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These Rare Photos Uncovers The Secret Life of Native Americans

Disclaimer: This Article was First Published On Forreason.com and is published here with approval.


When it comes to America's indigenous peoples, most of our knowledge comes from what we've learned in grade school and the occasional Western on tv. In other words, we don't know much about the indigenous people of America, which is a shame because each tribe is unique.

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However, throughout time, people like photographer Edward S. Curtis and history enthusiasts like Paul Ratner have captured or discovered the lives of indigenous people back in the 1800s. What's cooler is that we're about to show you the secret world they lived in. We are inviting you to read more about the American Indian Ancestry.

Crow Children

This photograph was taken by Richard Throssel in the early 1900s. The two children are from the crow tribe. These people lived in the Yellowstone River valley, which extends from today's Wyoming all the way through Montana and North Dakota. Though today, their tribe's numbers reduced significantly, and they live on a reservation in the south of Billings, Montana.

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The two children look like they have a pretty good handle on that horse, considering they're so young. But their way of life was much more connected to nature and animals. In comparison to today, we live in a sheltered and disconnected environment.

Indigenous couple

Couples exist everywhere around the world. But you probably never saw an indigenous couple from the early 1900s. Well, this photograph is a beautiful picture taken by Joseph K. Dixon of one ingenious couple. They proudly stand side-by-side while holding hands.

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It's a beautiful shot showing the unity and pride of their couplehood, while dressed in traditional clothing. This photo shows the strength and trust they have in one another. These photos are very rare to witness, but you get a chance to see their love.

Popomana and Yalatza

This photo was taken in Walpi, Arizona. This village is a Hopi village that originated in 900 AD. Walpi is considered to be one of the oldest inhabited villages. It so happens to be the home of the Hopi people. The homes in the village are passed down through the matrilineal lineage, meaning it goes through the mother.

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People still live in this village; however, the numbers have dwindled as their ancient stone homes are without running water or electricity. These two girls, Popomana and Yalatza, are in Hopi and dressed in their finest clothes.

New world meets old world

By this time, settlers were coming into America and showing the indigenous people their way of life. There was nothing wrong with the indigenous way of life, but the settlers believed they were more civilized.

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As you can see, the clothing on the indigenous man is not traditional to his tribe, nor is the horse's gear. Beside him stands a female settler, in her finest of clothing. The man looks out of place because, as we all know, this is not his way of life.

Grabbing a drink

This is one photo that's extremely rare to witness. It's an Apache fighter, taking a drink from the Navaho Rio in Arizona. This photo was taken in the early 1900s and shows how natural and peaceful the landscape was.

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Today, you would never be able to drink water straight from the river without worrying about getting sick. But here, the water is so clean and so pure, that it would be foolish not to drink from it. Back then, it's safe to say they were living in paradise.

A change of tides

These two indigenous men are American Horse and Red Cloud, two chiefs from Dakota. They're seated alongside Frank North, a military scout and a participant in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show back in the early 1900s. You can see in this photo; the chiefs aren't too pleased.

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And why would they be? As both chiefs visited Washington, D.C., they understood the immense power America had over them. It would soon be apparent that there was a changing of tides that would not be in their favor.

Navajo Blanket Weavers

Photographer Edward Curtis took some amazing photos and documented the ways of the life of the indigenous people. The photo is of a Navajo blanket weaver, and they're still known today for their decorated blankets and sashes.

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Curtis noted, "The Navajo blanket is the most valuable product made by our Indians. Their blankets are now as of old, woven on the simple primitive loom, and during the bleak months of Winter the looms are placed in the Hogans or home, but in the Summer they place them outside in the shade of a tree or under an improvised shelter of branches."

Double Runner's Son

Edward Curtis, the photographer of many of these photos, spent over 30 years photographing over 80 different tribes west of the Mississippi. The New York Public Library showed his work back in 1912 and displayed the notes he had written on the back of each print.

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This is Double Runner's son, in Blackfoot, Montana. Double Runner was a Blackfoot storyteller, who passed down the stories from previous generations to the young generations. Every tribe had a traditional storyteller to pass the history of their people onward.

