Native Americans on Curtis

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Joseph D. Horse Capture – A Personal Legacy
George P. Horse Capture on his great-grandfather Horse Capture
Louise Erdrich – Intensity of Regard

N. Scott Momaday

Foreword – from the book, Sacred Legacy

momaday n scott mayborn08r Native Americans on CurtisPhotography, at its best, is authentic art, an expression of the creative imagination informed by an original perception of the world. It is said that the camera, by virtue of its very presence, alters reality. Too often a photograph is simply the static record of an image — an object, a figure, a place — in bare definition. A photograph commonly records a facade, the surface of a moment, a nick of geologic time. And as such it is necessarily a distortion, a kind of visible plane beyond which we cannot see. But in the hands of an extraordinary artist the camera can penetrate to a deeper level. For Edward Sheriff Curtis the camera was truly a magic box, a precision instrument that enabled him to draw with light, to transcend the limits of ordinary vision, to see into the shadows of the soul. It is not by accident that he was called by his American Indian subjects “Shadow Catcher.”

Some years ago I purchased a Curtis photograph of Plains Indians on horseback, moving with travois across an immense landscape of grasses. I had recently written The Way to Rainy Mountain, a story from oral tradition of the migration my Kiowa ancestors made from the Yellowstone to the Southern Plains, the last migration of the last culture to evolve in North America. I had not seen the photograph before. It struck me with such force that tears came to my eyes. I felt that I was looking into a memory in my blood. Here was a moment lost in time, a moment I had known only in my imagination, suddenly verified, an image immediately translated from the mind’s eye to the picture plane. More even than that, it was the evocation of a timeless and universal journey and of the spirit of a people moving inexorably toward a destiny. There is a quality to the image, the composition, the invisible plane beyond the surface of the scene that is ineffable. It is a quality that informs the greatest art, and it is the standard in the Curtis photographs.

Taken as a whole, the work of Edward Curtis is a singular achievement. Never before have we seen the Indians of North America so close to the origins of their humanity, their sense of themselves in the world, their innate dignity and self-possession. These photographs comprehend more than an aboriginal culture, more than a prehistoric past — more, even, than a venture into a world of incomparable beauty and nobility. Curtis’s photographs comprehend indispensable images of every human being at every time in every place. In the focus upon the landscape of the continent and its indigenous people, a Curtis photograph becomes universal.

Edward Curtis preserved for us the unmistakable evidence of our involvement in the universe. Curtis was acutely alive to evanescence; indeed, in a real sense it is his subject. The portraits here are of people whose way of life is coming rapidly to an end. We see the full awareness of this in their eyes. And yet these visages are not to be de_ned in terms of despair. Rather, there is a general information of fortitude, patience, and something like assent, and above all composure and valor. In the face of such a man as Slow Bull, for example, there seem etched the very principles of the warrior ideal: bravery, steadfastness, generosity, and virtue. We do not doubt that he is real in his mind and heart, in his word and in his vision. The same can be said of the portraits of Red Cloud, Chief Joseph, and Bear’s Belly — in his bear robe — there is an amalgam of man and wilderness, an equation that is a definition of the American Indian in relation to nature. And yet, in all of these photographs there is a privacy so profound as to be inviolable. A Navajo weaver sits at her loom before a canyon wall. She is a silhouette; her loom is a geometry that seems essential to her being, organic, the extension of her hands into the earth itself. A young girl in her finery stands before her play tipi; she is every young girl who has ever lived upon the earth.

Edward Curtis wrote of himself,

While primarily a photographer, I do not see or think photographically; hence the story of Indian life will not be told in microscopic detail, but rather will be presented as a broad and luminous picture.
We must be grateful for this insight and for this intention: the world of these photographs is one in which breadth and luminosity are indispensable dimensions of spirit and reality.

