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American Indian History & Culture

Plate 9. “Dacota Woman and Assiniboin Girl”. Wied, Maximilian, Prinz von. Travels in the interior of North America during the years 1832-1834; illustrations by Karl Bodmer.

The Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections features significant original materials on the history of native peoples of the Western hemisphere. Thousands of rare books document Indian life-ways, and manuscript materials provide documentation of the work of anthropologists, collectors, and ethnologists. The centerpiece of Cornell’s American Indian holdings is the Huntington Free Library Native American Collection, a spectacular gathering of more than 40,000 volumes on the archaeology, ethnology and history of the native peoples of the Americas from the colonial period to the present.

Transferred to Cornell University on June 15, 2004 from its former home in the Bronx, NY, The Huntington Free Library Native American Collection contains exceptional materials documenting the history, culture, languages, and arts of the native tribes of both North and South America. Contemporary politics, education, and human rights issues are also important components of the collection.

The rare portion of the Huntington Free Library Native American Collection features more than 4,000 rare books, several significant manuscript collections, as well as photographs, artwork, and related materials. Highlights include a copy of John Eliot’s Bible in the Natick dialect (2nd edition, 1685), an album of original drawings of American Indians by the artist George Catlin; and Edward S. Curtis’s twenty-volume opus, The North American Indian. Genres represented in great depth include early books of voyage and exploration, missionary reports, ethnography, travel writing, native language dictionaries, captivity narratives, and children’s books. The collection also contains a large body of related ephemeral material, such as pamphlets, newspaper clippings, auction catalogs, newsletters, travel brochures, and biography files on prominent Native Americans.

Manuscript holdings include a letter from Mohawk leader Joseph Brant, early 20th century correspondence from Seneca individuals at Cattaragus and Tonawanda to Joseph Keppler, a pictographic catechism in the Quechua language, field notes by 19th century ethnographers; and the papers of archaeological expeditions. Many of the larger manuscript collections have been microfilmed and are available for interlibrary loan.

To identify items in the collection, the majority of which are not yet digitized, you may explore the Cornell Library Catalog with author, title, or keyword search terms.

To schedule a research visit or ask a question, please contact us. Terms of access and research policies are described on the Division’s Registration & Guidelines for Use and Reproductions & Permissions pages.

Digital Resources

Native American Language Dictionaries

Cornell’s Native American collection includes a significant concentration of native language dictionaries, documenting the development of dozens of languages. In 2009 Cornell University Library selected and digitized 124 of these dictionaries

Manuscript Collections

Edward S. Curtis. “Chaíwa. Tewa, Profile,” from The North American Indian, Vol. XII, The Hopi, 1922. Photogravure.

The Native American Collection also contains unpublished manuscripts and archival collections which are described in online finding aids.

Portions of the collection are highlighted in the online exhibition Vanished Worlds, Enduring People: Cornell University Library’s Native American Collection

Other Cornell Resources for American Indian Studies

Collection History

“Moenntarri Warrior in the costume of the dog danse”. Wied, Maximilian, Prinz von. Travels in the interior of North America during the years 1832-1834; illustrations by Karl Bodmer.

The core of the Huntington Free Library’s Native American Collection was formed in the 1920s from the private libraries of noted anthropologists Frederick W. Hodge and Marshall H. Saville who were then employed by the Museum of the American Indian. Hodge and Saville convinced George Heye, the museum’s director, that his institution needed a library. Their collections were purchased with funds from James B. Ford, a museum trustee. The James B. Ford Library opened at the museum in 1928, but the museum’s expanding artifact collection soon left little room for books.

The growing Native American library collection separated from the Museum in 1930 and received a new building and staff. Heye’s friend and colleague, Archer M. Huntington, volunteered to build the space to house the new library. Archer Huntington was the founder of the Hispanic Society of America, which shared Audubon Terrace with the Museum of the American Indian and several other cultural institutions. Huntington acquired land adjacent to the Huntington Free Library Reading Room at Westchester Square in the Bronx and constructed a 40’ by 82’ adjoining building to house the American Indian collection. The book collection of the Museum of the American Indian was transferred to the Huntington Free Library and Reading Room in late 1930, where it remained until June of 2004 when it was transferred to Cornell University Library in Ithaca, New York.

The Huntington Free Library’s Native American Collection continued to grow over the course of the 20th century with subsequent gifts by Ford and many others, and through the devoted and knowledgeable care of generations of its librarians. The Huntington Free Library and Reading Room served as a research library for the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, from 1930 to 1990. When the American Indian Museum was absorbed by the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (NMAI) in 1990, the Smithsonian Institution belived that the Huntington Free Library’s Native American Collection would accompany the artifacts it had acquired from the American Indian Museum. Fifteen years of litigation over the ownership of the Huntington Free Library collection followed. Although the Huntington Free Library ultimately won all key New York and federal court decisions, including appeals court rulings in 1994 and January 2004, the years of expensive litigation ruined it financially. By 2000, the Huntington Free Library could no longer afford to care for its 40,000 volume Native American Collection.

Cornell and the Huntington Free Library

In December of 2000, Cornell University Library received a letter from the New York State Attorney General’s Office, Charities Bureau, soliciting expressions of interest from New York state libraries and museums able and willing to take on permanent responsibility for the care of the Huntington Free Library’s Native American Collection. Although there were other institutions competing to receive the collection, the Huntington Free Library’s Board of Trustees ultimately chose Cornell. The strengths of the Cornell Library and its staff, the university’s long history of outreach and collaboration with local Native American communities, and the eagerness of the Cornell faculty and students to work with the collection, made Cornell the ideal match for the Huntington Free Library’s incomparable collection. Cornell Library staff worked with a team of professional art movers, and with dedicated staff at the Huntington Free Library in the Bronx to transport the collection to Ithaca over the course of the summer of 2004. The rare books and manuscripts arrived at Cornell on June 16, 2004. The remainder of the collection was shipped in four container trucks in July of 2004.