It's such a big dream, I can't see it all.
- Edward Sheriff Curtis
THESE WORDS MAY HAVE BEEN THE MOST PROFOUND EDWARD S. CURTIS EVER WROTE. They were addressed to noted anthropologist George Bird Grinnell over one hundred years ago, shortly after what was to be the defining experience of Curtis's life. In the summer of 1900, Curtis first encountered American Indian culture in a state relatively unaltered by contact with Europeans. He witnessed one of the last performances of the Sun Dance ceremony and was given access to the sacred lives of numerous American Indians.
The coalescence of these three events created a profound shock wave that affected the very foundation of Curtis's life, his values, and his beliefs. Having become deeply impassioned by the power and dignity of the American Indian, Curtis began to realize for the first time that he might create a record preserving the history of these magnificent people and their extraordinary culture. In the same letter to Grinnell, Curtis went on to say, "But I can start-and sell prints of my pictures as I go along. I'm a poor man, but I've got my health, plenty of steam, and something to work for." Curtis was thirty-two years old, with a family and a thriving business. His willingness to put at risk everything he had worked for up until then is a testament to his enlightened view of humanity, the strength of his individualism, and his creative genius.
Thus, beginning at the turn of the century, the seeds of one man's inspiration ultimately grew into an immutable resolve to produce an indelible and irreplaceable record of American Indian culture at a time when it was in serious decline. Yet Curtis had no way of knowing that he was about to embark on a thirty-year odyssey that would have unforeseen tragic consequences; his wife would divorce him, and he would lose his family, his financial success, and his physical and emotional health-all in the pursuit of his big dream.