This definitive collection of the Curtis photographs is an American treasure. They are not artifacts or cultural exhibits; they are not fossil records or curiosities. They are validations of an important and unique moment in the evolution of an American identity. That moment is forever ours, and it is indeed a sacred legacy.

Joseph D. Horse Capture

A Personal Legacy - a letter from the book, Sacred Legacy

Few images have had such an impact on my life as Edward Curtis’s 1908 photograph of my great-great-grandfather, Horse Capture. Because my father, George Horse Capture, discovered Curtis’s portrait of our ancestor, the members of our family have been fortunate to have prints of this photograph in all of our households. Horse Capture is with us in all of our homes; his presence helps us choose the directions we take in life. Seeing his face not only reminds us of our relatives but also reinforces our commitment, as Indian people, to teach our children the ways of our ancestors.

horsecapture Native Americans on Curtis

Jospeh D. Horse Capture

Many other contemporary Indian families have similar connections to their past. In Indian homes all across the country, photographs by the early-twentieth-century anthropologist and photographer Edward Curtis hang on the walls over fireplaces and dining tables, in living rooms and dens. These priceless images help modern Indian people maintain links to their past.

Recently I went to the Minneapolis American Indian Center to visit some friends at the gallery there. I looked at the artworks and scoured the shops for beadwork that might appeal to my six-year-old daughter, Singer. On the second floor of the center, I noticed a series of faded Curtis photographs on display. As I walked along the corridor examining the images, I was startled and moved to see that one pictured my great-great-grandfather. Through these powerful images we are reminded that our relatives are always with us.

Eventually I saw several Native American kids with their parents who were also looking at the photograph. I couldn’t help overhearing their conversation and their fascination with the images. It was evident in their eyes that Cutis’s work had survived not only as a testament to one man’s vision, but also as a glimpse into the past for generations of Indian people.

For my family, Horse Capture has been a role model. Although he passed on before I was born, all of our family members have heard stories about him. Through Curtis’s photograph, through anthropological studies, and through oral history, we have come to know Horse Capture. By noting the clothing he wore in Curtis’s photograph, we can see that he was a traditional Indian man. People recognized for their power wore pierced shirts, as he is wearing. He also wears an eagle-bone whistle, indicating that he participated in sacred ceremonies. A scalp lock is attached to his rifle, representing his exploits as a warrior. He led a traditional life and dedicated himself to the care of one of the objects most sacred to my people, the Flat Pipe.

This book tells the story of Edward Curtis, a man who devoted a significant portion of his life to a project that continues to have an impact on Indians and non-Indians alike. His travels to seven geographic regions-from California to Alaska; from Great Plains to the Pacific Northwest-illustrate that this was more than an occupation. It was a calling. I think non-Indians are able to appreciate not only the technical skill Curtis brought to his photographs, but also the works’ emotional fulfillment. Native Americans, too, appreciate these qualities, but we are also grateful because his work depicts for us a time to which we would like to be closer.

In the background of some of the Curtis photographs, I can recognize the Fort Belknap Reservation landscape. In the foreground, I can see my people on horseback. These same areas remain reasonably untouched today, broken by only a few houses and an occasional road. The families of Curtis’s subjects are still there, fostering the traditions their ancestors established.

These connections between the past and present make Curtis’s work important to us-visual reminder of our people and our commitment to future generations.


Horse Capture (WAÁTYÁNATH) – Atsina, 1908

1908 horsecapture by curtis Native Americans on Curtis

Edward Curtis’s 1908 photograph of Horse Capture


Born near Milk River, Montana, in 1858. When about fifteen years of age he went with a war party against the Piegan, but achieved no honor. From their camp at Beaver Creek the Atsina sent an old man out as a decoy. When the Sioux charged him, the rest of the Atsina rushed out and killed them both. During the fight, Horse Capture ran up to one of the enemy, who was wounded, in order count coup, when one of his companions dashed ahead of him and was killed by the wounded Sioux. Horse Capture then counted first coup on the enemy and killed him. He married at the age of twenty-five. His tribe, the Atsina, commonly designated Gros Ventres of the Prairie, are of the Algonquian stock and a branch of the Arapaho. Their name for themselves is Aáninen, Atsina being their Blackfoot name.

