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Timothy Egan on Edward Curtis

Pete Springer/OPB

Edward Curtis is the author of what one expert has called “the largest anthropological enterprise ever undertaken.” While American literature professor Mick Gidley may have exaggerated in that description, Curtis’s work, The North American Indian, is certainly one of the most ambitious documentary projects in American history. 

In 20 volumes, he and his small team photographed, recorded, and wrote about hundreds of Indian tribes at the beginning of the 20th century. He documented tribes in Alaska, Oregon, Oklahoma and many other states. His ambition was to capture the traditions of tribes that he thought would either assimilate or die out in the very near future. Curtis’s work took him three decades, working nearly constantly.

Although he was supported by Teddy Roosevelt, funded by JP Morgan, celebrated at Carnegie Hall, and praised by The New York Times, he never made a dime from his work and died largely penniless and obscure.

Timothy Egan’s new book, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, documents the life of Edward Curtis, and shares the stories of the tribes he spent his life researching. He’ll be at Powell’s Books tonight at 7:30 pm.

What questions do you have for Timothy Egan? Are you familiar with Edward Curtis? How has his work affected you?

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OPB | Broadcast: Oct. 16, 2012