Skip to main content

Richard Erdoes papers

Call Number: WA MSS S-2609

Scope and Contents

The Richard Erdoes Papers consist of correspondence, writings, audio and moving image recordings, photographs, subject files, and other materials related to Erdoes’s work with and about American Indian peoples, particularly the Rosebud Lakota. The papers span the years 1920 through 2008, with the bulk of the material dating from the 1960s through 1999. Though materials have been arranged primarily by format and function, subjects and topics represented in the collection transcend this organizational system. For instance, individuals who Erdoes recorded and filmed are frequently documented by images in the collection, and in Erdoes's correspondence or subject files.

The papers contain source materials—recordings, photographs, and subject files—which Erdoes used in his “as-told-to” autobiographies and other works about American Indians. Coupled with drafts of his works in Series II, these materials document Erdoes’s process of recording, transcribing, and compiling his books. The materials present in the collection are valuable not only as a resource for scholars interested in how Erdoes produced his most famous texts, but also for research about the subjects he documented. Erdoes’s relationship with several key figures in the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the Red Power movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s allowed him to document important moments in American Indian civil rights history, including the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973 and its aftermath. His papers include documents, photographs, posters and other materials related to the trials and imprisonment of Leonard Crow Dog and reveal Erdoes's advocacy efforts on behalf of Crow Dog and other AIM members. American Indian social and political issues are prominent themes in the papers, accompanied by Erdoes's documentation of both the daily life and spiritual practices of the communities and families with whom he worked. The papers are a source for research about twentieth century American Indian spiritual beliefs and traditions; the Native American Church; and American Indian cultural revilization efforts.

Correspondence (Series I.) reveals the Erdoes family's on-going friendships and personal relationships with American Indians, particularly the Crow Dog family, and provides a glimpse of the professional relationships that Erdoes maintained with the editors and publishers of his books. In addition to drafts of many of his works about American Indians and some of this other publishing projects, Series II. Writings includes research notes, film and book proposals, published editions, book reviews, ephemera and other material related to Erdoes's career as an author.

Photographic materials in Series III. consists of tens of thousands of color and black and white images (negatives, 35mm and glass slides, transparencies as well as prints) that Erdoes created or collected. The images primarily document Erdoes's interest and work about the American West and American Indian peoples, but images of his family and various European trips are also present, along with portraits, landscapes, and city scenes that may be representative of Erdoes's commercial work. The images showcase Erdoes's interests and his evolving fascination with different areas and people, tracing his travels and activities over more than forty decades; simultaneously, the organization of the visual materials, with caption information that Erdoes created, reveal connections that Erdoes made among his photographed subjects and in some cases, his understanding of their meaning. In addition to documenting Erdoes's work, the images themselves are a visual resource for the study of American Indian communities-- particularly Navajo (Diné), Pueblo and Lakota communities-- and the American West in the twentieth century. A selection document American Indian civil rights actions and tribal ceremonies. Many of these images are present because of the relationships that Erdoes built with various tribal leaders and medicine men, allowing him access to photograph events that he witnessed and in which he often participated.

Most of the ten 16mm films that comprise the Films series (Series IV.) document the Crow Dog family, recording life and ceremonies on the Rosebud reservation and at Crow Dog's Paradise; footage of Mary Brave Bird and a pan-Indian rights movement gathering are also present. Much of the film is spliced together and unaccompanied by sound.

The recordings in Series V. are a rich trove of audio documentation, consisting of over three hundred individual recordings. Interviews with American Indian individuals, including Erdoes's co-authors, prominent American Indian Movement (AIM) members, elders, and American Indian spiritual and political leaders are present, as are recordings of events, speeches, and ceremonies. Many of the recordings intimately document the perspectives and concerns of twentieth century American Indians in their own words. American Indian spirituality and traditional belief, as well as the practices of the Native American Church, are prominent themes. A Ghost Dance, likely Crow Dog's 1974 Ghost Dance, is particularly well-documented with forty-eight recordings. Other recurring themes include contemporary American Indian social, political, and economic issues, cultural revitalization efforts, and the American Indian Movement (AIM).

Erdoes's subject files (Series VI.) reflect his broad interest in American Indian issues, in particular his interest in contemporary news events. There are substantial subject files associated with Leonard Crow Dog, the American Indian Movement, and the 1973 Occupation of Wounded Knee. The subject files also contain transcripts of some of the audio recordings Erdoes conducted with his co-authors, and transcribed first-hand accounts of various events. Erdoes appears to have used his subject files as a structure to organize his transcripts topically, interfiling sections from various recordings by subject rather than filing transcripts by interviewee or date. A substantial clippings file is also present, and many of the materials in the subject files bear Erdoes's annotations and highlighter markings.

