In 1895, photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis met a subject who would change his life and who would forever alter the way we see American Indians.Her name was Princess Angeline, and she was the daughter of Si’ahl, a powerful American Indian chief for whom the city of Seattle was named. By then she’d grown old, selling clams at markets to make ends meet. He asked to photograph her, paying a dollar per photo—and set himself on a decades-long course to document American Indian life.
In this gallery we look back at some of Curtis’s best images of ceremonial regalia from across North America. The photographs were scanned from the National Geographic Society’s copies of The North American Indian, which were purchased by Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone and the Society’s second president. In 2012, the originals were sold at auction for over $900,000, raising money for the Society’s archives and support of emerging photographers.
dancer from the Kwaguʼł nation of British Columbia portrays Qunhulahl, the thunderbird. A mainstay of Pacific Northwest nations’ oral traditions, the thunderbird a powerful spirit creates thunder by flapping its wings.
member of the G̱usgimukw nation depicts Hami (Dangerous Thing) as during the núnhlim ceremony, a dance narrating the magical abduction, return, and revival of a young man.
Navajo ceremonial garb depicting Ghaan’ask’idii (Humpback God), a god of harvest, mist, and plenty. The hump of Humpback God reminiscent of hunching over while planting seeds is made of the rainbow and contains seeds and mist.
A man in Navajo (Diné) ceremonial garb depicting Haashch’ééshzhiní (Black God), one of the divine beings in Navajo tradition. Primarily a fire god, Black God is credited with inventing the fire drill and creating constellations.
THE ONE BORN FOR WATER
A man in Navajo ceremonial garb depicting Tó bájísh chíní (the One Born for Water), one of the hero twins central to Navajo mythology. Tó bájísh chíní and his brother Naayéé’ neizghání (the Enemy Slayer) are credited with ridding the world of monsters.
A member of the G̱usgimukw nation, one of the Kwak’wala-speaking nations of the Pacific Northwest, portrays Kwahwumhl, a raven figure. The raven is seen as a benevolent trickster that can transform its shape at will.
A Navajo mask depicting Haschĕbaád (Goddess), a benevolent female deity. The Navajo masks captured by Curtis are used in the midwinter Yeibichai (Nightway) ceremony, but Curtis was with the Navajo in summer, forcing him to stage the photos.
A Kwaguʼł dancer personifying Tawihyiahl, a mountain goat figure.
THE ENEMY SLAYER
A mask depicting Naayéé’ neizghání (the Enemy Slayer), one of the hero twins central to Navajo mythology. The more aggressive of the twins, Naayéé’ neizghání wore black flint armor that sparkled with lightning.
BRINGER OF CONFUSION
A member of the G̱usgimukw nation wearing an oversize mask and hands to depict Nuhlimkilaka (Bringer of Confusion), a forest spirit. She is responsible for hunters’ confusion if they lose their way in the forest.
Navajo mask depicting Zahadolzha (Fringe Mouth), a benevolent water spirit. According to Curtis’s The North American Indian, Fringe Mouth is thanked if someone is rescued from drowning.
THE ONE BORN FOR WATER
A man in Navajo ceremonial garb depicting Tó bájísh chíní (the One Born for Water). Some of the Navajo regalia Curtis photographed was modeled by Charlie Day, the son of a white trader and Curtis’s interpreter.
By Michael Greshko
Photo gallery by Kurt Mutchler, National Geographic