Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: Edward Curtis and Native Americans

Although I grew up in a region of the country that is home to reservations and still is heavily influenced by the coastal Native American tribes, there was never much concerted effort on my part to learn more about those who inhabited the land before us. I’m not certain America is ready to fully confront the tragedy that our ancestors wrought upon entire civilizations, and we typically gloss over this part of our history.

For my birthday this year, my grandfather gave me a copy of Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis, by Timothy Egan. It traces the life story of a young Seattelite and photographer who, in the late 1800s, started a journey to document as much of the Native American culture and religion as he could, before it disappeared forever. Quickly consuming his life, this project led him to become nationally famous and highly sought-after portrait photographer. However, he dedicated decades to field expeditions and publishing a 20-book series of photographs and essays on various tribes and regions.

Curtis was relatively unknown for much of the latter half of this century, but he has seen a revival as the tribes themselves have re-discovered his work and used his reference to bring back the traditional culture that our government had forced them to abandon near the beginning of the 20th century. It’s a fascinating read to trace his journey, and I’d highly recommend the book.

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