Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

In Montgomery: Historic photos of Native Americans by Edward Curtis January 31, 2020

Prints of Edward Curtis photos now exhibited at the Montgomery Arts and Heritage Center.


BENEATH PORTRAITS OF KOLACKY DAYS queens, early 1900s era sepia-tone photos stretch along walls and grace tables in the narrow room. Prints of images taken by a man considered one of America’s greatest photographers. Edward S. Curtis.


A permanent exhibit of Kolacky Days queen portraits hangs above the temporary exhibit of Edward Curtis photos of Native Americans.


A photo of Edward Curtis with info about this noted American photographer.


Visitors are welcome to sit and page through Edward Curtis books.


Despite his outstanding photographic reputation, Curtis was previously unknown to me. But no more. Recently I visited an exhibit of around 60 selected photos from his “The North American Indian” collection at the Arts and Heritage Center in Montgomery. His entire body of work encompasses 40,000 photos, many published in 20 volumes.


Historic Hilltop Hall houses the Montgomery Arts and Heritage Center on the right and a floral and gift shop on the left.


To see these photos, termed part of the “most complete visual record of Native Americans west of the Mississippi,” right here in rural Minnesota is such a gift. A $4,000 grant from the Carl and Verna Schmidt Foundation funded the exhibit in Montgomery, a community of some 3,000 just 20 miles northwest of Faribault.


Edward Curtis photographed Native Americans of the west over a 30-year period.


Displaying Curtis’ photos here brings the photographer full circle back to Le Sueur County. At the age of five, he moved here with his parents from his native Wisconsin, eventually settling in Cordova. Here he grew up to appreciate the outdoors as he canoed with his preacher father along the Cannon River. By age 17, Curtis was working at a photography studio in St. Paul. In 1887, he moved to Seattle.


A snippet of a 1906 comment about Edward Curtis by President Theodore Roosevelt.


That’s the backstory of a photographer who earned the praise and financial support of President Theodore Roosevelt, who called Curtis a “close observer.” That is evident in the documentary photos of the Native Americans Curtis came to know well and to, clearly, value and love.


“Wishham girl,” 1910


Text accompanies the “Wishham girl” photo.


A portion of the portrait of “Chief Joseph– Nez Perce”, 1903


His portraits of western Native Americans document not only a culture, but also history and personalities. As I studied the photos, I admired faces weathered by wind and sun, steady strength in profiles, joy and sadness in eyes. I admired, too, the artistry of woven baskets, handcrafted pottery, curved canoes, feathered headdresses and detailed beadwork.


An insightful and beautiful quote by Edward Curtis.


I expect if I was to revisit this exhibit, I’d notice details I missed. There’s just so much to see, to take in, to appreciate, to contemplate. A culture. A people. A way of life. A history. A connection to nature.


More photos from the exhibit.


I am grateful to long-ago photographers like Edward Sheriff Curtis for his efforts in connecting personally with his subjects, for caring and for documenting with his camera. His work is truly remarkable.


Info about Edward Curtis included in the show.


FYI: “The North American Indian” exhibit at the Montgomery Arts and Heritage Center continues until Saturday, February 29. The arts center is open from 2 – 5 pm Thursdays and Fridays and from 9 am – noon Saturdays and is located at 206 First Street North in downtown Montgomery, Minnesota.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


16 Responses to “In Montgomery: Historic photos of Native Americans by Edward Curtis”

  1. Wyonne Long Says:

    Thanks for sharing, Audrey! I wish I were in Minnesota now so I could see this wonderful exhibition! I’m going to forward this to a friend in Palm Springs, CA,who has been the executive director of the Aqua Caliente Indian Museum and has displayed exhibits at the Smithsonian.

  2. Oh very cool exhibit. I would be visiting this one for sure. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Unfortunately I will miss this exhibit! I was hoping that it would still be on display in April when I return to MN.
    Thank you Audrey for sharing your insight and visit with us.

  4. Brian Says:

    As a northern plains historian I’m quite familiar with Curtis’s work. Although he was a late comer in terms of photographing the remnants of the Native people his work is certainly appreciated and admired. My favorite Curtis photo is Cheyenne Two Moons, his appearance gives off a proud defiant look. At almost every powwow I’ve attended the host usually will say “We are still alive!” I see that in Two Moons face.
    Earlier photographers, William H Illingworth, and Orlando S Goff captured life before the reservation. Other wonderful photographers are David F Barry, Frank B Fiske, and of course painters Charles Russell and Frederic Remington.
    I’ve been to Illingworths photo locations when he was with George Custer in 1874 during the Black Hills expedition and taken photos of the same scenery. I used to lead history tours to one such site called Ludlow Cave in the Black Hills.
    There is a humorous Charles Russell story when he as making his rounds on the Northern Plains. It’s in a book called A Man As Big As the West concerning the subject Ralph Doc Hubbard who was a wonderful Native American historian, and whose parents started the Roycroft artisan community in East Aurora NY. Elbert was a renown writer and was on the Lusitania when it was sunk which then involved the US in WWI. I was a friend of Jack Stewert who was Ralph Hubbards student and understudy who continued Hubbards work in Medora ND.

    Thank you Audrey for pointing out Montgomery museum, I will certainly take it in and maybe my wife and I could have a sit down with you and Randy someday.

    God bless

    • Brian, I expected an informative comment from you. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and insights. I always welcome them.

      The Montgomery Arts & Heritage Center really offers a lot for a small town. I’ll post more next week. Today I need to focus on paying freelance assignments. Keep in mind the limited hours at the arts center and that the Curtis exhibit closes on Feb. 29.

      My next Through a SoMinn Lens column for Southern Minn Scene magazine will feature an essay and photos from Montgomery. If not for that, I’d publish more here now. The March issue publishes in a few weeks.

      And, yes, Randy and I would love to connect with you and your wife sometime.

  5. Kathleen Cassen Mickelson Says:

    I’ve never heard of Edward Curtis either. Those photos are really interesting, documenting a culture as it was being damaged beyond repair by the United States. I wonder how Curtis was received among his peers around that part of his work? These face of Native people are beautiful.

  6. valeriebollinger Says:

    I sure hope to get to this exhibit. Thanks for highlighting it Audrey.

  7. Ken Wedding Says:

    There’s a museum associated with the Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota (near Mt. Rushmore) that has a fine collection of Curtis originals. They are a wonder to see.

    According to the article in Wikipedia, “Curtis made over 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of Native American language and music. He took over 40,000 photographic images of members of over 80 tribes. He recorded tribal lore and history, and he described traditional foods, housing, garments, recreation, ceremonies, and funeral customs. He wrote biographical sketches of tribal leaders. His material, in most cases, is the only written recorded history, although there is still a rich oral tradition that preserves history.[2][11]”

    His recordings might rival those of Frances Densmore (from Red Wing, MN) who documented music of native people.

    • Ken, thank you for sharing this additional information. I am even more impressed now by Edward Curtis’ work. He worked with respect, integrity and an appreciation of the people he photographed. Have you seen the exhibit in Montgomery?

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