The Vanishing Race

Photograph by Edward S. Curtis

The passing of every old man or woman means the passing of some tradition, some knowledge of sacred rites possessed by no other.

Edward S. Curtis

The Vanishing Race

  • Edward S. Curtis
  • 1904

Native Americans were the great casualty of the U.S.’s grand westward advance. As settlers tamed the seemingly boundless stretches of the young nation, they evicted Indians from their ancestral lands, shoving them into impoverished reservations and forcing them to assimilate. Fearing the imminent disappearance of America’s first inhabitants, Edward S. Curtis sought to document the assorted tribes, to show them as a noble people—“the old time Indian, his dress, his ceremonies, his life and manners.” Over more than two decades, Curtis turned these pictures and observations into The North American Indian, a 20-­volume chronicle of 80 tribes. No single image embodied the project better than The Vanishing Race, his picture of Navajo riding off into the dusty distance. To Curtis the photo epitomized the plight of the Indians, who were “passing into the darkness of an unknown future.” Alas, Curtis’ encyclopedic work did more than convey the theme—it cemented a stereotype. Railroad companies soon lured tourists west with trips to glimpse the last of a dying people, and Indians came to be seen as a relic out of time, not an integral part of modern American society. It’s a perception that persists to this day.

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