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Images of Native Americans: Exploring Changing Visual Representations

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One benefit of my job at the Library of Congress is that I get to learn some history and read critical analysis while also locating resources and finding ways to support teachers in the classroom. One topic that I continue to learn more about is the history of the ways in which the lives of Native Americans in the United States have been documented.

Hidatsa Mother. Edward Curtis, 1908.
Hidatsa Mother. Edward Curtis, 1908.

I have long admired the images of Edward Curtis for their artistic content and for the extensive work he did to document Native American communities over more than twenty years. However, I was not aware of the controversy regarding Curtis: the charges by many scholars and others that he was promoting a myth of the vanishing Native American and that he modified his pictures or posed his subjects to perpetuate that belief.

Recently I attended a gathering, hosted by the Library’s American Folklife Center, of Native American archivists and archivists caring for collections documenting Native American communities.

Fancy Dancer, Carl Fleischhauer, 1983
Fancy Dancer, Carl Fleischhauer, 1983

It was wonderful to meet so many amazing archivists who are working not only to ensure that the history of their tribes is protected for members of their communities, but also that those outside of the communities learn about and help protect Native American history and culture. For those in attendance, it was an opportunity to learn more about the Library’s collections that document aspects of Native American communities, including Omaha music traditions. It started me thinking about visual representations of Native Americans in different times and places.

Here are some ideas for helping your students delve into this topic:

  • Explore some of the images created by Curtis. What do you think he was trying to show with his images? Was he successful? Do you see evidence that his photographs were promoting the inevitability of Native American communities’ assimilation into the United States cultural melting pot?  This post has teaching suggestions that could encourage discussion.
Seminole squaw and child. John N. Chamberlin, 1900
Seminole squaw and child. John N. Chamberlin, 1900
  • Compare one of Curtis’s photographs with one taken by another photographer at the same time. Do you believe that one or both of the photographs are exploiting Native American communities?
  • Compare the ethnographic work on Omaha music traditions with Curtis’s work. What similarities and differences do you see? What story or stories are being told by the Omaha collections?
  • What techniques could be used to document Native American communities that would better convey a full and accurate depiction of the lives and experiences of community members?

The Teaching with the Library of Congress blog has published a number of posts documenting Native American Heritage Month and the lives of Native Americans in history. Explore these to learn more and find additional teaching suggestions:

I still have a long way to go in my own understanding of the issues and controversies that surround collections that document Native American communities. I hope you and your students will not only take the opportunity to learn about the history and culture of Native Americans during Native American heritage month but also take time to discuss how Native Americans have been documented in the past and how we document them now.


  1. Contributions of Edward Curtis will span hundreds of years from now. His diligence and unending energy to capture Native Peoples as they lived in the early nineteenth century have no photographic parallel from that era. With his careful documentation, historians of Native Cultures have a glimpse into bygone times that would have been lost forever had it not been for Curtis.
    – Rowena McClinton, Professor of Native American Studies, Southern IL Univesrity Edwardsville

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