George Bird Grinnell

George Bird Grinnell continued …

Grinnell studied at Yale, graduating with only a mediocre record, but with an intense desire to be a naturalist. He talked his way onto a fossil collecting expedition in 1870, and then served as the naturalist on Custer’s expedition to the Black Hills in 1874. Grinnell was interested in what he could learn from the American Indian tribes of the region, and was well known for his ability to get along with the elders of many tribes. The Pawnee called him White Wolf, and eventually adopted him into the tribe. The Gros Ventre called him Gray Clothes the Black Feet “Fisher Hat.” The Cheyenne called him wikis which means “bird,” observing that he came and went with the seasons. His writings from this period are considered topnotch in the field of anthropology, and he served as an advocate for American Indians for his entire life.

On the Harriman Expedition, Grinnell mentored photographer Edward S. Curtis. They had met years earlier when Grinnell and a group of friends became lost while climbing Mt. Rainier. Curtis, who had been photographing the mountain for years, led the party to safety. Grinnell recommended Curtis to Harriman as expedition photographer. In turn, it was on their Alaskan cruise that Grinnell piqued Curtis’s interest in the plight of the American Indians: “White men, uncontrolled and uncontrollable, already swarm over the Alaskan coast…in a short time they will ruin and disperse the wholesome, hearty, merry people whom we saw at Port Clarence and Plover Bay.”

After the expedition, Grinnell went on to work for fair and reasonable treaties with American Indian tribes, and for the preservation of America’s wild lands and resources. When he died in 1938, at age 89, the New York Herald Tribune wrote that:

Aside from Grinnell’s prophetic vision, his forthrightness, his scholarship in the field of zoology and Indian ethnography, and the drive that empowered him to carry so many causes to successful conclusion, his outstanding personal characteristic was that of never-failing dignity.