Julia E. Tuell — 1886-1960


The Adventure Begins

Julia E. Toops, 16, married 43-year-old school-master P.V. Tuell on April 13, 1901, in Louisville, Kentucky. Adventure began immediately, as P.V. and Julia began their new lives on an island in Vermilion Lake, Minnesota, on the Chippewa Indian Reservation.

“The winters were intensely cold, and during the first one, on a February morning fifty-below, Julia gave birth to a baby, Wenonah. That winter the ice froze on the lake six feet thick. When the couple crossed the lake that spring there was still jagged ice, and Julia feared it would scrape a hole in the bottom of the boat.”

Women and Warriors of the Plains By Dan Aadland

The little family moved to the Sisseton Sioux Reservation in eastern South Dakota, where Julia and P.V. had a second daughter, Julia Mae. There are few Tuell photographs from the Sisseton Sioux Reservation.

On the move once again in 1906, the Tuells moved to the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Lame Deer, Montana. It was on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in 1906 that we see Julia act on her ardent appetite for capturing history with photography.

Julia and P.V. Tuell in Cheyenne clothing, 1906 during their early years in the Rocky Mountain West on the reservation.

Photographic Journey of Loss

Julia managed her household and children, and learned more of human nature. A deep sorrow came to the Tuell family in the spring 1908, when Julia lost her son in late pregnancy as they made their customary return to Kentucky for summer vacation.

“No coffin so small was available, so P.V. Tuell, an active Mason, looked up the Masonic group in Gillette. Its members built a tiny cedar coffin, and Julia buried her baby there. … Nearly fifty years later, in 1956, Varble, Julia’s son, took Julia back to Gillette to find the grave of her lost boy. … She ordered a stone for the grave.”

Women and Warriors of the Plains By Dan Aadland

Julia captured Indian mothers mourning their lost children, freezing in time the familiar heartbreak for all to feel.

Here she was just two weeks from delivering Carl as she stood behind her tripod.

Life with the Cheyenne and Sioux

A little more than a year after losing her baby, Julia gave birth to Carl. Not one to pause photographing for pregnancy, Julia packed her tripod and added to her legacy.

By now, Julia was immersed in the Cheyenne culture, with many of the Indians integrated into her daily family life. Julia learned the Cheyenne language with the help of Chief American Horse, a frequent visitor and photography subject. An old Cheyenne lady, White Cow, “Woostah,” (Vo’estaa’e) was a day care provider for little Wenonah. White Cow was the daughter of Chief Morning Star (Dull Knife).

A Character of Empathy

Empathy was evident throughout Julia’s photographs. In the 1907 photograph to the right, the child is sad because his braids must be cut before entering school.Her respect and interest for all aspects of Indian life, including ceremonies such as the Sun Dance that were outlawed by the U.S. government, led the Cheyenne (and later Sioux) to trust her. Julia documented the ceremonies whenever the opportunity arose. She was trusted enough that the Indians permitted to set up her camera close to the sacred ceremonies.

In 1912, P.V. Tuell was assigned a transfer to teach among the Sac and Fox Indians at Stroud, Oklahoma, where they stayed for just one year. Unhappy with the Oklahoma climate, P.V. applied for a transfer. The transfer request was denied, so he resigned from service, then applied for an opening on the Rosebud Reservation in south-central South Dakota. The Tuells, Julia now 27 years old, moved to live on the reservation of the Lakota, among the Sioux until 1929, the year P.V. retired at age 70, after 52 years of teaching.

As Aadland explains in his book, Women and Warriors of the Plains, “Hair was an extremely important part of Plains Indian culture. Commonly, a brave tended not only to his own hair, but fixed his wife’s hair as well. Hair was considered to be part of their strength.”
In addition to being a mother to four children (ages 11 and under), taking photographs, and some missionary work, Julia taught “housekeeping” at the schools, and became a field nurse. Her son Varble explained to author Aadland that “The agency did furnish such a nurse, but the work load, particularly during emergencies such as the influenza epidemic of 1918, was overwhelming.”

The Model T Ford

Varble Tuell, 1913-2011, the youngest of Julia & P.V.’s four children, was born in 1913, in Ring Thunder, South Dakota. Aadland writes, “An early snowstorm was raging, and a neighbor lady named Mrs. Clayton, a German, delivered him. … The Sioux called him Nadasha, because of his red hair.”

Varble shared many memories with author Dan Aadland. Among those included in Aadland’s book, you’ll find this gem.

“… in 1916, my father traded the team of horses to Mr. Strain, an auctioneer of that area, for a 1917 Model T Ford car, a touring car which had a canvas top that could be taken off or folded down. Dad was not very mechanically minded, and mother was the pioneer. She took over the job of operating that mechanical toy. This was her way of traveling all over the reservation and all over the state.

         “If a tire went flat or had to be taken off and patched, Mother was the one who did it. The tire was removed in the field, for there were no spare tires in those days. She would take the tire off the wheel with two tire wrenches. These were very large wheels, thirty inches in size with tires three-and-a-half inches wide, which looked like oversized bicycle tires. When the tire was removed, she had to find the puncture and patch it with a cold patch. This involved scraping the tube with a device made for that purpose, kept in a little repair kit. After scraping to rough up the rubber tube a type of glue was put on the scraped puncture for the patch and let dry. Then she had to put the tire back on the wheel and pump it up with the tire pump, then put the wheel back on the car, which, of course, was on a car jack of that day. This was quite a job for a woman who weighed only ninety-eight to a hundred pounds.

         “… Mother was a pioneer woman and nothing got in her way if she wanted to go out and photograph. She was more or less a perfectionist and artist. She had no fear of rattlesnakes or such as she walked through all that high prairie grass.”

The Darkroom

The Tuells lived with the Sioux through World War I and the plush 1920s, until the stock market crash. Through it all, Julia continued her photography work. Her son Varble described Julia’s process to Aadland.

         “… she developed the negatives in her makeshift darkroom. Varble remembers the contact-printing process quite well. He still has the wooden frame that held the glass-plate negative securely against the printing paper. Holding the frame facing the kerosene lamp, his mother allowed light to shine on the plate for four minutes, timing it with a wind-up alarm clock. Then she doused the print for the required time in porcelain trays of the proper chemicals. The prints she wished to glaze were put face down on a special metal plate. Varble recalls her rolling the prints onto the shiny black surface of this large (approximately four feet square) piece of steel. When dry, the prints would loosen and emerge with a glossy finish. And, in these days before color film, when black and white did not satisfy her, Julia learned to hand-tint her photographs with watercolors.”

A Flight to Remember

Julia and P.V’s last years were spent in retirement in Southern California. Author Aadland documents In the mid-1940s, Julia’s youngest son Varble belonged to a flying club in California.

“Julia had never flown, but wished to. ‘I want to go out over the ocean,’ she said. Varble talked to the man he considered the best pilot in the club and asked him to pick a clear day for the adventure. And so four of them–Varble, his sister Wenonah, the pilot he trusted with his mother passenger and Julia Tuell–rose in a Stinson airplane and headed out over the sea.

         “‘And you know what?’ Varble told me. ‘She was still taking pictures, this time with a little Argus 35mm she had bought, and she asked us to bank steeply over the ocean so she could get some good ones.’”

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