Erdoes's interest in the social and political landscape of American Indians is further documented by newsletters, magazines, fliers, ephemera, and other published materials present (Series VII.). Among these printed works are publications by European American Indian supporters, the American Indian movement, various tribes and tribal councils, American Indian student groups, and pan-Indian organizations; mainstream magazines profiling Native issues are also present. Many of the publications have an explicitly political angle, capturing the genesis, radicalism, and evolution of the American Indian civil rights movement and late twentieth century tribal revitalization efforts.

The papers include Erdoes's collection of broadsides, posters, and art works (Series VIII.) The series includes posters that Erdoes appears to have created for New York City events, as well as art work by Henry Crow Dog, and a series of drawings that are unattributed, but bear close resemblance to Erdoes's illustration style. Together with the photographic materials, film, and subject files, the posters position the Erdoes Papers as a resource for studying the representation and documentation of twentieth century Native peoples, particularly on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations, as well as in Pueblos and other Indian communities in the American Southwest. The posters are also an important companion to the grassroots publications in Series VII; together, these materials showcase American Indian activism and community organization.

The 2010 Addition includes additional writings, photographic material, audiovisual material, posters, ephemera, and artwork that document Erdoes's collaboration with Leonard Crow Dog, Archie Fire Lame Deer, and Dennis Banks, his writings on the American Indian Movement (AIM), and his research on other aspects of Native American culture and history.


  • 1920 - 2008
  • Majority of material found within 1965 - 1998


Language of Materials

Chiefly in English, with some material in German, Japanese, Italian, French, and Lakota.

Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Box 317 (electronic disk): Restricted Fragile Material. Reference copies of electronic files may be requested. Consult Access Services for further information.

Boxes 36-41 (color transparencies): Restricted fragile material. Reference copies are available. Consult Access Services for further information.

Boxes 99-173, 194-199 and 299-313 (audiovisual material): Restricted fragile material. Reference copies may be requested. Consult Access Services for further information.

Conditions Governing Use

The Richard Erdoes Papers are the physical property of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Yale University purchased Richard Erdoes's copyright in the Papers in 1998, when the Papers were acquired by the Library. The intellectual property rights, including copyright, of individuals who wrote or spoke to Erdoes belong to them or their legal heirs and assigns. For further information, consult the appropriate curator.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Purchased from Richard Erdoes on the Walter McClintock Memorial Fund and the Frederick W. and Carrie S. Beinecke Fund for Western Americana, 1998-1999, and from the Estate of Richard Erdoes on the Walter McClintock Memorial Fund, 2010.


Organized into eight series and one addition: I. Correspondence, 1964-1995. II. Writings, 1965-1997. III. Photographic Materials, 1952-1999. IV. Films, circa 1970. V. Audio Recordings, 1964-1996. VI. Subject Files, 1951-1998. VII. Printed Material, 1921-1998. VIII. Posters and Works of Art, 1967. 2010 Addition, 1920-2008.


171.99 Linear Feet ((318 boxes) + 12 cold storage, 5 broadside)

Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


Correspondence, writings, audio and moving image recordings, photographic materials, subject files, printed ephemera, art work, and other materials created or collected by Richard Erdoes (1912-2008), author of more than a dozen books about American Indian life. The collection primarily documents Erdoes's activities between 1968 and 1999, and is useful for the study of his writing process and research interests, specifically his work with American Indian individuals and communities. His papers also serve as a resource for the study of the peoples, areas, and subjects that he chose to research and record, and are particularly useful for research about the American Indian civil rights movement, twentieth century American Indian spirituality and religious practices, especially among the Lakota, and American Indian cultural revitilization efforts during the latter half of the twentieth century.

Richard Erdoes (1912-2008)

Richard Erdoes, illustrator, photographer, and author of more than a dozen books about American Indian life, was born in Vienna, Austria to Maria Josefa Schrom on July 7, 1912. His father, Richard, was a Hungarian opera singer who had passed away a few months earlier. Upon his birth, his mother joined the household of her sister, the German actress Leopoldine (“Poldi”) Sangora. Erdoes spent his childhood surrounded by theatre actors and moving from city to city—Vienna, Berlin, Frankfurt—settling wherever his aunt and her actor husband held lengthy engagements.

When the Nazis came into power in 1933, Erdoes was a student at the Berlin Academy of Art. He established a neighborhood underground newspaper in which he began publishing anti-Hitler cartoons and caricatures. Identified by the Nazis, he fled Germany as a fugitive at the end of 1933, arriving in Austria where he enrolled in the Viennese Kunstgewerbeschule to continue his training. In Austria, Erdoes honed his cartooning skills and supported himself as a caricaturist for Tag and Stunde, two anti-Nazi newspapers. When the Germans entered Austria in 1938, Erdoes fled again, first to Paris, then London, eventually arriving in New York a year later. He married his first wife, Elsie Schulhof (died 1940), shortly after landing in the United States.

