Myths and legends swirl around the people who occupied the United States before Europeans arrived in large numbers. Perhaps too much of what we believe to know about Native Americans comes via the simplifying lens of Hollywood. But the truth is that their story is intensely complex. Take a look at these 40 photographs to get an idea of the rich diversity that existed among the indigenous peoples of North America.
40. Chiefs at the White House
It’s 1923, and a distinguished group of Pueblo chiefs have gathered at the U.S. Capitol. They’ve traveled there for a hearing of the Senate Lands Committee – the first of their people to visit to Washington D.C. since the time of Abraham Lincoln. The chiefs were campaigning against a bill to allow settlers easier access to Pueblo lands, which is a fight they ultimately won.
39. The railroad arrives
This Native-American man stands atop a bluff in the Californian Palisades with a panoramic view of a new arrival in his land: the railroad. He’s looking at the Central Pacific Railroad, which was built over a seven-year period from 1862. Naturally, railways had a profound impact on America’s indigenous peoples – changing their environments and ways of life forever.
38. Beads for sale
Three women elegantly garbed in traditional dress are at a Native American fair in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. They’re selling crafts such as beaded belts and jewelry at a 1941 event organized by the local indigenous association. The photographer was John Collier Jr. – a great believer in representing and preserving culture through the medium of photography.
37. Cherokee man
We have scant information about this image other than that the man is of the Cherokee people. They were apparently one of North America’s largest tribes when Europeans began to arrive. Their population in 1650 has been estimated at 22,500, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. And the Cherokees were scattered over a territory of some 40,000 square miles centered on the Appalachian Mountains. In the modern era, around 820,000 people claimed they had Cherokee ancestry in the 2010 U.S. Census.
36. Feathered men
What’s immediately striking about these two men is their feathered head dresses. Feathers are an important part of Native American culture and have significant meanings. For example, they can symbolize everything from strength to freedom and wisdom. The most prized ones are those from the golden eagle and the bald eagle because their lofty, soaring flight takes them close to heaven.
35. Pawnee family
Standing in front of their lodge, this family is from the Pawnee people. They were so-called Plains Indians and this image was taken in 1871 in Loup, Nebraska. The Pawnee tribe lived around Nebraska’s Platte River and was made up of a series of separate groups. For the greater part of the year, the people lived in earthen lodges although they moved to teepees while hunting buffalo. Today, Encyclopedia Britannica reports that over 3,200 of them are officially registered as the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma. Furthermore, another 3,000 Pawnee Native Americans reside elsewhere in the wider continent.
34. Hopi man
Holding a spear, this man from the Hopi people is mounted on a fully saddled horse – although many Native Americans rode bareback. Popular imagery often has them on horseback, though actually they lived without the animals for some 10,000 years. It’s said that the Spaniards introduced them to indigenous Americans in the 17th century.
33. Weasel Calf of the Siksika Nation
Weasel Calf of the Siksika Nation poses in full ceremonial dress before his geometrically decorated teepee in a photo from about 1910. The Siksika are part of the Blackfoot Confederacy which is based in Alberta, Canada. At one time, these people apparently roamed as far south as the Yellowstone River in Montana. They lived the nomadic lives of Plains Indians – hunting buffalo and living off the land. According to Siksikanation.com, the population of the tribe in 2009 was around 6,000 people.
Captured in 1859 or 1860, this image shows four of the principal chiefs of the Arapaho people. The character on the far right is Warshinun – sometimes also known by the name of Chief Friday. As a young boy he somehow became separated from his people who lived along the Cache la Poudre River in Colorado. Rescued by a fur trapper, Warshinun attended school in St. Louis and went on to play an important role as an interpreter and negotiator.
31. Arikara medicine ceremony
Here are four Arikara medicine men performing a ceremony which was intended to bring rain and food to their people. In the late 19th century government officers attempted to ban such acts of worship – although enforcement was nigh-on impossible. This 1908 image was set up by the legendary photographer of Native Americans: Edward S. Curtis. Apparently, he arranged this performance of the ritual.
