The devastatingly rapid decline of Native American populations began with European exploration and colonization near the end of the 15th century. Not only did Europeans bring with them enslavement, religious persecution in the form of Catholicism, and brutal weapons, but they also brought something that spread much faster than physical and cultural displacement: disease. Only a few years after Columbus "discovered" the New World, the Native American population had been nearly reduced by half thanks to smallpox and other contagious ailments.
However, the intentional genocide of Native Americans didn't truly begin until the end of the 18th century. One of the most common misconceptions about the colonizing of North America is that the Native Americans and the Europeans were always in conflict. In fact, it was not until the founding fathers decided it was "necessary" to exterminate the Native Americans that the fate of these tribes was grimly sealed. President Jackson delivered one of the cruelest blows when he signed the 1830 Indian Removal Act, resulting in the devastating Trail of Tears.
By the early 1900s, the Native American population had greatly diminished and their diverse cultures were slowly fading away. In an attempt to counteract this, Edward S. Curtis spent 30 years photographing and documenting the lives of over 80 different the Native American tribes. His findings resulted in a 20-volume work called the Native American Indian, complete with nearly six thousand pages and 1,500 hand-pressed photogravures. Collected here are just a few of Curtis's incredible photographs of Native Americans from the early 1900s. These photographs attempted to capture the traditions, lifestyles, and cultures of native groups whose populations were being severely diminished.