An American art: Edward S. Curtis and "The North American Indian", 1907--1930

Shannon Egan
Archaeology, John Hopkinss University
August, 2006


This dissertation offers a new analysis of The North American Indian, a forty-volume set of photographs and writings published in the United States between 1907 and 1930 by Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952). In considering the significance of Curtis's project both as a work of photographic art and as a politically-minded reaction to the contemporary "Indian problem," I claim that The North American Indian must be understood in relation to governmental policies affecting Native Americans and the development of American art in the first three decades of the twentieth century. I argue that the socio-political movements of progressivism in the early 1900s and of nativism in the 1920saffected not only the reception of Curtis's project, but also prompted his shift in photographic style.

In the first decade of production of The North American Indian (1900-1910), Curtis's espousal of progressivism, specifically the attempts to assimilate Native Americans during Theodore Roosevelt's presidency, coincided with his adherence to the style of pictorialist photography. Many of Curtis's photographs from the second decade of his project (1910-1920), however, do not conform to the formal ideals of pictorialism, but rather were made in response to the introduction of modern European art and so-called "modernist primitivism" to New York in the 1910s. By the 1920s Curtis's political activism and artistic direction indicated an awareness of nativist artists and writers in the Southwest, who privileged Native American art and culture as part of a larger effort to define a "native" American identity.

The North American Indian is characterized not by stylistic and thematic unity, but by the ambiguity of Curtis's politics and his varied associations with progressive leaders, modern artists, and nativist activists. The present examination of Curtis's photographs and their relevant aesthetic, theoretical, and political contexts provides an account of The North American Indian and its place in the development of early twentieth-century American modernism.