Long before European settlers colonized what would later become known as the United States, the land was owned by more than 570 Native American tribes. These tribes were spread throughout the region and each one had their own history, culture, creation myths, and traditions.
Sadly, the colonization process cost these cultures the land that had been theirs for so many centuries. Some tribes were lost forever. But these photos will reintroduce you to Native American history and change everything you thought was true about North American history.
Rabbit Tail of the Shoshone Tribe
Shoshone tribal member Rabbit Tail was photographed in 1895. But although his people fought against the United States in the Snake War and Bannock War, Rabbit Tail joined the U.S. army to fight against two common enemies—the Lakota and Cheyenne Tribes. At the time, he helped the military in the Battle of the Rosebud, a conflict which ultimately led to the Battle of Little Bighorn. At the time, the Shoshone tribe lived in the Utah, Idaho, Nevada and Wyoming areas.
Navajo Silversmith Bae-ie-schluch-aichin
This Navajo silversmith was photographed by Ben Wittick in the 1890s. His name was Bae-ie-schluch-aichin, which roughly translates to “slender maker of silver.” The Navajo used to buy batches of silver while trading with Spanish colonists and didn’t become silversmiths until the 19th century. At that time, Atsidi Sani, a Navajo silversmith in 1875 showed them the art of metalworking and crafting objects out of silver.
Hupa Tribesman Spear Fishing
This image taken by photographer Edward Curtis in 1923 shows a Hupa tribesman using a spear to catch fish in the river. This was a common practice by the men who needed to feed their wives and children. The Hupa tribe, which was located in the northwestern part of California, lived near riverbanks which is why fishing for salmon was so common for their people.
Situwuka and Katkwachsnea
There’s very little information about Situwuka and Katkwachsnea, the Native American couple who posed for this photo in 1912. All that’s certain is that a lot of Native Americans were being forced to relocate to reservations while the United States government continued to take more of their land during this time period. In 1887, Native Americans owned 138 million aces of land, but by 1934 they only had 48 million acres left.
Mahalia, a 114-Year-Old Native American Woman
Photographer Lee Picket snapped incredible photos of Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest. One of those photos was of a 114-year-old Native American woman named Mahalia, who lived in the Washington area in 1912. This photograph showed evidence to the White Man that Native Americans had a rather long lifespan, which was pretty rare in the early 20th century when the life expectancy for women was 48 and for men was 36.
Red Hawk of the Oglala Tribe
Photographer Edward S. Curtis took this photo of Red Hawk, a member of the Oglala tribe, riding on horseback in 1905. This photo was later labeled “An Oasis in the Badlands.” But as far as the Oglala Sioux were concerned, they were part of a bigger group of tribes known as the Lakota, which were considered one of the biggest tribes in North America up until the 19th century when the alliance between the sects fell apart.
Ute Warrior and His Dog
This Ute warrior was photographed alongside his dog sitting on the Eastern slope of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains in 1873. The Ute tribe was one of the oldest tribes in the Southwestern part of the United States. The Ute hunted and planted crops in the Utah and Colorado areas. They eventually used horses to travel further and expand their territory. They also traded with 17th century Spanish colonists. Sadly, when the Mormons arrived in Utah, the tribe was forced out. And in 1874, they signed the Brunot Treaty which they failed to realize had stripped them of their land until it was too late.
Chief Iron Tail of Oglala Lakota
Sinte Maza of the Oglala Lakota tribe later became Chief Iron Tail, the tribal leader of the Lakota. But he had no quarrels befriending a White Man which he proved by participating in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in the 1800s. And according to Major Israel McCreight, a Native American cultural expert, Iron Tail was "Not a war chief… but a wise counselor and diplomat, always dignified, quiet and never given to boasting… He always had a smile and was fond of children, horses and friends."
Gray Mountain With His Grandchildren
This photo shows 91-year-old Gray Mountain passing on oral traditions by sharing Navajo tribal legends to the next generation, more specifically, his children. According to Laura Tohe, an ASU associate professor and Navajo, “Storytelling is part of the oral tradition of indigenous peoples. Stories impart values, language, memories, ethics and philosophy, passing them to the next generation. A lot of people think of storytelling as just entertainment for kids, but for the Diné it helps maintain tradition and language."
