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In 1899, Edward Curtis joined The Harriman Expedition to Alaska as the official photographer. On the expedition Curtis met George Bird Grinnell, an expert on the Plains Indians. Grinnell shared Curtis's ideas concerning the conservation of American Indian traditions. Curtis accompanied Grinnell on a similar trip to Montana in 1900; this time to document the cultures of the Blackfoot, Algonquin, and Blood tribes. While viewing the Sun Dance of the Blackfoot Indians, Grinnell told Curtis, "Take a good look. We're not going to see this kind of thing much longer. It already belongs to the past." Curtis was so moved by his experiences with the American Indians of Alaska and Montana that he vowed to create a multi-volume encyclopedic reference on all of the American Indian Tribes which he would eventually title, The North American Indian, A Series of Volumes Picturing and Describing the Indians of the United States and Alaska.

Curtis began his work with the Apache, Jicarilla, and Navajo tribes. The Navajo tribe he worked with was located in Canyon de Chelly in Arizona. Curtis wanted a more immersive experience than the typical tourist. So he hired an interpreter and a Navajo informant to communicate through and form relationships with the Navajo people. Instead of simply viewing the ceremonies, Curtis now had insight into the meaning of each ceremony. For the second volume of the work, Curtis documented the cultures of the Pima, Papago, Qahatika, Mohave, Yuma, Maricopa, Walapai, Havasupai, and Apache-Mohave or Yavapai tribes. Curtis returned to Arizona to work with the Hopi tribes of the Arizona for the twelfth volume.

Altogether, the twenty volumes produced by Edward Curtis represent a grand attempt to represent the various cultures of the American Indians. The twenty volume set, with the twenty accompanying portfolios, containing over 1,500 photograph plates, was not obtainable at an affordable price for most people. The volumes were sold mostly to institutions and private collectors.

The description element of many of these objects comes directly from Curtis. The archaic spellings and awkward grammar are authentically Curtis's. In cases where Curtis did not supply captions to a plate, corresponding sections of his writing from The North American Indian were used.

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