30. Bannock people
Here is a group of Bannock people in Idaho. They lived mainly along the stretch of the Snake River in Idaho and as the 19th century rolled on became closely associated with the Shoshone tribe. Buffalo hunting was at the center of their semi-nomadic lives but they also harvested fruits and took salmon during the summer months. The Bannock War of 1878 was a rebellion against the reservation program. And it ended with the slaughter of some 140 of their people, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. Incredibly, the 2010 U.S. census found only 89 people who identified as Bannock.
29. Sitting Bull and family
This 1882 image shows the famous Lakota Sioux chief Sitting Bull with his mother, a sister, two of his daughters and a grandson. He was the principal leader of a combined force of Cheyenne and Sioux braves which fought the U.S. 7th Cavalry at the 1876 Battle of Little Big Horn. Troops under the leadership of General George Custer had threatened a large Native American settlement. The leader and 210 of his men were then killed in the ensuing battle.
28. Cheyenne man
Edward S. Curtis took this captivating image of a Cheyenne man in 1905. The former reportedly took around 40,000 photos of indigenous people over a period of three decades. But his 20-volume collection called The North American Indian sold only 19 copies when is was published in 1930. Though according to Smithsonianmag.com, his monumental work was later recognized as “the most ambitious enterprise in publishing since the production of the King James Bible.”
27. Yuma musician
This Yuma man with his elaborate face paint holds a flute to his lips, and what would we give to be able to hear the air he played? The Yuma people were a conglomeration of several tribes including the Maricopas, the Quechan and the Mohave. The Geneology Trails website notes that they numbered up to 4,000 people and resided in the vicinity of the Colorado River and in the foothills of the Chocolate Mountains. The lived by cultivating crops including beans and corn as well as hunting game such as rabbits and antelope. As of 2010 the U.S. Census recorded just over 10,000 people who identified as Yuma.
26. Delegation in Washington D.C.
This impressive group of men consists of Sioux and Arapaho chiefs including Spotted Tail, Worshinun, Black Coal and Touch the Sky. The two white men – Joe Merrivale and Antoine Janis – acted as interpreters. This 1877 delegation to Washington came the year after the Battle of Little Big Horn when more than 200 U.S. cavalrymen were massacred by Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. The group was entreating the U.S. government to deal fairly with them as they were forced into reserves.
25. Little Bear
Little Bear was a Cheyenne and he’s pictured here in this 1875 image in traditional dress with impressive beadwork and his pipe. He had the misfortune to witness the Sand Creek massacre of his people in 1864. In a surprise dawn attack on some 1,000 Cheyenne encamped at Sand Creek, Colorado, U.S. cavalrymen killed about 150 of them and burned the settlement down, according to Smithsonian magazine.
24. Cheyenne woman
This venerable woman was photographed in 1888 when she was said to be almost 100 years old. She was Cheyenne – one of the so-called Plains Indian peoples who lived in the lands between the Arkansas and Platte rivers. From 1857 they came into direct and often bitter conflict with white settlers and U.S. soldiers. The Cheyenne were also principal players at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876 when General Custer’s 7th Cavalry was routed.
Another of Edward S. Curtis’ evocative images – captured in 1906 – portrays a young woman called Yuls-Huls-Walking. Other than that she was an Apache, we have little personal information for this woman. Though since she can be seen wearing what is described as a Christian medallion, we can assume that she’d adoped the religion of the people who had settled her ancestral lands.
22. Koskimo shaman
This extraordinary looking holy man in a 1914 image by Edward S. Curtis is a member of the Koskimo tribe. He’s a Hamatsa shaman and is emerging from the forest after days of observing an initiation ceremony. A section of the Quatsino First Nation, the Koskimo lived on Vancouver Island in Canada’s British Columbia.