Jim Thorpe, Olympic Gold Medalist
When Jim Thorpe arrived at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, he discovered that someone had stolen his running shoes. Luckily, one of his teammates lent him one of their shoes. He found the other shoe in the trash. And despite showing up in mismatched footwear, he was able to win two gold medals. And aside from being considered one of the greatest American athletes and gridiron football players of the 20th century, he is of Sauk and Fox tribal descent.
Zitkala Sa, a Sioux Tribeswoman
This photo of Zitkala Sa was taken in 1898. She was known by other names as well, such as Red Bird and even Gertrude Simmons. The fact that she was an activist who fought for the protection and rights of Native American culture made her years ahead of her time. She was also a graduate of Indiana’s Earlham College and taught at Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School. She also published autobiographical essays and worked to elevate the position of Native Americans up until her death in 1938.
White Wolf, the Oldest Native American
White Wolf of the Chippewa tribe was reportedly born in 1785 and died in 1922. This made him 137 years old. He was officially named Chief John Smith, but preferred to go by the name White Wolf. Although his exact age has never been determined, if he did die at 137, this would make him the oldest Native American to have ever lived. One thing that can be confirmed is that he was one of the most photographed Chippewa tribal members.
Geronimo, the Apache Leader
This 1905 photo shows Geronimo riding in a Locomobile Model C vehicle on 101 Ranch in Oklahoma. The Apache leader is of course known for preventing American and Mexican soldiers from attempting to force his tribespeople from their homes. Unfortunately, on September 4, 1886, Geronimo made one final stand but failed to keep the United States army from pushing him off tribal territory. He was then apprehended and held as a POW for 20 years, but was still allowed to go out on occasion.
Low Dog, the Sioux Tribe’s Chief
Low Dog was the chief of the Sioux tribe, but he wasn’t the only one. He along with Chief Sitting Bull fought together in the Battle of Little Bighorn. Low Dog became a war chief at the young age of 14 and engaged United States forces soon after. He stated that the main reason he went to war is because he refused to let anyone tell him what to do. He claimed: "When it began to be plain that we would have to yield or fight, we had a great many councils. I said, 'why should I be kept as an humble man, when I am a brave warrior and on my own lands? The game is mine, and the hills, and the valleys, and the white man has no right to say where I shall go or what I shall do. If any white man tries to destroy my property, or take my lands, I will take my gun, get on my horse, and go punish him."
The Arapaho Woman Named Pretty Nose
In 1879, Laton Alton Huffman snapped this photo of Pretty Nose, the war chief of the Arapaho tribe at Fort Keogh, Montana. Pretty Nose led the Battle of Little Bighorn. But there’s some controversy as some claim she was party of the Cheyenne tribe. But the black, red and white cuffs she had on identified her as a member of the Arapaho tribe. Pretty Nose lived long enough to see her grandson, Mark Soldier Wolf, earn the rank of elder of their tribe.
Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull
Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull are seen posing together in this 1885 photo. Buffalo Bill put on a series of Wild West Shows featuring Native Americans, including Sitting Bull, who performed for him for a couple of months. But Sitting Bull had other priorities, like leading the Lakota Tribe in battle against the United States government. But although Sitting Bull had left the show, his friendship with Bill remained strong until death forced them to part ways.
A Native Woman and Her Dog
This photo shows a Native woman carrying gear during the Canadian Arctic Expedition with her dog, that is known today as a Canadian Eskimo Dog. The breed has traits of a Chihuahua, Greenland dog, Alaskan Malamute and Husky. These dogs descend from the Eurasian Grey Wolf that were brought to the American continent by the people who migrated there using the Beringian Land Bridge thousands of years ago. These adorable pooches not only made faithful companions, but also great sled dogs.
The Blackfoot Tribe at Glacier National Park
This photo from 1913 is called “The Eagle,” and shows Blackfoot tribesmen keeping a watchful eye over Glacier National Park. The nomadic Blackfoot tribe lived in the Great Lakes area before conquering territories like the regions now known as Yellowstone National Park, Glacier National Park and even Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. In 1895, Chief White Calf sold 800,000 acres of land as well as the area containing Chief Mountain for $1.5 million but only on the condition that the Blackfoot tribe were not pushed off the land and could continue to hunt freely.
