Edward S. Curtis’ magnum opus,
The North American Indian, gets a masterful republication
in honor of the photographer’s sesquicentennial.
By Michael Clawson


A full set of Edward S. Curtis’ The North American Indian, a 20-volume set with five portfolios.

Over the course of more than 30 years beginning in the late 19th century, photographer Edward S. Curtis documented every facet of Native American culture, from courting rituals and spiritual beliefs to language and songs. His ultimate goal was a massive 20-volume, 20-portfolio publication titled The North American Indian. The project was championed by Teddy Roosevelt and had financial support from J.P. Morgan, and was destined to become one of the most important artistic and ethnographic studies of Native people the world had ever seen.
When World War I broke out Curtis was bumped from the front pages of newspapers from which he had once been a staple. As the war dragged on, interest waned for The North American Indian. Against all odds Curtis pushed forward even as his wife had left him taking their four children, his health deteriorated and progress on the book seemed to only inch forward. Despite all this, Curtis completed The North American Indian in 1930, but by then America was in the Great Depression and few had the means for such an expensive 20-volume publication on Native Americans. The publication was stunning in its breadth and gorgeously handmade with the finest materials and great attention to detail. It was immediately hailed as the greatest publishing accomplishment since the King James Bible, but it slowly faded, a fate shared by Curtis, who died unknown and penniless.

Enter Christopher Cardozo. He found Curtis during a resurgence of his work in the 1970s, a resurgence Cardozo can take a lot of credit for having started. His collection started with a few prints, and has since blossomed into holdings that would make most museums weep with envy. Last year Cardozo saw a problem with The North American Indian: the 20-volume, 20-portfolio set was so rare—only 160 sets still exist, and a complete set could sell at auction for nearly $3 million—that it effectively shut researchers, students and art collectors out from ever enjoying the books except behind glass at a museum or, even rarer, by appointment in an archive room where white-gloved specialists slowly turned pages under tight security. The book—and its iconic and revealing portraits of Native American men, women, children and their customs and landscapes—needed to be liberated from the confines of its rarity.
“Many people consider The North American Indian to be the most important set of rare books that have been created in the United States. It’s certainly one of the most beautiful, and a unique window into the history of the American West and the lifeways of Native American people and their heritage,” Cardozo says. “But unless you have $2 million it’s really hard to see one. All but a few of the originals sets are in libraries and major institutions, and it can be nearly impossible to get access to them. And even if you do, you’ll be lucky to see even 10 percent of the whole publication. So there are real issues around access, as well as preservation, and viewing the originals.

Frontispiece of one of 20 volumes of the book republication.

Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952), Qahatika Girl, 1907, photogravure, 16 x 12”

Cardozo’s answer to this dilemma around Curtis’ magnum opus was simple: he would republished the whole set with exacting detail, the highest quality printing and a sensitivity to the material and aesthetics that would likely only be rivaled by Curtis himself. Cardozo is now more than halfway through the three-year project, which he has timed with the 2018 sesquicentennial of Curtis’ birth. He estimates it will take about 35,000 hours of work, including scanning and remastering the original images, proofing thousands of pages of text, layout and design, and much more before the actual printing and custom binding begins. When he started the project he was determined to make the books as true to their originals as possible. As a testament to that, each page is identical in content to the original except for typeface. And to give you a sense of the size of the set, they contain 2,234 photographs and illustrations, 5,023 pages of text, and more than 2.5 million words, some of them including special characters used in Native American languages that had to be created from scratch by Curtis on a letter press and all over again by Cardozo’s team using a proprietary custom typeface. “We like to refer to it as a re-creation, because we have made changes and enhancements, but they are improvements for contemporary readers and viewers. I’m not saying ours is better—the originals are extraordinary—but ours is more legible and readable, and the photographs are more richly hued. The typeface and layout is more accessible, and the print quality is superb,” he says, adding that two of the major changes include a noticeable clean-up of the typeface and layout and condensed versions of the portfolios. Originally, each volume came with its own portfolio—20 volumes, 20 portfolios — but the prints weren’t bound, just loose with the volume. For the republication, Cardozo condensed the 20 individual portfolios into five bound portfolios that contain all 723 photogravure plates, many of them iconic imagery of Native Americans.

“I’ve been told this is the largest and most ambitious republication project in North American history. It has become a herculean task for us. But it pales in comparison with what Curtis had to do. He laid down the foundation, he laid down the path. Against all odds Curtis did it. He had no money at the end, and he sadly had to sell the copyright to his images, but he finished the project,” Cardozo says, adding that Curtis’ work stands with Karl Bodmer’s Travels in the Interior of North America and John James Audubon’s Birds of America as three of the most important books of their kind. “But what makes Curtis’ work stand out is the text and transcriptions of language and music. And the writing and research revealed so much about Native peoples and their culture and heritage. That’s the distinction between The North American Indian and everything else.”

Cardozo has limited the editions of the republication to 75 sets. He’s sold over 30 so far with little marketing or press, and as he gets closer to finishing the project within the next five months he expects prices to go up substantially before selling out completely. Due to increasing investments in the project and strong demand, the sets have already more than doubled in value over the past year. The current price for a set is $28,500, which is still only 2 to 3 percent of the price of an original set. “Right now we’ve sold to both institutions and private collectors. Institutions are subscribing so they can make it accessible to researchers, students, and the general public. Many of them own original sets and want to have the republished set to accomplish three things: access, preservation of the original and to greatly reduce staff time,” Cardozo says, adding that he has already received great praise for the project from a number of institutions, including Harvard University, Northwestern University, and the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.

“A very worthwhile project is being realized with great success, and I am so pleased to be able to promise access to this stunning, modern, yet soon-to-be-classic edition to students and researchers who come to Harvard from all over the world to use our library collections,” says Janet Steins, collection librarian at Tozzer Library at Harvard University.

Historian and art critic A.D. Coleman states: “In terms of elegance and sumptuousness, what the Cardozo Fine Art project has accomplished can stand alongside the parent edition as a worthy successor thereto,” he says. “It’s sensuous, tactile qualities evoke exactly the immersive experience that Curtis intended to deliver to those who read its texts and engage with its images. An artisanal landmark, this new edition offers as close an approximation as one can imagine of a hands-on, eyes-on encounter with Curtis’ masterpiece in its original form.”

In addition to the republication, Cardozo is also repatriating 10,000 Curtis prints back to the tribes and tribal members from which they originated. With the repatriation project and the book republication, he’s happy with the place that Curtis occupies in the world of art and history. If only he had lived to see his work attain the height of its glory.

“Curtis’ work is monumentally important, and ultimately, I just want as many people to see as possible,” Cardozo says. “The North American Indian was the crown jewel of his career. His life revolved around completing it. It’s important that it be seen today.”


Pullout map of Little Bighorn in The North American Indian.

Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952), The Three Chiefs – Piegan, 1900/1911, photogravure, 12 x 16”

Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952), Nez Perce Babe, 1900/1911, photogravure, 16 x 12”