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In the mid 1890s Curtis had begun to photograph local Native Americans digging for clams and mussels on the tide flats. One of his earliest models was Princess Angeline, the aged daughter of chief Sealth, the Suquamish Indian after whom Seattle is named. At the National Photographic Convention of 1899 Curtis was awarded the grand prize for three of his soft-focused, sepia-toned images of Puget Sound Native Americans: Evening on the Sound, The Clam Digger, and The Mussel Gatherer.

Curtis was an avid outdoorsman and spent much time climbing and taking photographs on the slopes of Mount Rainier. During one of his excursions he happened upon and assisted a group of climbers who had lost their way. They were members of a government commission and included Dr. C. Hart Merriam, naturalist and physician, and Dr. George Bird Grinnell, editor of Field & Stream magazine and a well-known naturalist and writer on Plains Indians. This chance encounter proved to be quite beneficial for Curtis and played a vital role in his selection as official photographer on the Harriman Expedition to Alaska in 1899. This two month expedition organized by the railroad tycoon Edward Harriman incorporated the talents of eminent American scientists and naturalists from many fields. Curtis made several valuable connections on this trip that would prove helpful during his work on the North American Indian project.

Curtis spent the summer of 1900 with George Bird Grinnell observing the Sun Dance at an encampment of Blood, Blackfeet and Algonquin in Montana. This was an exciting and pivotal experience for Curtis, increasing his interest in Native-American cultures and confirming his desire to continue the study and photographic documentation of the Native tribes of North America. A trip to visit the Hopi reservation in Arizona a few months later further fueled his enthusiasm and drive.
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Edward Harriman, circa 1890