Tribal Region Map

Daily Life

Although Native American peoples of today live in a very different world from that of their ancestors, contemporary traditionalists try to live according to the traditions of those who came before them. Historically, Native life was dictated by the seasons, the weather, and the Creator. Every day was singularly important.

Lifestyles and practices varied among the geographic regions of North America in the centuries before the European settlers arrived. The tribes of California lived in a variety of climates, and their daily activities in different areas reflected the diverse geography of their territory. Throughout California, men usually hunted and fished, and women harvested wild plants and small game. Tribes in the northwest region of California depended on salmon, but in the central region the major source of food was acorns, which were harvested in the fall. The acorns were processed into flour, and then stored for later use. In the southern region, the Chumash made large plank canoes that allowed them to hunt sea mammals such as the sea lion, which was highly regarded for its meat and oil. The Tolowa people performed a ceremony when they hunted the first sea lion of the season. Similar to hunting ceremonies of other tribes throughout the country, the Tolowas’ ceremony paid homage to the animal for giving its life to the people in order for the people to survive. Continue reading …



We eat the white man’s food, and it makes us soft;
we wear the white man’s heavy clothing
and it makes us weak …
Yes—we know that when you come, we die.

— Chiparopai, an old Yuma woman

The rich history and diverse cultural heritage of the California Indians have never been widely known outside the state. Today, even within California, they are still little understood. The tribes of the region tended to be small and, while the groups interacted socially and economically, they did not have the strong political organization of many Native American groups in other parts of the continent. Before the devastating incursions of Europeans and Americans that began in the eighteenth century, there were hundreds of tribal villages in this region, each generally with a few hundred to a thousand residents. Continue reading …

The Southwest

In the summer of 1900, Curtis made his first independent, self-financed trip into the field. For this important trip, he chose to photograph the Hopi, Navajo, and Apache of the Southwest. From 1900 to 1925 Curtis would study and photograph the various tribes of the Southwest more frequently than those of any other area. He ultimately devoted more volumes of The North American Indian to the Southwest than to any other region. Continue reading …


The Plateau and Woodlands

If the white man wants to live in peace with the Indian, he can live in peace. There need be no trouble.
Treat all men alike. Give them the same law.
Give them all an even chance to live and grow.
All men were made by the same Great Spirit Chief.
They are all brothers. The earth is the mother of all people and all people should have equal rights upon it.

— Chief Joseph

Curtis photographed and studied Native Americans in both the Plateau and the Woodlands regions of the West and published his findings and photographs in volumes seven, eight, and eighteen of The North American Indian. The similarities among the peoples he found in these contiguous areas are clearly reflected in both the text and the visual record. Continue reading …

Great Plains

What is Life?
It is the flash of a firefly in the night.
It is the breath of the buffalo in the winter time.
It is the little shadow which runs across the grass
and loses itself in the Sunset.

— Crowfoot’s last words

Edward Curtis’s brief expedition to the Great Plains in the summer of 1900 was undoubtedly the most profound experience of his life. That summer, Curtis accompanied George Bird Grinnell, his friend and early mentor, on a trip to Montana and witnessed one of the last great enactments of the Sun Dance. As Curtis viewed the Sun Dance—a ceremony that few whites, or natives, would see again for nearly seven decades—his vision for the grand photo-ethnographic undertaking that would become his life’s work crystallized. The small body of images he made on that summer trip, among them The Three Chiefs (p. 30), Piegan Dandy (p. 28), and Piegan Encampment (p. 29), clearly reveal that he had been touched by the magnificence of the Indian nations and the overwhelming depth of their culture. These photographs formed the beginning of the vast, elegant portrait of Native American cultures that Curtis would bring to the world over the next thirty years. Continue reading …

The Pacific Northwest and Alaska

And when the last red man shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall become a myth among the white men, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe; and when our children’s children think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the pathless woods, they will not be alone.

— Chief Seattle

Although Edward Curtis formally began his thirty-year odyssey of studying and photographing Native Americans in the summer of 1900, he first made photographs of Indians in his adopted Pacific Northwest several years earlier. A professional studio portrait photographer by training, Curtis was also an avid outdoors-man and amateur landscape photographer. It was while pursuing these latter activities in the Puget Sound area surrounding Seattle that he began to photograph Native Americans and their daily life. Continue reading …