e has not only seen their vigorous outward existence, but has caught glimpses, such as few white men ever catch, into that strange spiritual and mental life of theirs, from whose innermost recesses all white men are forever barred." So wrote Theodore Roosevelt in the foreword of Edward S. Curtis' magnum opus, The North American Indian. Consisting of twenty volumes of text and images accompanied by twenty portfolios of photogravures, this work was printed and sold by subscription between 1907 and 1930. The Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library owns one of the few complete copies of this masterpiece.
Edward Sheriff Curtis (1868-1952), nicknamed a "Shadow Catcher" by Native Americans, became interested in photography as a teenager, building his first camera following instructions in a do-it-yourself manual. When his family moved to the Puget Sound area of Washington, he began to photograph the surrounding landscape and the Native Americans living there.
In 1898, Curtis met George Bird Grinnell, editor of Forest and Stream, while shooting scenery on Mount Rainier. Impressed by Curtis' work, Grinnell invited him to photograph an Alaskan expedition in 1899. Grinnell also introduced Curtis to the Blackfoot Indians of Montana, thus sparking his desire to produce a comprehensive study of the native tribes of North America. Curtis' project would eventually grow to more than 40,000 photographs of eighty tribes.
It was his goal to collect data on all aspects of the Native-American experience, including their environment, customs, habitations, and history. When possible, he transcribed their languages and tape-recorded their music; he amassed more than 10,000 sound recordings. On his journeys, Curtis became well-versed in native religions, yet he often feigned ignorance of rituals in order to initiate conversations with reticent tribal members. Spending months at a time gaining the confidence of tribal leaders, he was often rewarded with rare experiences of native rites, such as his initiation into the Hopi snake priesthood.
Curtis employed several types of cameras for his project, including a 14- by 17-inch glass-plate view camera, a 6- by 8-inch sheet film reflex model, and a 6- by 8-inch dry-plate view camera. He developed his work at night in his tent using a pyro developer.
In his text, as in his photographs, Curtis tried to remain objective and unobtrusive. According to his own introduction to this multi-volume work, "Nature tells the story, and in Nature's simple words I can but place it before the reader." Aiming to interest a broad audience, Curtis transcribed native terms using the English alphabet and presented his tribal studies along geographic rather than ethnologic lines. Furthermore, he explicitly refused to engage in debates over Native-American origins or their treatment by European Americans. Critics have since argued that his methodology was far from objective, accusing him of having staged scenes for his photographs. Regardless of his techniques, it is certain that Curtis wakened interest in the plight of Native Americans among his contemporaries. His work has since helped modern tribes reconnect with their ancestors' rituals and preserve their cultural heritage.
With backing from President Roosevelt and funding from J. Pierpont Morgan, Curtis worked for nearly forty years visiting and photographing tribes in the forty-eight states and Alaska. Following Morgan's advice, he published only 500 sets of his work. The University Press of Cambridge, Massachusetts, printed his text. Besides printed work, Curtis also produced the first full-length ethnographic film, In the Land of the Headhunters, in 1911.
Printed on Van Gelder stock, Duke's volumes are numbered 87 out of the original 500. The library acquired its set in 1946 with the aid of Weston LaBarre, then a professor in the anthropology department.