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10 fascinating, surreal, and haunting vintage photos of American Indians

David Goran

In 1906, J. P. Morgan, an American financier and banker who dominated corporate finance and industrial consolidation during his time, provided photographer Edward Sheriff 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.

With the backing of J.P. Morgan and president Theodore Roosevelt, Curtis dedicated 30 years taking pictures of American Indians from the Arctic to Florida, depicting them as timeless figures untouched by modernity. All images: Edward Sheriff Curtis

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; he was hired to edit the entire series.

1

Black God. A man in Navajo (Diné) ceremonial garb depicting Haashch ééshzhini (Black God), one of the divine beings in Navajo tradition. Primarily a fire god, Black God is credited with inventing the fire drill and creating constellations.

2

Dangerous Thing. A member of the G̱usgimukw nation depicts Hami (Dangerous Thing) as during the núnhlim ceremony, a dance narrating the magical abduction, return, and revival of a young man.

3

Humpback God. Navajo ceremonial garb depicting Ghaan’ask’idii (Humpback God), a god of harvest, mist, and plenty. The hump of Hunchback God – reminiscent of hunching over while planting seeds – is made of the rainbow and contains seeds and mist.

5

The One Born for Water. A man in Navajo ceremonial garb depicting Tó bájísh chini (the One Born for Water), one of the hero twins central to Navajo mythology. Tó bájísh chini and his brother Naayéé’ neizghání (the Enemy Slayer) are credited with ridding the world of monsters.

6

Raven. A member of the G̱usgimukw nation, one of the Kwak’wala-speaking nations of the Pacific Northwest, portrays Kwahwumhl, a raven figure. The raven is seen as a benevolent trickster that can transform its shape at will.

Curtis’ goal was not just to photograph, but to document the Native American traditional life. Most of all, Curtis’s work was strongly shaped by the false notion that American Indians were a “vanishing race” whose cultures were doomed to disappear. 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 left behind an unparalleled cultural record of over 80 tribes, comprising some 40,000 photographs and over 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of American Indian language and music. His twenty-volume opus The North American Indian, issued from 1907 to 1930, was among the most ambitious publishing feats of its time. Edward Sheriff Curtis became the most influential chronicler of American Indian culture. In 2012, the original photographs were sold at auction for over $900,000, raising money for the Society’s archives and support of emerging photographers.

7

Goddess. A Navajo mask depicting Haschĕbaád (Goddess), a benevolent female deity. The Navajo masks captured by Curtis are used in the midwinter Yeibichai (Nightway) ceremony, but Curtis was with the Navajo in summer, forcing him to state the photos.

The Enemy Slayer. A mask depicting Naayéé’ neizghání (the Enemy Slayer), one of the hero twins central to Navajo mythology. The more aggressive of the twins, Naayéé’ neizghání wore black flint armor that sparkled with lightning.

The Enemy Slayer. A mask depicting Naayéé’ neizghání (the Enemy Slayer), one of the hero twins central to Navajo mythology. The more aggressive of the twins, Naayéé’ neizghání wore black flint armor that sparkled with lightning.

10

Bringer of Confusion. A member of the G̱usgimukw nation wearing an oversize mask and hands to depict Nuhlimkilaka (Bringer of Confusion), a forest spirit. She is responsible for hunters’ confusion if they lose their way in the forest.

12

Fringe Mouth. Navajo mask depicting Zahadolzha (Fringe Mouth), a benevolent water spirit. According to Curtis’s The North American Indian, Fringe Mouth is thanked if someone is rescued from drowning.

13

The One Born for Water. A man in Navajo ceremonial garb depicting Tó bájísh chíní (the One Born for Water). Some of the Navajo regalia Curtis photographed was modeled by Charlie Day, the son of a white trader and Curtis’s interpreter.