Meet John and Collen Graybill and you are immediately struck by their passion to continue what both call “unfinished stories of survival.” Graybill, who lives in Buena Vista is the great-grandson of the famed western photographer Edward Curtis, whose passionate effort to photograph and write the stories of North America’s Indigenous peoples more than a century ago created a remarkable documentation of Native American culture.

John and Collen Graybill are the people behind the Descendants Project. John is the great-grandson of famed early west photographer Edward Curtis. (Photo by Jan Wondra)

Graybill and his wife are the people behind the “Descendants Project” a non-profit effort to link the Indigenous peoples documented by his great grandfather with their living descendants, spread all across the continent. The Graybills are in the midst of tracking down the descendants of Curtis’s work to photograph them and document what happened to those families, attempting to learn whether or not they were able to maintain any of their Indigenous cultures and languages, and where they are now.

“The pictures are wonderful in themselves, but it’s the stories that tie them together,” said Graybill. “This project continues the stories of these families – the people great-grandfather Curtis photographed – and their descendants now.”

According to Graybill, he wasn’t encouraged to pursue a career as an artist. His family spoke little about his great-grandfather’s work and never made any great fortune from it (as some would like to believe they did). But, says Graybill, “Photography is the family business. I’ve been into photography since fifth grade. It was one of those after-school clubs that got me going.”

“The biggest challenge over the years was my father was dead set against anybody profiting off it because my great-grandfather never made a dime from it. By the time he began to get recognition, he had been dead 20 or 30 years. My dad had this thing – he said ‘nobody is going to profit off this’ — because of that, we never talked about it. Except my Grandma Florence (Curtis’s daughter) did. My sister got tired of hearing about it, but I really liked looking at the pictures and hearing the stories.”

An iconic photo by Edward Curtis, titled The Whaler-Makah. Curtis’s great-grandson, John Graybill, is tracking down the descendants of the Indigenous people featured in Curtis’s work, photographing and collecting the stories of the descendants, allowing their voices to be heard.

The Graybills have been tracking down the descendants of the subjects of Curtis’s work, spread across the continent.

Graybill says there are now very few descendants of Edward Curtis. His grandmother was the only one of Curtis’s four children to have children: two sons, one of whom was killed in World War II. James, Graybill’s father, had only John and his sister.

He says he hadn’t thought much about that reality until meeting Colleen. He showed her some of the Curtis photos.

“I’d seen some of the images, they looked kind of familiar, but I had no idea who the man really was,” said Collen Graybill. “Then I read a book about Edward Curtis and realized what this is. I said ‘Wow! Your family cannot brush this under the rug … you’re all that’s left– you have to celebrate this legacy.’”

Curtis’s haunting images from the early 1900s document more than 80 Indigenous tribes of the Americas, gathered into a 20-volume encyclopedia.

“The thing most important to great gramps was that the body of work got out to the general public so that people knew what beautiful cultures they were,” said Graybill. “When people would buy a picture and hang it on the wall, that was creating awareness. But I don’t think my dad ever looked at it that way.”

An example of the way that Graybill’s photos build off the work of his great-grandfather, the photo above was taken more than a century ago by Curtis. The photo below by Graybill shows his great-grandson, Jeffery P. Smith,  current Canoe Journey (below).

Jeffery P. Smith, Makah, beats his native drum in a craved Haida canoe by carver Saaduuts, in Seattle, Washington.

The Descendants Project will feature not just Curtis’s photos and Graybill’s photos of their descendants, it will tell their stories. “The project isn’t just photos, it’s the accomplishments, overcoming the prejudices, the hardships they faced,” said Graybill. “We set up the non-profit (www.CurtisLegacyFoundation.org) to fund telling their stories. Our work will include exhibitions, library talks, presentations in museums, galleries and educational institutions.”

While documenting what was already becoming a disappearing way of life, Curtis’s family fell apart.

“He was living and working in Seattle, but did so much scraping together funds to [be gone] for weeks and months to photograph tribes… Finally great grandmother, who was quite a society woman, just left him,” said Graybill. “The family broke up and she got everything there was left – his studio, the rest of his photo plates. Great-gramps moved to California.”

“J.P. Morgan was underwriting the work, and by 1915 when he died, Morgan’s son Jack said great-gramps had to sign over all the copyrights to him continue to fund it,” said Graybill. “So he made nothing from the more than 40,000 photographs he took and the stories he captured. He wanted to see the work done, so he agreed. Now, most copyrights have expired. We’re keeping careful track of that.”

Graybill says his grandmother was the one who told the stories of growing up the daughter of Edward Curtis. “She talked about a summer spent with the Navajo while great-gramps worked. Her brother Hal was in the field with his father from 1906 to 1919 and she wrote two books about their experiences. A third book of short stories of things they remembered isn’t published yet.”

“I remember her telling about his talks with Teddy Roosevelt saying, ‘You understand Mr. President that the people and tribes in this book won’t be here in 50 years.’ Great-gramps gets credit for coining the phrase ‘the vanishing race’. There was a book published in 1910 or so titled the Vanishing Race – but everyone credits Edward Curtis with the term.”

Graybill says that one thing the family wants made clear,  the photographic style Curtis used to document these tribes was of the turn-of-the century-time frame. To those who have criticized, he points out that Curtis wasn’t photographing in news-style, he was documenting a life that was disappearing.

“Some evaluate with today’s cultural paradigm – they need to put themselves back in that time period to the reason he was doing it. Then, it was against the law for the Seattle Indians to be on the street after 8 p.m. It was illegal to dress in their tribal attire or to speak their language. He was honoring Indigenous heritage and culture. The photos were matched with text, documenting the tribe, the apparel, the arts and crafts and spirituality of the people. The context was everything … he wanted to capture what Indigenous people were like before the white man came in and changed that. He was a story-telling photographer.”

Graybill said that Curtis didn’t keep field notes and kept everything in his head. But he had an assistant, a former Seattle Times columnist known as Mr. Myers. He listened to the tribes speak, then he translated it into English in field notes that are now in museums. Finally, in the 1930s, Curtis dictated his memoirs to his daughter Florance and her younger sister, known as Aunt Billy.

With the Descendants Project underway, the Graybills are funding their effort, as a nonprofit www.CurtisLegacyFoundation.org, A Kick-start campaign to help fund the Descendants Project runs through July 15.