George P. Horsecapture

FORWARD – from the book, Native Nations

GeorgeHorsecapture Native Americans on Curtis

George P. Horsecapture

Moving northward in my trusty Indian Bronco, we traverse through swarms of winter snow snakes as they wink their icy way across the lonely ribbon of asphalt. Rising above the first big wheat field on the right is an unplowed knoll, crowned with native prairie grass and a small pile of stones. A great tribal leader lies buried beneath this bit of earth. He is my great-grandfather, Horse Capture. He passed from this place sixty-nine years ago, after enjoying sixty-six summers. I first met him face-to-face in 1969 in a photographic likeness, a lasting legacy retained by the preeminent recorder of the Indian West – Edward S. Curtis.

As we pass the stubbled wheat field, memories of my dark days – my childhood on the reservation – come easily, but now seem far away in time and space, and I am reminded once again of our history and of the importance of my great-grandfather. His presence in our lives, symbolizing all of our American Indian elders, ushered in light and knowledge where there was only darkness before.

Growing up on an Indian reservation is not as romantic and full of adventure as some might believe. As shaggy-headed children we played all day long, climbing trees, swimming in the murky Milk River, picking berries and doing most of the things that country kids everywhere do. We played in the sunshine, oblivious to our poverty and low social status. When we entered the off-reservation public school, our environment abruptly changed as we encountered the non-Indian world for the first time. As we studied our lessons, it soon became apparent to us that this culture ignored Indian people. Only George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, George Armstrong Custer, and other non-Indians filled the history books. Even Jesus was white. It was as if we didn’t exist, and our minds and souls suffered from this exclusion in our own country.

We learned that there are several ways to survive in the works and that Indian people have explored all of them. We can allow ourselves to be assimilated into the general population, to forget the Indian world and to live far away, but in the long run, this course is not generally successful. Or, we can stay home on the reservation and live as best we can, working for the federal government, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, or the tribal government. For some, this is a good way to help our people. However, after a certain amount of time is spent with these organizations, idealism and dedication become less important than thoughts of retirement benefits, and community-oriented effectiveness is limited.

Another method of coping is hatred, directed at everyone who harmed our people, yesterday and today. Now, many non-Indians say, “I had nothing to do with the injustices of the past, so I have no responsibility for today.” Indians realize this is not true, because the injustices of long ago extend to today. Contemporary struggles against injustice encompass a desire for educational curricula that include Indian studies as well as the protection of our water, land, timber, treaty rights, and every other thing of value to us. Perhaps it is understandable for some to take the course of hatred. We have few other sources of political power, and hatred can give strength and can serve to unite us. Whether it is effective or not will take time to determine.

Religion is another way of coping. U.S. government policy and Christianity severely damaged our religious traditions, and few effective substitutes were offered as replacements. Today, the revival and practice of old ways is a growing trend in the Indian population. Our buttes and Sun Dance lodges are once again filling with vision quests and traditional prayers, as our people return to the ways of their ancestors.

Life continued for the fortunate ones of us who, saddled with inferiority complexes, survived the public school system. We endured the racism heaped upon us by the white citizenry and their progeny, and many other corrosive factors. But the sun had left our world, and we walked in the shadow, ashamed of ourselves without knowing the reason.

Against all odds, some of us made it to college, and a whole new universe opened for us. Higher education may be the ultimate way to deal with racism. In addition to discovering the wider world, we also learned more about ourselves. Happily, we selected courses that met our needs and related somehow to our Indian world.

