Visualizing Devotion Student Handout Edward Curtis and Native American History

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J. Paul Getty Museum
Education Department

Visualizing Devotion Student Handout
Edward Curtis and Native American History

About Edward Curtis

Edward Curtis is best known for using photography to document the lives of Native American Indians. From 1896 until 1930, Curtis worked on The North American Indian, his 20-volume survey of more than 100 tribes. When Curtis began his North American Indian Project, he wanted to document the cultures of Native American peoples throughout the continent because he felt the need to preserve what he thought were the "vanishing" native cultures of these people. Curtis knew that Indian Boarding Schools and life on reservations was greatly altering the culture of Native Americans. He set out to document the rituals, ceremonies, and traditions of various tribes in North America. Unfortunately, he did not always do this accurately. A great deal had changed for Native American peoples by 1896. As a result, Curtis all too often composed his images out of nostalgia for cultures long past. He carried props, wigs, and costumes with him to use in his photographs.

About The Eclipse Dance

Curtis's photograph The Eclipse Dance represents a group of Pacific Northwest coast Indians known as the Kwakiutl (kwäk-tl) in an elaborate dance ritual intended to restore an eclipsed moon. Curtis described the dance in his writings:

" It is thought that an eclipse is the result of an attempt of some creature in the sky to swallow the luminary. In order to compel the monster to disgorge it, the people dance round a smoldering fire of old clothing and hair, the stench of which, rising to his nostrils, is expected to cause him to sneeze and disgorge the moon."

Timeline of Native American History between 1830 and the 1920s


Congress passes the Indian Removal Act, which authorized the President to conduct treaties to exchange Indian land east of the Mississippi River for lands west of the river. As many as 100,000 American Indians are relocated as a result of this policy.


The Trail of Tears forced relocation occurs, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 4,000 Cherokee Indians.


The United States government orders all Native Americans to move onto reservations.


The Black Hills War—and the resulting Battle of Little Big Horn—between the Lakota Sioux and the US government takes place in the Black Hills area of the Great Plains.


Wounded Knee massacre


Indian boarding schools appear in which Christian reformers attempt to "civilize" Indian children. Students are forbidden to speak native languages, taught Christianity, and forced to abandon their Indian identity and adopt European-American culture.

© 2006 J. Paul Getty Trust

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