Erdoes was welcomed into the German exile community in New York, and launched a successful career as a freelance illustrator and photographer. Over the next two decades, he contributed to publications like National Geographic, American Heritage, Stage Magazine, and Life Magazine; created cover art for record albums; and began illustrating children’s books. Erdoes met Jean Sternbergh (died 1995), an art director at Life, in 1945. The couple married in 1950, and had three children— David Richard, Eric Peter, and Jacqueline (“Jaki”) Jean.

By the mid-1960s, Erdoes was illustrating and publishing his own children’s stories while continuing to build his freelance career. During an assignment to photograph American Indian reservation life for Life, Erdoes became deeply intrigued by contemporary Native American life and spirituality. Outraged by his first-hand experience of conditions on reservations and fascinated by the American Indian belief systems he encountered, Erdoes wrote, illustrated, and edited a number of adult and children’s books on American Indian cultures, folklore, and life over the next four decades. He became a passionate advocate for American Indian civil rights, and an avid documenter of tribal life and spiritual revitalization, particularly among the Lakota.

Erdoes and his family opened their apartment in New York City to Lakota visitors and other American Indians during the early 1970s, creating a well-known gathering place for American Indian Movement (AIM) supporters and civil rights activists. Erdoes also became involved in the legal defense of a number of prominent American Indian activists, including Lakota medicine man Leonard Crow Dog, after the 1973 stand-off at Wounded Knee. In 1975, the Erdoes family relocated to Santa Fe where Erdoes continued to write, illustrate, and advocate for Native peoples.

Erdoes’s first book about an American Indian tribe was 1967’s Pueblo Indians for the Young Readers’ Indian Library series. In 1971, he collaborated with John Fire Lame Deer (1903-1976), a Lakota medicine man, on Lame Deer’s as-told-to autobiography, Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions. Erdoes published five more as-told-to collaborative narratives with American Indian co-authors: Lakota Woman (1990) and its sequel Ohitka Woman (1993), with Mary Brave Bird; The Gift of Power: The Life and Teachings of a Lakota Medicine Man (1992), with Archie Fire Lame Deer; Crow Dog: Four Generations of Sioux Medicine Men (1995), with Leonard Crow Dog; and Ojibwa Warrior: Dennis Banks and the Rise of the American Indian Movement (2004), with Dennis Banks. Other significant book projects included American Indian Myths and Legends (1984) and American Indian Trickster Tales (1998), both co-edited with Alfonso Ortiz.

Richard Erdoes died on July 16, 2008 in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Processing Information

The Richard Erdoes Papers contains material formerly classified as Uncat WA MSS 240, Uncat WA MSS 245, and Uncat WA MSS 248. Student assistants who helped process the Erdoes Papers include Tracy Garcia (Navajo), Basie Gitlin, Joel Vargas, Janine Polak, and Tricia Ross.

Audio recordings in the collection were digitized during processing. Digital reference copies are now housed with the collection's original audiocassettes and reel to reel recordings. Containers for these recordings have been retained as they frequently bear Erdoes's notes and annotations.

Film in the collection was also digitized. Digital reference copies are now housed in the collection; the original film has been placed in cold storage. Betacam SP videotapes were also produced during reformatting and are available for staff use if higher-quality copies are required by researchers.

The bulk of transparencies and 35mm slides in the collection that document the American West or relate to Erdoes's work with and about American Indians have also been digitized. Identified copyright work from museums and libraries, as well as images of trips to Europe, the Caribbean and the East Coast, were not selected for digitization as they were considered to be outside the primary research scope of the collection at the time of processing. All original 35mm slides and color transparencies have also been placed in cold storage for long-term preservation.

The 2010 Addition, described separately in the list below, received a basic level of processing, including rehousing and minimal organization, in 2014. The Description of Papers note and Collection Contents section for this addition are drawn from information supplied with the collection and from an initial survey of the contents. Folder titles appearing in the contents list below are often based on those provided by the creator or previous custodian. Titles have not been verified against the contents of the folders in all cases. Otherwise, folder titles are supplied by staff during initial processing.

This finding aid may be updated periodically to account for new acquisitions to the collection and/or revisions in arrangement and description.

Guide to the Richard Erdoes Papers
Under Revision
by Kathleen T. Burns and Beinecke staff
Description rules
Beinecke Manuscript Unit Archival Processing Manual
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Part of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library Repository

P. O. Box 208330
New Haven CT 06520-8330 US
(203) 432-2977


121 Wall Street
New Haven, CT 06511

Opening Hours

Access Information

The Beinecke Library is open to all Yale University students and faculty, and visiting researchers whose work requires use of its special collections. You will need to bring appropriate photo ID the first time you register. Beinecke is a non-circulating, closed stack library. Paging is done by library staff during business hours. You can request collection material online at least two business days in advance of your visit, using the request links in Archives at Yale. For more information, please see Planning Your Research Visit and consult the Reading Room Policies prior to visiting the library.