Hopi Snake Priest

Not much was written on the back of this photograph. Curtis wrote one simple sentence, "a Hopi Snake Priest." This lack of description creates a lot of mystery. What was a snake priest used for? What did they do? The Hopi tribe of northern Arizona would hold secret and sacred ceremonies that included snakes.

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They would put live snakes in their mouth, venomous and non-venomous, even wrapping them around their necks. The belief was their intimacy with snakes would bring upon rainfall in the desert. This specific ritual would be performed every other August. The Hopi people would also preform the Snake Dance.

Blackfoot Encampment

The ingenious people lived a more connected and simple life compared to the settlers. They used nature and specific ceremonies to help heal their people when sick. However, things were sadly changing, and their traditions began to be seen as something negative.

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Curtis wrote, "The Blackfoot Medicine Lodge Encampment of the Summer of 1899. A most notable gathering, and one which never will be witnessed again. Now their ceremonies are discouraged by those in power, and the primitive life is breaking up. The picture shows but a glimpse of the great encampment of a great many lodges."

Hopi Water Carriers

Back in the day, they didn't have a plumbing system to bring water into their homes. Instead, there were water carriers whose job it would be to bring water into the village.

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On the back of this photo, it read, "The Hopi villages are built on a small high straight-walled mesa where water must be carried up from springs on lower levels. This shows two women at their early morning task." Though we think we've evolved since then, there are still people around the world who need to fetch water daily.

Navajo Boy

On the back of this photograph, it was written, "a good type of the younger Navajos." The Navajos are indigenous people of the Southwestern United States. Their tribal name is "Dine" and actually means "the people" in the Athapascan language and that's still spoken today.

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The Navajo people are well known for their handwoven rugs and blankets. They actually learned how to weave cotton from the Pueblo people and later switched to wool when they began raising sheep.

Apache Babe

We were all babies once. And if there's anything we know about babies, is that all babies are cute babies. This Apache baby is no different. Mothers and fathers in the Apache tribe loved their children and made sure they're carried and protected properly.

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In this photo, you see an Apache baby in some sort of device. As Curtis wrote on the back, he said, "Showing the typical baby carrier of the Apache people." This carrier was used by Apache parents to safely transport their children. Looks cozy!

The Wind Doctor

The Wind doctor is a Navajo Medicine Man who uses alternative methods to heal his people. Curtis found this very interesting and wrote an in-depth description on the back of this photograph. This helps give more context to what the Wind Doctor actually did back then.

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Curtis had written, "The healing ceremonies of the Navajo people are locally called sings, or in other words, a doctor or priest attempts to cure a disease by singing rather than by medicine. The healing ceremonies vary in length from a fraction of a day to the two great ceremonies of nine days and nights. These elaborate ceremonies which have been so fully described by Washington Mathews are called by him the night chant and the mountain chant."

Evening on the Sound

Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, there weren't any industry or noise vehicles driving around. The sounds that surrounded the Idengous people were from nature. They would take their canoes and paddle through jaw-dropping scenery that we will never get the chance to see today.

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The photograph read, "The Canoe is to the Coast Indian what the point is to the people of the plains. In these picturesque canoes, built from the trunk of the great cedars, they travel the whole length of the Coast from the mouth of the Columbia to Yakutat Bay, Alaska."

Out of the Darkness

The indigenous people mostly traveled by horseback when not going by foot or canoe. When the settlers came, their behavior was seen as primitive, and they slowly tried to show the indigenous people "a civilized world." Curtis explains this perfectly on the back of the photograph.

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It read, "Navajo Indians emerging from the shadows of the high walls of Canyon de Chelly, Arizona typifying the transition from barbarism to civilization." What the settlers didn't realize was that the indigenous people were living their own civilization.

Getting Water

Imagine how peaceful it must have been to live a life completely connected to nature. Today, we consider camping to be our way to connect back to the Earth, and even then, most of us sleep in tents or travel in RVs. There's not much connection happening.