Joe Medicine Crow
Joe Medicine Crow was the historian of the Crow Tribe. He was also a war chief during World War II and helped U.S. Forces in their fight against the Axis powers. During that time, he wore two red stripes on each arm and an eagle feather in his helmet. As a war chief, he was required to touch an enemy without killing them, disarm them, lead a war party, and take the horse of an enemy, all of which he did. And in 2009, his achievements were awarded in the form of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Chief Wolf Robe
Wolf Robe was the Cheyenne tribe’s chief. In this photo taken in 1899, he is seen wearing the Benjamin Harrison Peace Medal that he earned in 1890 for being part of the Cherokee Commission. The Cherokee Commission consisted of three members who worked to buy land that was under the control of the Cherokee as well as other tribes in the Oklahoma area so it could be used by non-Native Americans. Besides looking after his people’s best interests, he was well known for staying nice and cool under pressure.
Chief Red Bird of the Cheyenne Tribe
Chief Red Bird was photographed in 1927. He was the leader of the Cheyenne tribe, which contained of the Tsitsistas and the So’taeo’o groups. By the 19th century, however, the two groups merged to become one tribe. One of the reasons they remained in one place for so long was because of their belief in spirituality and ritual connections. But eventually they started moving across what is known today as the states of South Dakota, Montana, Colorado and Wyoming.
Chief Little Found and His Family
This colorized photo of Chief Little Wound and his family was taken in 1899. Little Wound was the leader of the Eastern Oglala Lakota tribe. He also led his people into the battle of Massacre Canyon in 1873. According to history records, this was one of the final battles between the Sioux and the Pawnee tribes. In his final years, Little Wound became a supporter of the Ghost Dance Movement which wanted to make peace with the United States and Europe.
General Custer’s Six Crow Scouts
General Custer’s contribution to the battle of Little Bighorn was invaluable, but he couldn’t have achieved what he did without his six Crow scouts seen standing over the graves on the Little Bighorn battlefield in 1908. The Crow scouts helped Custer defeat the Sioux in battle. A Blackfoot chief recalled what Colonel John Gibbon had said before the battle began: "If the Crows want to make war upon the Sioux, now is their time. If they want to drive them from this country and prevent them from sending war parties into their (Crow) country to murder their men, now is the time."
Native Chiefs Sitting With United States Officials
This photo was taken in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, in 1891 and shows Native chiefs sitting alongside United States officials. This meeting not only brought Americans and indigenous people together, but also the Oglala Lakota, the Miniconjou and the Brule tribes together. The meeting was intended to be a cultural exchange. Ironically, this took place in the spot where the battle of Wounded Knee occurred. Today, the area is considered a National Historic Landmark.
Sacagawea of the Shoshone Tribe
Sacagawea was a part of the Shoshone tribe and the daughter of her people’s chief. Unfortunately, she was taken by an enemy tribe when she was young and forced to marry a French Canadian trapper. Eventually, she joined Lewis and Clark as an interpreter in their expedition. She also had a son in 1805 named Jean Baptiste Charbonneau. But Sacagawea lost her life while giving birth to her daughter in 1812.
Whiteman Runs Him
This photo of Whiteman Runs Him was taken in Washington D.C. in 1910. He was a warrior in the battle of Little Bighorn. He was known as a crow scout who worked with George Custer in the 1876 battle against the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne tribes. This ultimately led to the battle of Little Bighorn. He was 18 at the time and joining Custer was his own choice. Sadly, he died in Montana’s Big Horn Valley in 1929.
White Horse of the Dakota Tribe
White Horse of the Dakota nation was photographed in the 1880s. The Dakota tribe have spent generations working together to keep themselves and their land thriving. To say they’re a tight knit group is an understatement. Ella Deloria, an anthropologist, shared the following about the tribe in 1944: "The Ultimate aim of a Dakota life, stripped of accessories, was quite simple: One must obey kinship rules; one must be a good relative. No Dakota who has participated in that life will dispute that."
A Medicine Man
Medicine Men, or shamans, like the one photographed here have and continued to be very important figures in Native American tribes because indigenous people have strong connections to the spirit realm. So naturally, these medicine men have been used to banish any evil or negative energies affecting an individual or individuals from time and space so that positive energy may flow once again and heal both body and soul.
Inuit Tribesman and His Wife
Robert E. Peary, his wife, Josephine, and an explorer named Frederick A. Cook traveled to Greenland in the 1890s to get to know the tribe dubbed the Arctic Highlanders. They were a friendly folk and allowed Peary to take photos of their people. One of those photos captured this moment where an Inuit tribesman was helping to warm his wife’s feet. Images like this one documented how the locals found ways to deal with the horrible cold weather in the area.
