Shortly after taking up photography during a long convalescence, Edward S. Curtis of Seattle established himself as that city’s premier portrait taker. All the best families in the area wanted a Curtis family photograph, and he easily could have spent the rest of his days in ease and wealth. But the germ of an idea took root in Curtis’s mind and would not let him rest. After taking a picture of the city’s last Native resident, the so-called “Princess Angeline,” granddaughter of Chief Seattle, Curtis was inspired to continue documenting the lives of America’s original inhabitants.
What started as a few short trips to nearby reservations soon blossomed into a wild idea. A comprehensive photographic study of the Native American tribes across the whole of the continent. Curtis, convinced that the dwindling population of Native Americans might soon be reduced to zero, started working tirelessly to complete the project. The concept was for a twenty-volume set, printed on the absolute best material available, complete not just with photographs but documentation of the languages, songs, rituals, and spiritual practices of every tribe on the continent. All to be lead by Curtis, a man with no academic background at all.
The cost was staggering, as was the toll on Curtis’s mind, body, and family. On the money front, Curtis spent nearly every minute not among the tribes hustling for financial support, despite the patronage of the wealthiest man in America, J.P. Morgan, and the President of the United States. Teddy Roosevelt was an ardent admirer of Curtis’s, commissioning him for family portraits at his Sag Harbor estate and at his daughter’s White House wedding. Still, the cost and time of the project overran Curtis’s projections, and despite his wealthy friends and tireless work he wound up constantly in debt and near financial ruin.
Timothy Egan deftly chronicles Curtis’s efforts at wrangling his massive project. At times, though, the somewhat tedious and repetitive nature of the work itself comes through in the writing. Essentially. Curtis visits one tribe and learns what he can about their culture by ingratiating himself with the people, then he does it again, then he does it again.
Egan also laments the fact that Curtis’s work fell out of fashion during his life, and his accomplishment was not truly appreciated until after his lifetime. Now though, Curtis’s encyclopedic The North American Indian is a crucial resource both for academics studying Native American life, and for Native American tribes themselves, who have used it to rekindle parts of their culture that had nearly died out.
It’s a fascinating story, tinged by sadness due to the toll the work took on Curtis. Egan doesn’t outright state that Curtis’s achievement was worth what it cost him, in money, a broken marriage, and his health, but it’s clear that he feels it was a good thing for the world that someone was willing to work so hard, and put up with so much, for a seemingly crazy idea.