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Edward Sheriff Curtis


Edward Sheriff Curtis was born on this date in 1868, near Whitewater, Wisconsin.  When he was in 6th grade he built his own camera, changing his life forever.

His family moved to Port Orchard, Washington in 1887 when he was 19. He kept pursuing photography and won a prestigious award for a photograph of Chief Seattle’s daughter, Princess Angeline.

In Montana he witnessed a valley floor covered with thousands of teepees. At that moment he decided to devote his life to recording the life of Native Americans and spent the next 30 years documenting over 80 tribes from the Mexican border to northern Alaska. His work struck a nice balance between portraits and everyday life.

Three of those tribes were the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara, the Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota. One simple shot shows a Mandan earth lodge, which he noted is exactly like that of the Hidatsa. These shelters were thick, sturdy, and insulated, staying warm in the winter and cool in the summer. In Curtis’ photo, you can see the densely packed dirt and support beams surrounding the mound. A bull boat leans against the square entrance. The picture provides a casual scene, something hard to explain in text.

The bull boat was a significant part of the tribes’ lives. A bowl-shaped wood frame was covered in buffalo skin with the fur facing out, sometimes with the tail still attached to pull it to shore. While slow and hard to steer, bull boats were light and could hold up to half a ton. Curtis captured two other pictures of bull boats. In one the boat rests on a rocky shore of the Missouri river. In the other, we see a woman in a shawl paddling through the water.

His portraits were also important. One of them is of Kunuhtiwit, or Sitting Bear of the Arikara, the chief when photographed in 1908. The image captures the chief wearing his full headdress along with an intricate leather jacket. It's the best known photo of Sitting Bear.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and in that case, the work of Edward S. Curtis is worth millions.


Dakota Datebook written by Lucid Thomas




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