A Member of the Kiowa Tribe
This young woman was all smiles when her photo was taken in 1894. She was a member of the Kiowa tribe, a nomadic society that became a tribe around 1650. They resided near the Missouri River for a long time before relocating to the Black Hills where they lived alongside the Crow tribe. But then they moved down to Arkansas’ Red River to avoid other Native American tribes that were attempting to steal their land.
High Hawk of the Brule Tribe
High Hawk of the Brule tribe donned the ceremonial outfit of his people for this photo taken in 1907. The Brule tribe was one of the Teton Lakota tribe’s seven sects. In this image, High Hawk is standing on the South Dakota plains where his tribe was. Some believe that the name of the tribe originated from the French colonists who first encountered members of the tribe running through burning grass and named them burnt which translate to Brule in French.
Native Alaskan and Her Baby
This Native American Alaskan and her baby were photographed in 1906. Notice how she kept her son safe from the chilly temperatures of the region by tucking him safely in her coat’s hood. At the time, the indigenous tribespeople of Alaska were considered the biggest group of Native Americans as there were five different tribes among them. These tribes included the Southern Coastal Indians, the Interior Indians, the Southern Eskimos, the Northern Eskimos, and the Aleuts.
Cree Tribesman from Western Canada
This man, photographed in 1903, was a member of the Cree tribe. The tribe was one of the largest First Nation groups in Western Canada. But the tribe was actually smaller between the 17th and 19th centuries. Fortunately, they were able to expand their empire by making a big impact in the fur trade. Sadly, the tribe’s numbers dropped in the late 18th century when they fell victim to the smallpox pandemic and repeatedly battled with the Blackfoot and the Sioux tribes.
Native American Woman and a Baby
This woman was photographed with a baby in her arms while she stood at a train station in 1930. The Indian Reorganization Act took effect in 1934, which was designed to help Native Americans regain the land that had been wrongfully taken from them so long as the land wasn’t privately owned by white property owners. Although the act proved ineffective for some, it did help a couple of tribes conserve their tribal land.
Apache Woman in 1894
This Apache woman wore buck skin clothing adorned with beads, which was fairly traditional at the time she was photographed in 1894. The Apache were considered some of the most fearsome warriors in the North American continent, and many tribes stayed out of their way or made sure they remained in their good graces. But the Apache were no match for the United States and Mexican armies that forced them to run for safer territories in the late 19th century.
Hattie Tom of the Apache Tribe
When photographer Frank Rinehart tapped Hattie Tom for a portrait, the Apache woman took out some of her most precious beads to wear in front of the camera in 1899. The Apache are related to the Chiricahua nation who once had more than 15 million acres of territory throughout the Arizona and New Mexico area. And although they initially avoided breeding outside of their group, this eventually changed as the tribe’s expansion was affected by the presence of European colonists.
Stands Hard of the Sioux Tribe
Stands Hard, photographed here in 1900, was a member of the Sioux Dakota tribe. The proper name for the people commonly referred to as the Sioux is Oceti Sakowin, which translates to Seven Council Fires. The Council Fires consisted of individual bands based on territorial proximity, dialect and kinship. They used horses to branch their tribal territory out in the late 1700s. Unfortunately, the U.S. government had taken a huge portion of their land by the 19th century.
Black Shawl of the Oglala Lakota
Black Shawl of the Oglala Lakota was photographed in 1888. She became Crazy Horse’s wife after life brought them together in an unusual way. Crazy Horse was a war leader for the Lakota tribe. He fought against the United States to protect his tribal land. At the time, he was having an affair with Black Buffalo Woman, who was married to No Water. When No Water discovered this, he shot Crazy Horse. That’s when Black Shawl arrived to tend to his wound. The two eventually fell in love and married in 1871.
Chief Duck of the Blackfoot Tribe and His Family
Chief Duck of the Blackfoot tribe and his wife and granddaughter posed for the camera in 1925. Unlike other tribes, the Blackfoot’s territory extended from Montana in the United States all the way to the Saskatchewan Valley in Canada. The tribe migrated west in the 18th century and were known for being ahead of their time. According to records, they used horses and firearms as far back as 1750, which gave them the upper hand when battling against other tribes.
Goldie Jamison Conklin of the Seneca Tribe
Goldie Jamison Conklin was a Seneca tribeswoman from the early 1900s who was raised in the Allegheny reservation in New York. When she was older, she took up modeling for the Cattaraugus Cutlery Company to promote their Indian Brand of household items and knives. Her image was featured on postcard ads where she was seen wearing ceremonial garb to make it appear as though she was an aboriginal princess.