21. Little Plume and Yellow Kidney
Yellow Kidney and Little Plume are seen here relaxing in their lodge. These handsome-looking fellows – photographed by Edward S. Curtis in 1911 – are both members of the Piegan tribe. For reference, this group formed part of the wider Blackfoot people. They were the largest of three tribes that together formed the Blackfoot Confederacy – the other two being the Kainai and the Siksika.
20. Apache mother and baby
This Apache mom with her baby swaddled in a papoose was photographed in 1873. She was near Fort Apache in Arizona when Timothy H. O’Sullivan took this image. The fort was established in 1870 and soldiers garrisoned there were heavily involved in the Indian Wars that raged in the White Mountains region.
19. Navajo weavers
This depiction of Navajo women engaged in weaving is one of Edward S. Curtis’ photographs. And he gave a description of it himself in his great work The North American Indian. The photographer wrote, “The Navajo-land blanket looms are in evidence everywhere.” Curtis added, “The simplicity of the loom and its product are here clearly shown – pictured in the early morning light under a large cottonwood.”
18. Chiricahua Apache medicine man with his family
Here we see a Chiricahua Apache medicine man with his family posed at the entrance of their brush wickiup sometime in the 1880s. When the Spanish first explored America, the nomadic Chiricahua tribe lived in what is now the southwest of the U.S. and the north of Mexico. Though they were pushed from their lands as numbers of European settlers increased through the 19th century. The Chiricahua eventually ended up on reservations in New Mexico and Arizona.
17. Sioux camp
This large Sioux camp with its dozens of teepees extending across the plain was located at Pine Ridge in South Dakota in November 1880. It was the Plains Indians such as the Sioux who used teepees, and the word itself actually translates as “used to live in.” They were surprisingly spacious and a typical one could accommodate up to ten adults plus children.
One of the best-known Native Americans, Geronimo – far right in this 1886 picture – was chief of the Chiricahua Apache people. Born in 1829, the chief led his people in resistance against both Mexican and American attempts to take Apache territory or force them into reservations. At one point, History.com notes that a quarter of U.S. army forces were hunting him until he was eventually captured in 1886. He then lived on as a prisoner of war until 1909.
15. Sioux chief
His name is lost, but we do know that this man was a chief of the Sioux people – also known as the Dakotas. We also know that he was one of those who took part in an 1862 rebellion that included deadly attacks on white settlers around the Minnesota River. In the aftermath, Encyclopedia Britannica notes that 38 Native Americans were executed in a mass hanging at Mankato in the south-west of Minnesota. And whether this man was one of those sentenced to death is unknown.
14. Geronimo in top hat
The great Apache leader Geronimo can be seen here in a pretty unlikely scenario. Resplendent in a top hat he sits at the wheel of an automobile – a Locomobile Model C – in 1905. His companion in the front seats in this photo taken near Ponca City, Oklahoma is a Ponca chief called Edward Le Clair Sr. In 1886 Geronimo was the last Native American chief to surrender to U.S. forces. Although officially a prisoner of war, he was allowed to make the occasional trips from his confinement at Fort Sill in Oklahoma.
13. Apache Scouts
Naturally, many Apaches bitterly opposed the white settlers who took their lands. Though this group of scouts actually worked for the U.S. Army. In fact, these ten individuals – photographed in about 1886 – were working with General George Crook. He was hunting the Apache leader Geronimo, who was finally forced to surrender in the very year this image was made.
12. Embarking for England
This party is comprised of the crew and performers who made up Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. The performers included such luminaries as Blue Horse, American Horse and Red Shirt – who all claimed the status of chief. They’re standing on the deck of the S.S. State of Nebraska on the point of embarking for England in 1887. There, they would entertain Queen Victoria and hordes of Britons during her Golden Jubilee celebrations marking 50 years on the throne.
