Faces of the Past

In 1906 a photographer named Edward S. Curtis started an immensely challenging project that took 20 years to complete. His goal was to travel the western United States and document Native American’s traditional life before it disappeared.

Curtis visited over 80 tribes, shot upwards of 40,000 photographs, made 10,000 wax cylinder recordings, and took massive amounts of notes and sketches. These were collated into a 20-volume set of books containing almost 2,000 photographs entitled “The North American Indian”. Over the century his work has been celebrated for its large scale documentary and artistic value but also criticized for perpetuating a myth of the “noble savage” by manipulating his images.

Take a moment to observe for yourself. Step back over 100 years to see just a few of the beautiful faces through the lens of Edward S. Curtis.

(All photos via Library of Congress/Edward S. Curtis)

Ben long Ear, ca 1905

Ben Long Ear


Nanivak Island man, headdress with a wodden bird head in front 1929

Nanivak Island man

headdress with a wooden bird head in front (1929)

Kato woman, California, 1924

Kato woman

California (1924)


The Nez Perce

Warrior on a horse

Bear Bull, blackfoot

Bear Bull


Black Hair, ca 1905

Black Hair


Bull Chief, Apsaroke (crow), ca. 1908

Bull Chief

Apsaroke (Crow) (1908)

Cheyenne, ca 1910



Hopi Girl _1905

Hopi Girl


Mojave Man 1907

Mojave Man


Mosa, Mojave, ca 1903


Mojave (1903)

Nesjaja Hatali, medicine man, Navajo ca 1904

Nesjaja Hatali

medicine man | Navajo (1904)

Red Cloud 1905

Red Cloud


Sitting Owl, Hidatsa 1908

Sitting Owl

Hidatsa 1908

Tah It Way, ca 1905

Tah It Way


Taos girl, 1905

Taos girl


Three Eagles, Nex Perce ca 1910

Three Eagles

The Nez Perce (1910)

Yakima Man 1910

Yakima Man

Shell Disk Earrings (1910)

Yellow Bull_the Nez Perce

Yellow Bull

The Nez Perce

Zosh Clishn, Apache 1906

Zosh Clishn

Apache 1906

big head_ca. 1905

Big Head


Wife of Modoc Henry, Klamath tribe 1923

Wife of Modoc Henry

Klamath Tribe (1923)

“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 S. Curtis (‘The North American Indian’ 1907 | volume 1 )