Edward Curtis Indian Photos On Display at Buffalo Bill Center of the West Library

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One of the many treasures in the Buffalo Bill Center of the West’s McCracken Research Library is an edition of E.S. Curtis’s "The North American Indian." Images from this rare volume are now on display in the Library gallery.

The North American Indian, by E.S. Curtis

The Old Cheyenne. Photo by E.S. Curtis

...one of the most influential volumes ever produced about the Native American way of life...

“The information that is to be gathered…respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost,” Edward Curtis (1868 – 1952) wrote in the introduction to his first volume of "The North American Indian" in 1907. He began taking photographs as a teen and started traveling the West in 1898. Curtis devoted 30 years to photographing and documenting more than 80 tribes west of the Mississippi—taking in excess of 40,000 photos, all in natural light.

Upon its completion in 1930, the "The North American Indian" consisted of 20 volumes, each containing 75 hand-pressed photogravures (intaglio printing with copper plates) and 300 pages of text. A corresponding portfolio containing at least 36 photogravures accompanied each volume.

According to the Library of Congress, “The lavishly-illustrated volumes [with a foreword by Theodore Roosevelt] were printed on the finest paper and bound in expensive leather, making the price prohibitive for all but the most avid collectors and libraries. Subscriptions sold for about $3,000 in 1907; the price rose to about $4,200 by 1924.” Less than half of the projected sets were printed, and a bankrupt Curtis—estranged from his family—fell into obscurity.

Curtis’s work has been criticized for its sentimentality and for its contrived scenes that fall short of true documentation. Few critics, however, dispute his artistry or the power of the photographs. "The North American Indian" reveals the beauty and dignity of individuals—as well as details of costume and adornment—and the richness of culture and environment in Native American life.

In addition to the images on view, the Library also displays portions of its copy of "The North American Indian" along with the accompanying portfolio. To actually browse the set, visitors must make an advance appointment with McCracken Library Director Mary Robinson. Read more about the Library on the Center's website.
Since 1917, the Buffalo Bill Center of the West has been committed to the greatness and growth of the American West, keeping western experiences alive. The Center, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, weaves the varied threads of the western experience—history and myth, art and Native culture, firearms, and the nature and science of Yellowstone—into the rich panorama that is the American West. The Center of the West has been honored with numerous awards, including the prestigious 2012 National Tour Association’s Award for “favorite museum for groups,” the 2013 TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence, and, most recently, one of the “Top 10 Must See Western Museums” by True West magazine.

The Center, located in Cody, Wyoming, is currently operating its winter schedule, open Thursday – Sunday 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.; closed Monday – Wednesday. For additional information, visit the Center's website or its Facebook page.

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Marguerite House

Mary Robinson
since: 02/2010
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