Smithsonian Collections Blog

Highlighting the hidden treasures from over 2 million collections

Collections Search Center

Friday, March 12, 2010

A Woman’s Work: Photographs by Elizabeth C. Grinnell and Julia Tuell

This image (N13601, ca. 1902-1904) of a Northern Cheyenne (Northern Tsitsistas/ Suhati) woman erecting tipi poles caught my eye when I was researching photos in the National Museum of the American Indian’s Archive collection to highlight for Women’s History Month. The photograph, and the others in the George Bird Grinnell photograph collection, stood out because they capture women in roles often neglected by traditional depictions. The women are shown in the midst of their daily and often labor-intensive chores, such as carrying bundles of wood or tanning hides.

Upon further investigation, I found out that the image was photographed by Elizabeth Curtis Grinnell (b. 1876) or possibly by Julia Tuell (1886-1960). Grinnell was the official photographer for her husband Dr. George Bird Grinnell’s (1849-1938) fieldwork on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Montana in the early 1900s. She documented life on the reservation and specifically focused on women and their daily activities. Julia Tuell, the wife of a reservation school teacher, assisted Grinnell with taking the photographs. These images would eventually illustrate George Bird Grinnell’s 1923 book, The Cheyenne Indians: Their History and Ways of Life.

Does it change our understanding of the photographs once we learn that they were taken not by George Bird Grinnell himself, but by his wife or Julia Tuell? As some photo historians point out, a photograph often reveals more about the person taking the photograph rather than the subject actually being photographed. What do these photographs reveal about Elizabeth Grinnell and Julia Tuell? What do you think Grinnell and Tuell were trying to communicate about early reservation life for Northern Cheyenne women? How do you interpret the photographs?

here to view additional images from the Grinnell photograph collection.

Emily Moazami, Photo Archives,
National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center,


  1. Great post, Emily! You leave us with many questions to consider. I don't know the answers, but I am more curious about the Grinnell collection. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I'm so glad that you now have the Grinnell Photo Collection digitized. I'm From the Braun Research Library (Southwest Museum) Autry National Center in Los Angeles and we too have a large George Bird Grinnell Photo collection including Elizabeth Curtis Grinnell and Juila Tuell as well as other photographers. In addition we hold the George Bird Grinnell Manuscript collection, pertaining to his American Indian works. Kim Walters, Director, Braun Research Library

  3. That’s great to know! I’ll make a note of this so we can refer any future Grinnell and Tuell researchers to your Library. Maybe we should also get in touch and compare information (especially on duplicate photos) so we can enhance the archival records.

  4. Thanks for the info.. I was curious about Elizabeth Grinnell, because I have a book written by her dated 1894. I find her to be an amazing woman.

  5. Thanks for your comment. Yes, I agree, she certainly seems to have lead an amazing life. Can you post the title of the book you have? It might be a good source for cataloging the photos. Thanks!

  6. Impressive investigation work Emily. I have no idea how you'd come by all of this information, but that's for you to know and for me to find out.

  7. Thanks for your comment. For more information about the Grinnells, I’d suggest first reading some of their published works. Here are the catalog records at the Smithsonian Institution Libraries.

    If you’d like additional information about these photographs and other Grinnell related materials, please contact the National Museum of the American Indian Archives Center.