Beautiful portraits of the Navajo Native American by Edwards S. Curtis in 1904

By Paul Pinkerton
Publish Date:

Edward S. Curtis was a prolific American photographer known for his amazing work of  capturing the Native American peoples.

He took over 40,000 photographic images from over 80 tribes. He recorded tribal lore and history, and he described traditional foods, housing, garments, recreation, ceremonies, and funeral customs. The Navajo was one of the tribes that Curtis has captured.

Six Navajo on horseback, ca. 1904

The Navajos the Native American people of the Southwestern United States, are the second largest federally recognized tribe in the United States with 300,460 enrolled tribal members as of 2015.

The Navajo Nation constitutes an independent governmental body that manages the Navajo reservation in the Four Corners area, including over 27,000 square miles of land in Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. The Navajo language is spoken throughout the region with most Navajos speaking English as well.

The name “Navajo” comes from the late 18th century via the Spanish (Apaches de) Navajó “(Apaches of) Navajó”, which was derived from the Tewa navahū “fields adjoining a ravine”. The Navajos call themselves Diné.

Like other Apacheans, the Navajos were semi-nomadic from the 16th through the 20th centuries. Their extended kinship groups had seasonal dwelling areas to accommodate livestock, agriculture and gathering practices.

As part of their traditional economy, Navajo groups may have formed trading or raiding parties, traveling relatively long distances. All photo by Edward.S Curtis/Library of Congress 

Nesjaja Hatali, Navajo medicine man.

The Navajos came into contact with the United States Army in 1846, when General Stephen W. Kearny invaded Santa Fe with 1,600 men during the Mexican–American War.

In 1846, following an invitation from a small party of American soldiers under the command of Captain John Reid who journeyed deep into Navajo country and contacted him, Narbona and other Navajos negotiated a treaty of peace with Colonel Alexander Doniphan on November 21, 1846, at Bear Springs, Ojo del Oso (later the site of Fort Wingate).

The treaty was not honored by many young Navajo raiders who continued to steal livestock from New Mexican villages and herders. New Mexicans, on their part, together with Utes, continued to raid Navajo country, stealing livestock and taking women and children for sale as slaves.

Nayenezgani, a Navajo man.

Beginning in the spring of 1864, around 9,000 Navajo men, women and children were forced to embark on a trek of over 300 miles (480 km) to Fort Sumner, New Mexico for internment at Bosque Redondo.

The internment at Bosque Redondo was a failure for many reasons as the government failed to provide an adequate supply of water, wood, provisions, and livestock for 4,000–5,000 people.

Large scale crop failure and disease were also endemic during this time, as well as raids by other tribes and civilians. In addition, a small group of Mescalero Apachess, long enemies of the Navajos, had been relocated to the area resulting in conflicts.

In 1868, a treaty was negotiated between Navajo leaders and the Federal government allowing the surviving Navajos to return to a reservation on a portion of their former homeland.

The Navajos were not provided with much protection that other enemies of the Navajos would swoop in and take Navajo women and children back to their camps and force them to work as slaves. While at Bosque Redondo the government did not provide the Navajos with food or shelter and some Navajos froze during the winter because of poor shelters that they had to make on their own.

Nayenezgani – Navaho


Navajo Indian Boy Edward S. Curtis


Hastobiga, Navajo Medicine Man, ca. 1904.


Edward S. Curtis – A Navaho smile


A Navajo man wearing blanket and headband


A group of Navajo in the Canyon de Chelly, Arizona.


Navajo chief, 1904