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Reactions: Travaux - Piegan

Travaux Piegan - the travois was the universal vehicle for transporting camp equipment

Travaux - Piegan

The North American Indian, portfolio 6, plate 193. 

The description of this photograph in portfolio 6 of The North American Indian says, “With most of the plains tribes the travois was the universal vehicle for transporting camp equipment, but it is now rarely seen. In the days before the acquisition of horses a smaller form of the same device was drawn by dogs. The occasion of this picture was the bringing of the sacred tongues to the medicine lodge ceremony.”

A travois is a frame structure used primarily by Plains Natives of North America to drag heavy loads over land. It consists of two long wooden poles arranged in a flexible X shape, with the “front” part of the X tied to horses. The “back” part was crossed by two or more shorter poles that held goods tied in place to be carried.

In this photograph, a group of Piegan men and women is transporting dozens of buffalo tongues from the hunting grounds to the Sun Dance ceremony. The tongues were specially prepared by a Native priest and ikow [a female instructor]. Other Piegans were not permitted to approach within fifty yards of the travois because of the consecrated tongues.

N. Scott Momaday, the acclaimed Kiowa writer and Pulitzer Prize Winner, had an especially moving response to this image: 

Some years ago I purchased a Curtis photograph of Plains Indians on horseback, moving with travois across an immense landscape of grasses. I had recently written The Way to Rainy Mountain, a story from oral tradition of the migration my Kiowa ancestors made from the Yellowstone to the Southern Plains, the last migration of the last culture to evolve in North America. I had not seen the photograph before. It struck me with such force that tears came to my eyes. I felt that I was looking into a memory in my blood. Here was a moment lost in time, a moment I had known only in my imagination, suddenly verified, an image immediately translated from the mind’s eye to the picture plane. More even than that, it was the evocation of a timeless and universal journey and of the spirit of a people moving inexorably toward a destiny. There is a quality to the image, the composition, the invisible plane beyond the surface of the scene that is ineffable. It is a quality that informs the greatest art, and it is the standard in the Curtis photographs.


Taken as a whole, the work of Edward Curtis is a singular achievement. Never before have we seen the Indians of North America so close to the origins of their humanity, their sense of themselves in the world, their innate dignity and self-possession. These photographs comprehend more than an aboriginal culture, more than a prehistoric past — more, even, than a venture into a world of incomparable beauty and nobility. Curtis’s photographs comprehend indispensable images of every human being at every time in every place. In the focus upon the landscape of the continent and its indigenous people, a Curtis photograph becomes universal.


Quoted in Christopher Cardozo (ed.), Sacred Legacy: Edward S. Curtis and The North American indian (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), pages 9-10.

Our Reactions series combines photographs and text from The North American Indian with reactions to those images and stories by Native Peoples today. See more Reactions here.

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