Searching for information on my tribe became my major objective, as there was no cultural information at home. The reams of tribal data piled up, and each new research discovery set an informational precedent. While in pursuit of a tribal dictionary complied by an early Jesuit missionary, I made a visit to the order’s archives at Gonzaga University in Spokane. Father Schoenberg said, “Come with me. I want to show you something.” After passing through many corridors and doors, we came to a large file in a remote section of the archives. Opening a drawer the priest carefully removed an immense sepia-toned photographic print. He held it out to me, saying, “This must be your relative.” And there, in that hidden place, for the first time, I saw Horse Capture, my great-grandfather.

The world stopped for several moments as I peered at my direct blood ancestor. He was handsome and strong. His classic tribal hairstyle, clothing, and proud bearing marked him as a leader of the A’ani. He was free from conflicting complexes; his moccasins were firmly planted on the earth.

This was the moment when my great-grandfather met for the first time, across the ages. Scanning the treasured photogravure, I saw in the left corner, next to my great-grandfather’s English and Indian names, the word Atsina, a derogatory and incorrect term used to designate our tribe. In the center, smaller printing spelled out the name of the photographer: E.S. Curtis. So, at the very time I met my great-grandfather, I also met Edward Curtis, and they both have been with me ever since.

Atsina War Party Native Americans on Curtis

Atsina War Party

The series contained other images of prominent leaders of our tribe. I had only known then through historical texts, and now I thought, “So that’s what you look like.” We have legends of many of these great men, but we have never actually seen them. The Curtis images record their beauty and power, and no more will we have to deal with abstract words to describe them. They are here in all their glory and I was so grateful to be in their presence. As I stood there, my chest began to swell with a new and strange feeling. For the first time, I felt fierce pride at being an Indian, an A’ani.

In a sense, finding the E.S Curtis Horse Capture photograph was the pinnacle of my life-long search. But my search continued because the more knowledge we obtain about ourselves the better. Our children don’t have to face the same dark road we had to travel. Instead, the prospect of the bright light of knowledge and confidence entered our lives.

My immediate goal became studying the works of E.S. Curtis, specifically his monumental work, The North American Indian. The results exceeded my dreams and increased my admiration for the man and his dedication. Most major endeavors are based on financial gain, but he persevered even when it meant bankruptcy, and the depth and detail of Curtis’s study reveals that he went far beyond the limits of mere “work.”

• •

The impressive visuals portray the American Indian at his classical best. As an enhancement, brief biographies list the Indian name and a short history of each subject. Taking full advantage of his situation, Curtis also utilized the latest recording device of his time, the wax cylinder-recording machine. In so doing, he added another dimension to the historical and cultural information on each tribe, by recording and preserving tribal songs performed by the leaders of the time. These recordings are housed at the University of Indiana at Bloomington. Listening to these scratchy but special songs, a tribal scholar is sometimes able to determine the identity of the singer. Looking at the image of the singer and listening to him sing a song recorded nearly one hundred years ago an intimate and almost eerie bond, uniting the two worlds. In many cases, the data in The North American Indian can be found nowhere else. Curtis’s work is a primary source.

Strengthened and armed by the confidence instilled in us by the works of E.S. Curtis and a few others, many of us moved beyond our previous restrictions and became successes in the professions or other chosen fields. We discovered monographs, articles, books, and the Curtis photographs, and they confirmed what we had known all along. We set forth, each in our own way, to use this new knowledge to help overcome the perennial racism that infests our country.

As appreciative as I am of Curtis and his work, I must place him in a proper perspective. When one admires the many books and haunting visuals of this photographer, one is generally awestruck by the beauty of the images, as well as the dedication and persistence of the photographer. When one considers the difficulties he had to overcome – transportation, establishing a rapport with the tribes, photographic processing techniques in the field, printing techniques and all the rest – he earns our admiration.