A First Nations Couple from Canada
This First Nations couple agreed to be photographed by Alex Ross in 1886. That’s two years after Ross moved to Calgary, Alberta in Canada and opened up his own studio. From there, he started taking portraits of First Nation tribes like the Blackfoot and the Tsuu T’ina. The couple in this photograph were members of the tribes in this area. Unfortunately, it’s not known which tribe they belonged to as there were 48 tribes in the area at the time.
Chief Bone Necklace of the Lakota Nation
Chief Bone Necklace of the Lakota Nation was photographed in 1899. The Lakota Nation consists of seven tribes and has approximately 3,000 members all run by a society that values women far more than men. In fact, the tribe chose their chiefs based on who their clan’s mother was. It was also up to the mother to determine how the tribe’s property and other vital resources would be distributed among everyone in the nation.
Ah-Weh-Eyu of the Iroquois Tribe
Ah-Weh-Eyu of the Iroquois tribe resided in the territories that later became Ontario, Canada as well as Upstate New York as far back as the 1500s. At that time, the tribespeople set up a political network complete with houses of legislature and representatives. This network is similar to the political system used in the U.S. today. But what does Ah-Weh-Eyu mean? It translates to pretty flower in Iroquois.
A Member of the Yuma Tribe
This Yuma tribal member was photographed in Arizona in 1900 playing the flute. The Yuma lived in the California and Arizona area between the 16th and 18th centuries and were considered a warrior tribe. As a result, they fought with other tribes such as the Papago and the Apache for territory surrounding the Colorado River, which was considered fertile land. But the Yuma or Quechan, as they were also known, were fans of music as well and used instruments like the flute to give their people hope during rough times.
Dust Maker of the Ponca Tribe
Frank Rinehart, a photographer who dedicated himself to snapping photos of Native Americans and documenting their daily lives took this photo of Dust Maker, aka Pete Mitchell of the Ponca tribe, in 1898. Dust Maker posed for the camera while attending a massive Native American gathering known as Nebraska’s Omaha Indian Congress. Rinehart’s agenda was to help non-Native Americans understand indigenous people a little better with the photographs he had taken.
K’aa lani, a Member of the Navajo Tribe
K'aa lani was a Navajo warrior photographed in 1903. Sadly, the Navajo people were forced into a reservation towards the end of the 19th century, and a lot of the tribesmen were persuaded to work for the United States army. Despite this collaboration, the tribal members couldn’t step foot beyond the reservation without the U.S. government’s permission. But Navajo warriors were also used by the military as code talkers during World War II. These code talkers were able to send messages to allies that the Japanese couldn’t crack.
Gertrude Three Finger of the Cheyenne Tribe
Gertrude Three Finger was part of the Cheyenne tribe and was photographed by William E. Irwin wearing elk teeth, which was traditional to have on an outfit. But this was not the last time that Irwin photographed her. He actually spent the 19th and 20th centuries traveling between Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona capturing amazing souls like this one on camera to later share with the rest of the world.
A Navajo in a Nayenezgani Ceremonial Garment
The Navajo believed that the Nayenezgani, which roughly translates to slayer of alien gods, kept the tribe safe from evil spirits. According to the legend, the Nayenezgani works alongside his twin, Tobadzischini, to locate and turn these malevolent forces into stone. And to this day, the tribespeople wear the masks of Nayenezgani in their ceremony. This particular Navajo was photographed wearing the Nayenezgani ceremonial garment in 1903.
Bear’s Belly of the Arikara People
Photographer Edward Curtis snapped this photo of Bear’s Belly, an Arikara warrior in 1909 in an effort to document how Native Americans lived. Bear’s Belly was born in 1847 in what later became North Dakota. He got his name because the bear skin he wore came from the tree bears he battled and killed. This made him a well recognized and admired warrior among his people.
Kaw-U-Tz of the Caddo Nation
This lovely human is Kaw-U-Tz, a member of the Caddo nation, who agreed to be photographed in 1906. The Caddo nation’s territory extended throughout the Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana area. It is said that their farming techniques were the best and they were even able to grow things like corn, beans and squash in swamps. The tribespeople once lived in grass huts and disliked outsiders stumbling into their territory. However, they were reportedly kind to Spanish settlers because of the way they complimented their home furnishings.