Philanthropist Harriet Bullitt has donated her rare collection of Edward S. Curtis’ “The North American Indian” to The Seattle Public Library.
Curtis (1868-1952) was an American photographer and ethnologist whose work focused on the American West and Native American peoples.
“The North American Indian” is a collection of 20 informational books and 20 books of large images, written and photographed by Curtis and his collaborators over the course of nearly 30 years, detailing the traditions and customs of more than 80 of North America’s native nations.
“I treasure this collection, which was given to me by my mother,” Bullitt said. “The Seattle Public Library is the perfect place for it. I am absolutely thrilled to know this incredibly important body of work will be well preserved and appreciated for generations to come. I believe everyone should have a chance to see it.”
Curtis felt a deep sense of purpose in documenting the cultural customs of Native American tribes, which he believed were facing extinction, in the early 20th century. Each published set was accompanied by 20 large portfolios containing over 2,200 photogravure prints of the people, places and customs Curtis came to know. The set is considered a remarkable publishing feat and an invaluable historic and artistic resource. There were 222 complete sets published and it is unknown how many exist today. Most known sets can be found in libraries and museums.
Bullitt’s set of “The North American Indian” will become the second complete set in the Library’s Special Collections. The Library will be able to create public displays with the books, as well as the information and images contained within them. With two sets in its possession, the Library may also consider loaning portions of its first complete set to other Northwest institutions to leverage the reach of the collection.
The Library’s Special Collections staff also plans to make the new set an important part of the Curtis150 sesquicentennial celebration of Curtis’ life’s work in 2018. Throughout the year, images from the collection will be on display in the Level 8 Gallery of the Central Library. The Curtis150 celebration is a multi-institution project that includes the Library, Seattle Art Museum, the University of Washington, American Friends Service Committee’s Seattle Indian Program, The Edward Curtis Foundation and more.