However, there is an essential element usually missing from this praise: the importance of his subjects. The ultimate beauty of The North American Indian lies not only with the photographic genius of E.S. Curtis, but also and perhaps most importantly within his subjects. The native beauty, strength, pride, honor, dignity, and other characteristics may have been captured by photographic techniques, but they were first an essential part of the people. While Curtis was master technician, the Indians possessed the beauty. Curtis, as talented as he was, did not contribute to the exhaustion of Red Cloud, the strength of Chief Joseph, the courage of Bear’s Belly, nor the quiet dignity of Horse Capture. All he could do was highlight and document them on film. But we are thankful for his record.

SundanceLodge Cheyenne sundance1927 Native Americans on Curtis

Sundance Lodge – Cheyenne, 1927

Solemnity and tension did not mark all of the racial struggles we encountered; humor and patience often held the key to our success. Teachers in our distant off-reservation schools had a tendency to notice Indian students only at Thanksgiving. When the national holiday rolled around, they would call on me, usually the only Indian, and would ask me to come up to the front of the room. Startled from my sanctuary at the back, I was suddenly thrust into the center ring. The teacher explained that I was to talk on the Indians, the Pilgrims, and Squanto. I never really know who Squanto was, but later heard he was an East Coast Indian who had helped the Pilgrims in some way and had become a hero for them. I stumbled to the front of the classroom, where with great embarrassment I tried to think of something to say. Guided by the teacher’s leading questions, I somehow survived what seemed to be an eternity of unfamiliar and unwanted exposure. After the presentation, I scurried back to my seat and took refuge there for the remainder of the year.

As a successful adult, I believed these humiliating days were part of my dark past, but while living in California many years later, my young children began to complain that they dreaded Thanksgiving for the same reasons that they had previously haunted me. Remembering my youth, I realized that the teacher and others like her were not really cruel, they were just ignorant about Indians, and perhaps even thought they were doing some kind of service by calling attention to their notion of the Indian role in Thanksgiving. As I pondered how to react to my children’s situation, my great-grandfather came to mind and a plan emerged.

Sure enough, when the holiday arrived, the teacher called my son to the front of the room to talk about Indians and Pilgrims, but this time, we were prepared. Clutching a photograph, he bravely stood in front of his classmates and said that on Thanksgiving Day we give thanks for our lives and for all we have. Such a day is unique and special, he said, and explained that the custom descends from the first such holiday that took place long ago, when the Pilgrims celebrated their survival with the assistance of the Indian people.

Taking the Curtis print off the table, he held it aloft for his classmates to see. “This man,” my son continued, “was a buffalo Indian, a warrior, who went on a war path and received honors. He undertook successful vision quests and was so respected that the tribe chose him to be the last Keeper of our Sacred Flat Pipe, the most sacred object in our world. This is my relative.”

Peering at the barrel of the rifle, he pointed to something hanging there and said, “Do you see this item? This is a scalp won in battle by Horse Capture and it represents your relative.” Wearing a happy grin on his face, he marched back to his seat amid total silence. The next year around the holiday we were prepared once again, but apparently the word had spread and no Indian speeches were scheduled.

It is universally acknowledged that the Indian photographs taken by Curtis are classics in every sense. They appear in various forms everywhere. When a museum exhibit or publication features them, they always produce comment. Several “Indian” individuals have viewed Curtis and his works critically, remarking that the images continue to stereotype. To me, such comments say more about the critics than about the photographer.

One of Curtis’s major goals was to record the Indian people’s images and to make a picture of the culture of their time. Not content to deal only with the current population, their arts and industries, he recognized that the present is a result of the past, and the past dimension must be included. Guided by this concept, Curtis recorded the songs that had been sung by his subjects in the past, as well as their myths, legends, and other historical tribal foundations, all from a past tradition. Extending the same principle to the photographs, he presented his subjects in a traditional way whenever possible and even supplied a shirt when his subjects had none. Reenactments of battles, moving camp, and other activities were preserved as well. I am sure this effort provided extended pleasure to these elders. And it continues today to bring us closer to our traditional people and history.