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Curtis wrote, "An Apache picture. One must know the desert to [...] appreciate the sight of the cool, life-giving pool or murmuring stream." The Apache people live in the Southern Great Plains, including areas of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. By living in the desert, their appreciation of life and water was amplified.

On the Road

It's shocking and yet amazing at how quickly our ways can change. Take this photograph Curtis took, for instance. What you see here is actually a huge change within the Indigenous community when it comes to transportation and moving equipment from one place to another.

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He wrote, "A Blackfoot picture on the prairies of Montants. In the early days and closely following the acquisition of the horse, many of the Northern plains tribes carried their camp equipment on the Travaux. This form of transportation had practically disappeared by the beginning of 1900."

Hopi Chief

Written on the back of this photograph, it said, "A fine type of the Hopi me. These people are best known for their striking ceremony 'The Snake Dance." Curtis was right. The Hopi people, who are known for their agricultural skills, are also known for their spiritual believed which are rooted in Animism.

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They believe their ancestor's spirits are within animals or natural elements that hold the power of healing, protection, and rainfall. Though thy have other dances, their most famous is 'The Snake Dance.'

Housetop Life

Hopi women were known for their iconic hairstyles. In this photo by Curtis, four Hopi women are looking out from their housetop. Their hairstyle is very specific and was created by using wooden discs and wrapping the hair around them. But this style wasn't without reason.

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If a Hopi woman displayed this hairstyle, it alerted the others that she is unmarried. Hopi women would specifically wear this hairstyle during the celebration of the winter solstice. This hairstyle certainly saved men a lot of time and rejection!

Sheep Mountain

Each ingenious tribe was known for something specific. Some were known for their rugs, others for their agriculture. But the Sioux were known for something different. They were famous for their hunting and warrior culture. They were a nomadic tribe that roamed the Great Plains, as they hunted bison. Curtis managed to take an amazing shot of three Sioux men.

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The back of the photograph read, "Three Sioux mountain sheep hunters in the Badlands of South Dakota." The Sioux people still exist today. However, they scattered across many reservations throughout the United States and Canada.

Red Cloud

When it comes to an influential leader, Red Cloud was one of the most important ones of the Oglala Lakota tribe. Red Cloud was the one who signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868), which lead the transition to life on the reservation.

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Curtis wrote, "Red Cloud is perhaps as well known in Indian history, and especially in Sioux Indian history, as was George Washington in the thirteen colonies. At the present time, he is blind, feeble, and has but a few years before him; his mind though is yet keen in spite of the 91 yrs., he enjoys recalling details fo the prouder days of his youth."

The Scout

Every tribe had its own unique characteristics, similar to how each country today have their own local behaviors and customs. This photo is, as Curtis said, "An Apache man." Not all indigenous people are the same. But some share certain traits.

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The Sioux people were known for their hunting skills and warrior culture. But the Apache people were also known for the aggressiveness and being fierce warriors as well. Naturally, they were also known as being powerful and brave people too.

American Horse

The description of this photo was very simple. Curtis wrote on the back, "A Sioux Man." But this wasn't just any man. This was American Horse, an Oglala Lakota chief, historian, and statesman. He made American history as being a U.S. Army Indian Scout and a progressive leader who focused his attention on creating a friendly relationship between the white men.

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But he also provided education for his people as well. He was also one of the main chiefs who allied with Crazy Horse during the Red Cloud's War, Battle of Little Bighorn, and the Great Sioux War. He sadly died from battle wounds.

An Oasis in the Badlands

As said before, the Sioux people were nomadic and well-known for their hunting and warrior culture. They would scour the land for bison of the Great Plains. One famous Sioux chief was Sitting Bull, who as highly respected for his courage and wisdom.

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Though it doesn't say who this chief is, most likely, it is not Sitting Bull. On the back of the photo, it read, "A statuesque, picturesque Sioux Chief and his favorite pony at water held in the band lands of the Dakotas."

A Canoe for Two

Edward S. Curtis's photography's goal was to capture a community, unlike his own, and learn about the American Indians' ways. Curtis was 33-years-old when he started the project, and he certainly had an eye for capturing natural beauty.

