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  • Writer's pictureJohn Graybill

Introducing the Descendants Project!

The Descendants of Edward Curtis’ Native American photographs have a powerful voice to be heard—a message of survival. Their stories tell of paths that celebrate their Native heritage and , sadly, of paths that shun their culture. The Descendants Project tells their stories in their voice, linking their past and their present. 

Edward Curtis photographed Native Americans in the early 1900s and produced a 20-volume encyclopedia documenting their complete culture: crafts, songs, spirituality, and language. As the great-grandson of Edward Sherriff Curtis, my wife Coleen and I are continuing his work, “to make them live forever.” My family and I passionately value the Native American culture and want to carry forward the family legacy. The Descendants and the Curtis family share an amazing history, one of mutual respect, friendship, and storytelling.

We are photographing these Descendants with 19th-century camera equipment, similar to Curtis’ camera. By using a 6.5 x 8.5” camera and dry plate glass negatives, we obtain the “Curtis” look and feel to our portraits. Occasionally though, the large format camera is not feasible to get the image that tells the Descendants’ stories, so current technology is then used.

As in Curtis’ work, we are not just about the photographs. Our images support their stories, bringing visual to their words and voices. Do they live their culture? What traditions do they practice? What are their thoughts and concerns for their tribes and their future? We want to write their stories and share it with others so that we all have a better understanding of what it means to be an Indigenous people in this land, in these times.

We will share their voice by doing exhibits at libraries, museums, galleries and educational institutions sharing the portraits of both the Descendant, that we photograph, and their ancestor, that Curtis photographed, along with a plaque sharing their personal story. Many of the images will have the ability to “come alive” using a downloadable mobile phone app that when held up to the image using it’s camera, will trigger a video to be played with the Descendant sharing what they would like to tell the world about being a Native American in the 21st century. This will truly give them a platform to have their voice heard.

A coffee table book to include the Descendants and ancestors images with the Descendant’s story will be produced and sold. A select few images will also be available as enlargements with their stories affixed to the back of the print to continue spreading the word.

Short stories and photographs of the Descendants will be posted as we have them ready, as well our travels and latest news! Stay tuned as we get this exciting project rolling!!!

John Graybill, Great-Grandson of Edward Curtis

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