 1900 until 1930.
Curtis recorded tribal mythology and oral histories, documenting their way of life, encompassing everything from their food, clothing, dwellings, ceremonies and burial customs. However, it is perhaps the intense photographs, thousands of them, that are at the heart of the collection.
“The essence of the photographs is beauty, heart and spirit,” said Christopher Cardozo, one of the world’s leading experts on Curtis’ work and editor of nine books relating to the photographer, including Edward S. Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks. “Fundamentally, the work is a healing narrative.”
Curtis captured the images of numerous prominent Native Americans, including Geronimo, Chief Joseph and Red Cloud. His mammoth project includes thousands of photographs and written information bound in 20 volumes complimented by 20 portfolios of additional photographs.
Curtis initially secured $75,000 in financing from prominent American banker J.P. Morgan — an estimated $1.5 million in today’s dollars — that allowed him to tell the story of what Curtis believed might be a vanishing race.
At the time, Native Americans were being forced onto reservations while their children were taken away to boarding schools to better assimilate into American society. Many Native American parents saw these schools as a tool designed to destroy Indian culture.
Some critics have argued that Curtis’ body of work romanticizes Native Americans from a white man’s point of view. However, Cardozo believes the work has endured for 100 years because it was collaboration between Curtis and about 10,000 native people.
“If you look at all his photographs, you see this incredible vulnerability, intimacy, presence, connection and it’s so obvious when you look at these photographs that the native people were actively participating, actively collaborating, in creating these images,” he said. “This was the imagery they wanted preserved, as much as Curtis did.”
Now, Cardozo is interested in preserving Curtis’ work.
Just 214 complete sets of The North American Indian were initially published. In order to dramatically increase access to Curtis’ work, Cardozo is spearheading what is believed to be the largest republication in North American history; his team is reproducing high-quality recreations of Curtis’ entire North American Indian work, the thousands of photographs while completely re-typesetting all of his 2.5 million words.
He is continuing a quest started by Curtis himself 100 years ago, to document a central part of American history for future generations.