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This photo was of the people of Nunivak Island back in 1927. The canoe hasn't changed much throughout the years and is certainly one way to get to know someone! We wonder how they enjoyed canoeing in this canoe!

Mohave girl

The Mohave people are an Indigenous group that is native to the Colorado River in the Mojave Desert. Their territory expands within the borders of California, Nevada, and Arizona. The tribe was known for fishing, hunting, and farming.

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The Mohave tribe refer to themselves as Hamakhav, which means "People Living Along the Water," which references their homeland along the lower part of the Colorado River. This lower part is now California and Arizona. This photo is of a Mohave girl.

Rough day on the water

Indigenous people, who lived along the coastlines, needed to go out to sea to hunt seals and fish. In the movies, we've seen many of them go hunting during spring or summer, but in real life, they went through all the four seasons, including winter.

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And in the winter, they needed to eat too. This is an Inupiat man in Noatak, Alaska. It doesn't look like he's doesn't look excited to hunt for dinner. We don't blame him - it doesn't look like fun.

Family Portrait

This is the sweetest family portrait we've ever seen. But they weren't wearing these furry, hooded coats as a fashion statement. Draping animal skins and fur helps to insulate ourselves from harsh weather conditions. And with those big smiles, it seems like the furs are helping them out.

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We tend to view other cultures with different values as being less than our own; however, this just shows you, there is no greater or lesser culture. They may have had a less materialistic culture, but they look much happier than most people in today's society.

Navajo Mask

Edward S. Curtis was photographing Indigenous people at the turn of the 20th century, documenting as much as possible about the different tribes. This photos if of Haschezhini, a Navajo man, is wearing a fur neck collar and leather mask.

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Though the mask may look a little creepy, the Navajo people are a peaceful tribe known for their woven rugs and blankets. They were taught to live in harmony with Mother Earth and Father Sky, as well as other elements from this earth, including animals and insects.

If eyes could talk

Our non-verbal communication is our most powerful way to communicate with other humans. In a simple arm gesture or head nod, you can find out everything you need to know about the situation at hand. But then there are the eyes, and they never lie.

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This photo tells the story of this man and the strength and wisdom he has in his eyes. What does he know that we don't know? The photo was taken in 1929 in northwestern Alaska.

Masked men

At first glance, this photo may look like the two men are the same person. But look a little bit closer, and you'll see they're two different men in completely different outfits. On the left, a Navajo man is in a ceremonial dress as Nayenezgani, which is a Navajo deity.

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On the right, there's Tobadzischini, the Yebichai war god. The mask of Tobadzischini is made of sacred buckskin, with an opening just wide enough for the eye-holes and mouth.

Thunderbird

The United States isn't the only place where Indigenous people lived. In Canada, they have a large variety of Ingenious tribes like the Kwagu'l nation. The Kwagu'l nation resides along the northeastern shores of Vancouver Island. They relied on hunting and fishing along the coastline.

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This photo is of a dancer from British Columbia's Kwagu'l nation that's dressed like Qunhulahl the Thunderbird. The Thunderbird was believed to create thunder by flapping its wings. Since then, it's become a symbol of the Pacific Northwest.

Serenity

If there's one thing that's consistent with all these photos of Indigenous people, it's the feeling of serenity and calmness. Photo after photo, no matter where it's taken, lacks the tension and stress we have in today's society. In this photo, the chief of the Klamath tribe looks upon Crater Lake.

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This lake is actually one of the deepest lakes in America, as it reaches depths of 1,148 ft (350 m). Native Americans saw the formation of the lake 7,700 years ago when a volcanic explosion resulted in the collapse of a tall peak.

Leaders and Warriors

The minute your eyes land on this photo, you know you're looking at powerful people. Their energy radiates through them. But who are they? Pictured on the left is the great Apache leader Geronimo, who, at the time of the photo, was 74-years-old.

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Pictured on the right is Bear's Belly, who was a well-respected warrior known for wearing the skins of the three bears he killed in battle. Geronimo wasn't a man you messed around with - the man took on three bears and won!

