• Notes From The Frontier

Vanishing Americans

Edward Curtis on “The Vanishing Race”


Native American tribes have lived on the North American continent for at least 15,000 years, but archeological sites in recent decades indicate they may have been on the continent for much longer, possibly 30,000-40,000 years ago, migrating from Asia. Between 500 and 650 nations or tribes existed across the North American continent. Estimates of the total indigenous continental population before whites arrived vary wildly. Early estimates in the 1800s put the population at one to two million. But modern-day historians estimate the population was closer to 7-18 million. And some estimates are much higher.


What IS known is that as soon as whites showed up on the continent and introduced disease and warfare, indigenous numbers plummeted. Diseases, such as smallpox, typhus, measles, malaria, influenza, and cholera, were massive killers. By 1800, the indigenous population of present-day United States had declined to 600,000. By 1890, to 250,000. It was, in fact, a holocaust comparable to World War I, which killed about 17 million people.

Edward Curtis was a famous American photographer and ethnologist who focused his work on the Native American tribes of the American frontier. He photographed Native Americans first on the Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899, then the Blackfoot Confederacy in Montana in 1900. Then, in 1906, J.P. Morgan provided him patronage to produce a massive series of 20 volumes of 1,500 photographs to document as much of Native American traditional life as possible, believing that they were a “vanishing people.”


Curtis wrote in the introduction of his first volume in 1907: “The information that is to be gathered... respecting the mode of life of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost.” He sought to show Indians of the North American continent as a noble people but one that remained frozen in time and “passing into the darkness of an unknown future.”

His work included making over 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of Native American language and music, and over 40,000 photographic images from more than 80 tribes. He recorded tribal lore and history, traditions, foods, clothing, ceremonies, housing, hunting, games, funeral customs, and other daily aspects of Native American life. Curtis came to be known as “The Shadow Catcher” by many Native American tribes.


Curtis’s work was both a great service and a great disservice to Native Americans, for it captured their past culture for posterity, but also froze it as a relic lost in time, an anachronism, rather than as an integral and profoundly powerful and vibrant part of the American living identity it has become. In the beginning of the 20th century, tourists flocked to the West to glimpse not only the vanishing wilderness, but what they perceived to be the “vanishing people” that had been a part of that wilderness for millennia.

Following is an excerpt from Edward Curtis's essay, “THE VANISHING INDIAN TRIBES OF THE NORTHWEST PLAINS." (Be forewarned: it includes language and prejudices of the time. But it also gives us a glimpse of how Natives were viewed among even the most educated and "enlightened" whites.)


The Northwest Plains Indian is, to the average person, the typical American Indian, the Indian of our school-day books--powerful of physique, statuesque, gorgeous in dress, with the bravery of the firm believer in predestination. The constant, fearless hunting and slaughtering of the buffalo trained him to the greatest physical endurance and gave an inbred desire for bloodshed.


The culture of all primitive peoples is necessarily determined by their environment. This, of course, means that all plains tribes--though speaking a score of languages--were, in life and manner, broadly alike. They were buffalo-hunting Indians, and only in rare cases did they give any attention to agriculture. Buffalo meat was their food, and the by-products their clothing, tools, and implements.

The plains tribes in earlier times were certainly true nomads. For a time, in the depths of winter, they camped in the shelter of some forest along the streams. Other than that, wherever roamed a herd of buffalo, there also wandered the bands of Northern Indians. The very existence of these tribes seemed bound to that of the buffalo. From the skins their lodges were built. With the hair on, the hides furnished the robes for the body, as well as mattresses and bed coverings. The meat, prepared in many ways, with the addition of a few roots and berries, furnished their entire food. Advancing civilization has swept these countless herds from the face of the plains, and left their human companions stranded.

In many despondent hours of pondering over the fate of these native children I have felt that perhaps if they, too, could have perished with the buffalo herd it would have been vastly better for them. But, no! Though thousands of years behind us in civilization, they are human beings. Their loves are like our loves; their affection for their children like our own....


In a cabin on the plains of Montana three of us sat talking: an educated plains Indian, a Government sub-agent, and myself. I was telling of the splendid advancement of the Apaches, and how well they would work. At the close of my story the agent turned to the Indian and asked him, "Why don't your people work like that?"


All about the cabin, as a decorative frieze, was a row of buffalo skulls. The Indian looked up at those skulls, saying: "They tell you why. While those buffaloes were alive we did not need to work. Only niggers and white people farmed. We were a superior people and had nothing but contempt for those who worked. Do you realize that I, a comparatively young man, know the days when if we wanted food we had but to ride out on the plains, shoot buffalo, or other game, and the women would go out and bring it into camp?


Do you expect us, in the fraction of a life-time, in the quarter of the age of an old man, to have changed our whole life, and even to have forgotten the days of the old freedom, when we were lords of all the great plains and mountains? In what way does your civilization benefit us? Before you had attempted to force your so-called civilization upon us we had every desire of the heart! An easy, simple, carefree life, and to the worthy and brave a certainty of a future life of plenty and comfort.

What has your civilization done for us? Robbed us of our land, our strength, our dignity, our content. Even your religion has robbed us of our confidence in the hereafter. What have you given us in return? Desire, corruption, beggary, discontent. You have robbed us of our birthright, and scarcely given us a husk. You said we did not make use of the land as the white man would, so you took it from us and use it as you like. I could as well go to the man who has his millions loaned at three per cent. and say, `You are only getting three per cent. for this. I can use it and make ten. I will take it because I will make the best use of it."


It is true that advancement demands the extermination of these wild, care-free, picturesque Indians, and, in the language of our President, we cannot keep them or their lands for bric-a-brac. The fact that we cannot, however, makes it nonetheless regrettable or hard on the people who are being ground beneath the wheel of civilization, and though we may be able to justify our claims that advancement and progress demand the extermination of the Indians, we can scarcely justify the method used in this extermination.

As the years pass on and we are able to see this subject as history, stripped of its little local prejudices, we will be found guilty, as a nation, under the manipulations of crafty, unscrupulous politicians, of having committed more than "the crime of a century." In all our years of handling the Indians we have taught them one thing—the white man seldom told the truth.


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"Vanishing Americans" originally posted July 17, 2019 on Facebook

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