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‘Women and Warriors of the Plains: The Pioneer Photography of Julia E. Tuell,’ by Dan Aadland

With “Women and Warriors of the Plains: The Pioneer Photography of Julia E. Tuell,” author Dan Aadland pairs turn-of-the-century photographs of the Northern Cheyenne and Rosebud Sioux with text relating his understanding of the history of those cultures.

Aadland became acquainted with the subject of Tuell when he taught high school in Bridger, Mont., and met Tuell’s son, Varble, the school custodian. Aadland was amazed when Varble Tuell produced images – taken years before by his mother – of men and women who Aadland taught about in his history class.

This is the third printing of Aadland’s book, first released by the Mountain Press Publishing Co. in 2000 and self-published by Aadland in 1996.

This is not a large-format book, and the photo reproductions are on stock paper and of a flat, dark quality. The images they capture, however, both of ceremony and day-to-day life in the early reservation period, are for a number of reasons little short of breathtaking.

Julia Tuell (1886 – 1960) was a young teenager when she married P.V. Tuell, a schoolteacher, in 1901 and moved with him to Indian country. The Tuells would spend nearly three decades among American Indians, with Julia Tuell most intently documenting the Northern Cheyenne of southeast Montana, with whom the family lived from 1906 to 1912, and the Rosebud Sioux, with the family spending the years from 1913 to 1929 on that tribe’s South Dakota reservation.

As Aadland explains, Tuell was a busy woman outside of her photographic interests. On her arrival at Rosebud, she was already mother to four young children, and eventually she assumed duties including missionary and nursing work. For a year she was matron of the Rosebud Indian Boarding School. Her camera and tripod apparently accompanied her everywhere she traveled.

Tuell often photographed men and women in full regalia, sometimes posing them against plain backdrops but often posing them in nature to powerful effect. A pair of side-by-side images demonstrates Tuell’s effort. The first shows her clearing brush from the woods for a portrait of the Sioux chief John Fast Horse, who watches from a short distance. (The photographer for this first image is uncredited.) The second shows the man in full regalia, framed by trees.

She also recorded sacred rituals, including Cheyenne Sun Dance and Massaum ceremonies in 1911. She seems to have amused Red Cherries, a Northern Cheyenne medicine man, whose portrait captures him on the verge of laughter.

Tuell was drawn to photographing women and children, the former engaged in work and the latter at play. One series shows Sioux women preparing dog stew. Tuell recorded cemeteries at battle sites and box graves among the Northern Cheyenne. She photographed the Northern Cheyenne tree burial of an infant, a tiny bundle wrapped in thick cloth and secured on a tree branch while the mother rests her head on the trunk below.

Tuell’s photographs, many of which she hand-tinted, are beautiful, moving and of historical significance; she worked alongside George Bird Grinnell documenting Northern Cheyenne ritual, with her photos appearing in his classic two-volume history of the Cheyenne. Her photos deserve reproduction in a high-quality, large-format book.

For those interested in learning more about Tuell, most of Aadland’s text doesn’t expand on the accompanying photographs or their photographer. Past page 40 in this 182-page book, mentions of Tuell are scarce. Instead, her images serve as reference points for Aadland’s history of the Plains tribes.

Aadland’s enthusiasm for the subject is obvious, and some of his ideas are interesting. For example, he argues that reservation basketball serves as a contemporary expression of battle, while football does not. However, this is not a scholarly work; footnotes are few and there is not an emphasis on original research. Aadland is so well read, however, that the book does serve as an extended historiography of Plains history and anthropology.

In recognizing the importance of Tuell’s work, Aadland is on to something. White women remain largely absent in the recent surge of gender and borderland scholarship in American Indian history, yet there are many instances of white women as turn-of-the-century cultural intermediaries. Hampton Institute, in Hampton, Va., sent white female schoolteachers out West to recruit students from Plains tribes for its Indian program.

Historians take note: Research on Tuell is both an opportunity to advance scholarship and give an incredible woman her due.

Jill Ingram is a freelance writer in Asheville, N.C.