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By Stacia Lewandowski

At the age of 83, looking back upon his life and accomplishments, the photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis said that if he were to adopt the Native American naming tradition, he would be called "The Man Who Never Took Time to Play." But Curtis could also have been called "The Man Who Dreams Big." How else could he have accomplished what he did, if he had not been a man equipped with an unfettered imagination teamed with a will and determination that allowed him to conjure such an impossible idea and ultimately fulfill it?

In 1900 Curtis sat on horseback at the edge of a towering bluff in Montana, overlooking a vast plain with a companion, George Bird Grinnell, the editor of Forest and Stream who became known as "Father of the Blackfoot People." The pair were witnessing the confluence of multiple Native American tribes. Before them and far into the distance bustling activity prevailed. There were numerous people, adults and children, along with tipis, animals, wagons and all of their implements filling the plain to the far horizon, as they readied themselves for their annual Sun Dance. Curtis later described the scene: "The sight of that great encampment of prairie Indians was unforgettable. Neither house nor fence marred the landscape. The broad, undulating prairie stretching toward the Little Rockies, miles to the west, was carpeted with tipis. The Blood and Blackfeet from Canada were also arriving for a visit with their fellow Algonquin." The moment would alter the course of Curtis's life and career forever.

For Curtis, the sight brought to him a foreboding sense of profound loss, the loss of a vanishing race. The experience led to the project for which the photographer has become famous: the study of some eighty (CONTINUED) North American Indian tribes, and the creation of more than 40,000 photographs and over 10,000 wax cylinder recordings, all of which culminated in the publication of a twenty-volume series of leather-bound books plus accompanying image portfolios entitled "The North American Indian."

In the late 1800s, Curtis was a successful studio photographer who had been fascinated with photography since boyhood. Based in Seattle, his studio was frequented by the city's well-heeled society. But Curtis's personal interests led him to journey out of the studio onto Seattle streets and into the countryside to photograph people who interested him more, the indigenous people of the region. With the spirit of an explorer, he also began to study the nature of the land, gaining a reputation as an expedition leader, particularly on Washington’s Mt. Rainier. It was in this capacity that the photographer met a variety of important people, including scientists, naturalists and conservationists, some of whom began to influence his outlook and the direction of his career.

When Curtis commenced the project of a lifetime, he was a married man with three children. Despite such domestic ties, the demands he laid out for himself required that he be away from home for months at a time, working sixteen-hour days, seven days a week without a break. Though his family life suffered (his wife divorced him in 1920), Curtis devoted all of his energy and attention to this project with an unrelenting spirit over a full thirty years of his life. He did not complete his work alone, however, but had enlisted the help of an editor, and two regular assistants who worked by his side and sometimes independently in the field, often making the same demands of them that he made of himself.

During the compilation of materials for his massive project, Curtis was involved in a progression of unique adventures that took him across the continent numerous times from the American Southwest to the far north of Alaska’s Arctic Circle. It took him to Washington, D.C. and New York City, and brought him into contact with the likes of President Theodore Roosevelt and J. Pierpont Morgan. No challenge presented an impediment great enough to deter the photographer who faced tremendous dangers during his fieldwork. But he was also rewarded with rare relationships with members and chiefs of the varied indigenous cultures he was recording. Off the coast of Alaska he almost drowned while trying to capture an octopus (in the Native method) that turned out to be eleven feet long and had gripped its legs like a vise around him. On a whale hunting expedition his hip was broken after being thrown into the sea from the force of the thrashing whale. After more than a dozen visits to the Hopi Snake Priest in Arizona, Curtis was granted initiation into the Hopi Snake Order and participation in the 16-day snake ceremony. This included the hunt for snakes (the majority being rattlers, he said) that lasted four days and was followed by the dances in which, as one of the elaborately made-up dancers, he carried snakes in his mouth.

The final volume of “The North American Indian” was published in 1930. He completed this impressive feat just in time for the Great Depression to take full effect. Though Curtis had planned to publish an edition of 500, only 228 were actually produced and sold by subscription orders. All through the project, Curtis was well aware of the critical commentary – in fact, he actively sought reviews especially from noted ethnologists and anthropologists – and was often heartened by favorable and generous comments. The New York Times offered this assessment:  “Mr. Curtis has rare qualities as a photographer, . . . one sees always that elusive quality which can be put into them only by an artist who sees beauty as well as material fact, and when it is all finished it will be a monumental work, marvelous for the unstinted care and labor and pains that have gone into its making, remarkable for the beauty of its final embodiment, and highly important because of its historical and ethnographic value.” This observation is as apparent today as it was when it was written more than a century ago and that is why today we recognize Edward S. Curtis as an artist and his photographs as unique works of art.

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