In the mid-1890s, Edward Curtis, a young portrait photographer from Seattle, Washington, found himself captivated by the local Native Americans who would spend hours on the tide flats digging for clams and mussels. He began taking photographs of them, going as far as to ask the daughter of Chief Sealth, of the Suquamish people after whom Seattle is named, to sit for a portrait. These early photographs, rendered in a nostalgic and moody sepia, would lay the groundwork for one of the most prolific artists in American history.
By 1904, Edward Curtis began to receive widespread recognition for his photographs of Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest, which motivated him to expand his projects to include tribes throughout the American West. He believed that these societies, with their rich traditions and spiritual values, would slowly dissolve and assimilate into white culture. So in an effort to preserve these ceremonies, beliefs, daily life, and landscapes, Curtis began his journey to create a 20-volume collection of photographs titled, The North American Indian.
With support from President Theodore Roosevelt and financial backing from railroad tycoon J.P. Morgan, Curtis would complete the final volume of The North American Indian in 1930. Approximately 40,000 photographs from more than 80 tribes would come to comprise one of largest and most important collections of American history.
Today, all 20 volumes of Edward Curtis' The North American Indian are available for viewing online at the Curtis Library at Northwestern University.