Here is a fine gathering of distinguished Native American chiefs in an image made almost inevitably by Edward S. Curtis sometime around 1900. Starting from the left we have Little Plume of the Piegan, Buckskin Charley from the Ute, the great Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo, Comanche chief Quanah Parker, Hollow Horn Bear of the Brulé Sioux and the Oglala Sioux American Horse. This photograph is obviously posed, though it captures a truly impressive spectacle nonetheless.
10. Navajo dancers
These three impressively costumed figures are Yebichai dancers of the Navajo people. The masks are said to have originated with the Pueblo people. And the Yebichai dance is apparently part of a ritual used to heal the sick. The ceremonies involved prolonged rounds of singing and sometimes large-scale circle dances. The Yebichai were mythical figures who created the Navajo and instructed them in how to live harmoniously with their world.
9. Hopi women
This photo from 1906 shows two Hopi women dressed in their finest clothes. Their distinctive hair-dos are typical of this group – although only the unmarried wore them. The bunches of hair are known as squash blossoms. They were constructed around a wooden frame which was removed when the elaborate creation was complete.
8. Apsaroke winter camp
It looks like a particularly chilly winter’s day in the snow-covered woods as two Apsaroke men sit astride their horses by a teepee in this Edward Curtis photo from 1908. The Apsaroke people were part of the Sioux nation of Plains Indians and were also known as the Crow. They had traditionally lived around the Yellowstone River. Later, they settled in Montana and divided into two groups: the River Crow and the Mountain Crow.
In this Timothy O’Sullivan photograph taken in 1873, these three fierce-looking Apache braves are dressed ready for war. Between them, they carry the full range of weaponry most commonly used by the Apaches: a bow, rifle and a spear. Despite having an image as an aggressively warlike people, they mostly lived peaceably with neighboring tribes. Although winter raids were not unknown. There were just over 110,000 Apache people as of 2010, according to the U.S. Census.
6. Blackfoot family migrating
A family of Blackfoot people is seen here on their way to eastern Canada. They’re using the traditional carriage vehicle of many Native Americans: the travois. In this case, it is being pulled by horses. But dogs could also drag this simple contraption across the prairies. Basically, it consisted of two crossed poles bound together with buffalo hide or sinew. All kinds of goods could be transported in this way and the travois could even be used as a stretcher for the ill or infirm.
5. Hopi circle dance
A large number of spectators perched on the surrounding buildings watch as Hopi Pueblo girls and women – bearing woven baskets – perform a ritual circle dance. In this 1890s shot, the females are dressed in matching blankets and stand facing each other in semi-circles. But what is the precise meaning or significance of this ritual? Well, to this day we don’t actually know.
4. Blackfoot horsemen
These five Blackfoot men coming down the side of a Montana mountain are an excellent illustration of a skill many Native Americans cultivated: unrivalled horsemanship. The riders are from the Blackfoot tribe and they’re in what is now the Glacier National Park of Montana. Horses were central to the life of the Blackfoot people as transport, for hunting buffalo, in conflict and even in ceremonial rituals.
3. Apache girl
In a photograph taken in 1900 or thereabouts, an Apache girl carries a woven water basket on her head which is known as an “olla.” And she must be very strong if it’s full of water! Today, these elaborately decorated yet completely functional olla baskets are highly prized by collectors and can attract bids of thousands of dollars at auction.
2. Hopi women
These young Hopi women with their magnificent “squash blossom” hairstyles are engaged in the essential task of grinding grain to make flour. The girls may well have been preparing flour to make a traditional Hopi bread called “piki.” This was made from flour ground from blue corn, and the dough was baked wafer-thin on large flat stones. But how many Hopi people are around today? Well, the 2010 U.S. Census registered nearly 20,000 people.
1. Apache prisoners
These Apaches in a photograph from 1886 are prisoners of the U.S. government. They’ve been allowed off their railroad carriage near the Nueces River in Texas for a rest break as they journey towards a reservation in Florida. One of their number – third from the right in the front row – is the legendary chief Geronimo. Another is his son, who is seen here on his father’s left. The older man had finally surrendered just a few days before this photograph was taken.