Bush Mask

If we saw someone dressed like this today, everyone would be screaming in fear. This isn't an outfit that screams out, "I'm friendly," but looks can be deceiving. This outfit isn't to scare people; rather, it's to honor one of the gods of the Navajo people.

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This Navajo man is dressed in this clown mask and hemlock to boughs to honor the god Neinilii. Neinilii is the trickster god, a deity given to having fun and playing tricks on people. The Navajo man wore this during the ceremonial dance called Yeibichai.

Horse song

Did you know every December 13th is National Day of the Horse? Well, now, you know! This photo is of an Atsina [A'aninin] Indian on a horse pulling a travois. This photograph perfectly exemplifies how Indians used their horses to carry their load prior to the wagon's invention.

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In the case of this Atsina [A'aninin] Indian woman, her infant child is bundled up and secured on the travois. Though today it may look like a "dangerous" way to transport a child, it was actually very safe and secure.

Curtis's art was once considered offensive

Curtis's photography had a narrative of the "noble savage," which, later on, was considered offensive and outdated. In this photo, Curtis even rubbed out the clock - which was a sign of modernity and sophistication - in the original photo to make his narrative even stronger.

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Thankfully, the photo was restored to its original state, and the clock is now perfectly visible. It's important for a photographer to photograph what's real, rather than what you want it to look like.

Ceremonial dance

The Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw, also known as the Kwakiutl people, are an Indigenous group of people from the Pacific Northwest Coast. They were known for developing the potlach, which is a ceremonial distribution of gifts and property. These gifts included songs, games, and dances.

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In their tribe, the women rather roots and berries in the forests and would catch salmon with wooden traps. In this photo, they're in front of totem poles performing a dance for the winter ceremony.

Everyone loves a wedding

This photo goes to show you that even in the early 20th century, weddings were a big deal. However, they were probably a lot cheaper than today's wedding. This photo is of the Kwakiutl wedding party arriving at their venue via canoes.

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Marriage in the Kwakiutl tribe usually occurs between two people from a different numaym (social groups). The rules around marriage were complicated and extensive. For example, if a family has no daughter but wants to pass down their name, they would hold a fictitious marriage.

Nude hunting

Most of us don't know what it feels like to walk around nature completely nude. Sure, we may have done so as small children, but our society doesn't allow a place for people to be nude (unless you hit up a nude beach).

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However, for many Indigenous tribes, nudity wasn't seen as anything abnormal or sinful since they didn't have modern religion influencing their society. This doesn't mean they didn't respect the human body; they had high regard for the human body and spirit.

Princess Angeline

When we think of princesses, we imagine lavish gowns and luxurious castles, but that's not the case for everyone. This is the photo of Princess Angeline, the eldest daughter of Lushootseed Indian Chief Seattle. This very photo taken by Edward S. Curtis was the photo which helped his work gain recognition.

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When Curtis found her, she was living in poverty outside of Seattle. At the time, all Indigenous people were banned from living inside the city. What does her facial expression say to you?

Olive Oatman

The story of Olive Oatman is an interesting one. She was born in Illinois and, while traveling to California, was attacked by a group of (most likely) Tolkepayas Native Indians. They killed the men and took her and her younger sister, enslaving them. They were held for two years and traded to the Mohave people.

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Five years after the attack, she was repatriated into American society. She became the first white woman in history with a native tattoo on record. It was a blue tattoo on her chin area, done by the Mohave people.

Nakwaxda'xw Chief

This photo is of a Nakwaxda'xw Chief, Hakalahl, who's holding a piece of copper in 1914. At the time, the Nakwaxda'xw people were living in the area of Blunden Harbour, in the Seymour Inlet of British Columbia, Canada. They were highly isolated from the Europeans and were able to maintain their traditional ways of life well into the 1900s.

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Copper, in the Nakwaxda'xw culture, was a symbol of wealth and would be given during potlaches, and even cut into pieces to show the owner's generosity. The most famous coppers were given names, and this particular one was called Wanistakila, meaning "takes everything out of the house." Chief Hakalahl, in this photo, is wearing cedar bark clothing and a fur headpiece.