A crusading photographer captured the solemn pride of chiefs and braves after the Indian Wars
One day in November 1903, the Indian known as “the Red Napoleon” stepped into the studio of Seattle photographer Edward S. Curtis. Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce had come to Seattle to lobby for the return of his tribe’s Oregon homeland, lost years ago through a suspect treaty with the U.S. government. Joseph—legendary among both whites and Indians as a brilliant and courageous fighter—impressed Curtis with his decency and integrity. The two became fast friends. Later, the photographer called Chief Joseph “one of the greatest men who ever lived.”
Curtis, 35, had taken a few photographs of Indians over the years, often selling them as souvenirs. But about the time Joseph showed up at his studio, he began to devote himself to a frighteningly ambitious project to research and photograph the major Indian tribes throughout the West, from Alaska to the Mojave Desert.
The work consumed him for some 30 years, spurred the bitter breakup of his family, and ravaged his health and finances. Curtis worked feverishly. He had great respect for the Indians—they came to call him
“Shadow Catcher”—and believed he was documenting for posterity one of history’s greatest races. He settled for nothing but the best, most modern photo equipment and printed on expensive, oversize paper.
Americans, he said, should see “the Indian as nearly lifelike as possible.”
The result was a stunning 20-volume study, The North American Indian, hailed by Theodore Roosevelt and others as a definitive record of Indian life. One reviewer called Curtis “a poet as well as an artist.” A top federal official said that he “reached the heart of the Indian and has been able to look out upon the world through the Indian’s own eyes.”
Among his more than 40,000 pictures are signature photos of many of the famous Indian warriors—such as Red Cloud, Geronimo, and, of course, Chief Joseph—who bested and bewildered the U.S. Army’s finest. The Indian Wars were over for them when Curtis snapped their pictures, but his images confirm that they never lost their pride.