Edward Curtis: Legendary Photographer of American Indians

By the 1890s, Edward Curtis was one of the most prominent portrait photographers in America. What Curtis ultimately became known for was an odyssey into the disappearing American frontier and his extraordinary pictures of Native American Indians.

“What he was trying to do was capture the spirit of the time before it faded away…” novelist Alan Cheuse says.

Cheuse spent 10 years transforming the life of Edward Curtis into a novel.

“My obsession with Curtis really began when I was 18 years old, and I was visiting a friend at Harvard [University], wandered into the lobby of the Brattle Street Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and saw an exhibition of his photographs. And that has stayed with me all these years,” Cheuse says.

He says the photographs of Curtis are important historically since they documented a valuable part of American culture before it disappeared.

The novelist’s goal was to reclaim that elusive time in history, likening Curtis’ journey to the impossible task of catching lightning.

At the time Curtis was working in the field, nearly two centuries of war between America’s European settlers and native Indian tribes were nearing an end.

“He’s given us the images that we keep in our minds of these days before the conquest, before the last of the Indian wars,” Cheuse says.

Cheuse says one of the most poignant images he remembers is a portrait of Chief Joseph, the grand leader of the Nez Percé tribe. Chief Joseph and his tribe fought a courageous battle against the U.S. Army but ultimately surrendered in order to save the lives of their women and children.

“They’re us. We’re them. They’re the country. We’re the country. We’re all here together,” Cheuse says. “It’s part of our great past. We need to know this.

“I think it’s important to know our history because that’s the only way we can move forward in the future and make any sense out of life.”

Cheuse believes Curtis’ story -- and his photographs -- can help Americans recognize some of the great wrongs committed during this clash of cultures and learn to prevent future ones.