The only photograph hanging in our tribal council chambers is of a tribal member taken by E.S. Curtis. Another likeness from the same source adorns a community park. These images are of our people and they are close to us. Their detractors are foreign and do not speak for us. These “Indian” critics lack a genetic or geographical connection with us and cannot represent us. Real Indian people are extremely grateful to see what their ancestors looked like or what they did and we know they are not stereotypes. No one staged the people. And we see them at their classic finest.

A sense of continuity emerges from our familiarity with the people of the Curtis portraits and our knowledge of the Indian people who live on reservations in our region today. With a photographer’s perceptive eye, perhaps Curtis selected only the most striking and representative members of the groups he encountered, but he may have seen in many a quality of leadership. A surprisingly large number of current Indian leaders are direct descendants of those who were photographed by Curtis.

As I near the end of my journey, the sun is bright, flooding the world with warmth and light. Blossoms are everywhere. It is a great honor to be asked to write this introduction. For me to be invited to do so while I live on a remote Indian reservation in Northern Montana is quite remarkable and hopefully precedent setting. In addition to my having the opportunity to give a reservation view of the Curtis works, other wonderful associated undertakings and events will be part of this project. I will present fifty copies of this book to fifty Indian high schools and colleges. Several full page, loose-leaf, unbound tribal portraits will accompany each of the fifty books. They can adorn Tribal libraries and classrooms.

I thank the publisher, Callaway Editions and Mr. Cardozo for including the Indian people in the project and for their gifts to our children. May they walk in sunshine.

George P. Horse Capture — Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, Montana, 1993

Louise Erdrich

Intensity of Regard – forward from the book, The Women

LouiseErdrich Native Americans on Curtis

Louise Erdrich

When I look into the eyes of the women photographed by Edward Curtis, there is an exchange, there is intensity of regard. Curtis mastered the art of making his subject so dimensional, so present, so complete, that it is to me as though I am looking at the women through a window, as though they are really there in the print and in the paper, looking back at me. This is the genius and the gift of the work. The women photographed by Curtis are so alive that it seems any minute they will change their expression: the hint of a smile will turn into a hoot or laugh, the frown into exasperation. Just look into the eyes of Klamath Woman, photographed in 1923 (Plate 3). She doesn’t quite trust you. The bells on her hat will jingle in just a moment, when she turns away to go about her business.

Although these portraits were posed and painstakingly arranged, the liveliness and the spirit of the women always breathe in the image–the Clayoquot Maiden (Plate 9) is hiding a laugh in her blanket of fur and cedar, the Mohave Mother (Plate 17) nurses her child with offhand dignity. The baby stares with some suspicion at the photographer, but does not relinquish his mother’s breast. To me, Curtis’ images of women with their children are as disquieting as they are profoundly beautiful. As Anne Makepeace mentions in her essay, these children are shortly to be taken from their mothers and sent to boarding schools run by the United States government. There, they will be stripped of their culture and language. They will cry for their mothers, and their mothers will cry for them. Loss trembles in the background.

Women’s work is celebrated in Curtis’ photographs–women grind corn, bake bread, make clay vessels, doctor each other, pick berries, haul wood and water, gather reeds, dig clams. These images of women working are among my favorites, for they are more practical then elegiac, yet entirely harmonious, and they are often the most sensual of Curtis’ works. His eyes lingers on the feel of thing, the baked earthen vessels, the clay under the potter’s hands as she mixes it, the motion of the reaper, the tensile beauty of a loom set against a canyon wall. There is a flow of energy in these photographs that carries into the present. For although Edward Curtis believed that he was documenting a vanishing culture, it is in these humble arts that the strength of Native culture lives. Women still make pots using the same techniques and designs. Women still reap crops and harvest rice in canoes. And into their rugs and baskets, their clothing and beadwork, Women still weave the sacred symbols of their nations.

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