Sister Providencia, Advocate for Landless Indians

Sister Providencia, 1980, book in hand.

Born Denise Hortense Tolan in Anaconda in 1909, Sister Providencia is pictured here in 1980, after years of working in collaboration with Affiliated Tribes of the Northwest, the National Congress of American Indians, and other Indian-led organizations to advance the cause of Indian people. Photo courtesy Providence Archives, Seattle, Washington.

In 1952, a nun teaching sociology at the College of Great Falls committed herself to alleviating poverty among the city’s Indians. What began as an effort to solve a local problem grew into a twenty-year crusade on behalf of all American Indians, taking Sister Providencia Tolan from Great Falls to Congress. In the process, she collaborated with charitable organizations and Indian advocates to change the course of federal Indian policy.

Great Falls’ Indian residents lived primarily in makeshift communities like Hill 57 on the edge of town. Their overcrowded shacks lacked utilities. Many were unskilled, undereducated seasonal laborers who struggled to provide for their families. For years, concerned citizens donated necessities to provide stopgap assistance. While supporting these efforts, Sister Providencia also approached the matter as a sociologist: studying the problem, ascertaining its root causes, and advocating social and political solutions.

One cause of the urban Indians’ plight was the matter of jurisdiction. The federal government denied responsibility for unenrolled, non-recognized, or off-reservation Indians. City, county, and state agencies frequently refused assistance out of the misconception that all Indians were wards of the federal government.

Compounding the jurisdictional conundrum were two federal Indian policies instituted in the 1950s that increased Indian landlessness and poverty: Termination and Relocation. Under Termination, the federal government dissolved its trust responsibilities to certain tribes. Deprived of services and annuities promised them in treaties, terminated tribes liquidated their assets for immediate survival. When the Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribe was terminated in 1953, some families moved to Great Falls to live with their already impoverished relatives on Hill 57. The Relocation policy also moved Indian families to cities without ensuring that they had the means for long-term survival. Meanwhile, the government did not increase aid to states or counties so that they could cope with the expanding numbers of people in need. Continue reading

“She Spoke the Truth”: The Childhood and Later Activism of Lula Martinez

A young Lula Martinez, poses by a tree in a patterned dress.

Lula Acebedo Martinez became a social activist in part because of the discrimination she experienced growing up in Butte. Her mother’s determination and generosity also inspired Martinez. “Mama never turned anyone away,” she remembered.

Born to Mexican immigrants Petra Ortega and Fidencio Acebedo in 1922, Lula Martinez grew up in Butte but left as a teenager for agricultural work in the Pacific Northwest. She returned over forty years later to work on behalf of the city’s impoverished and unemployed. Her memories of her childhood in Butte reveal the complex racial dynamic that existed in the mining city in the early twentieth century, and her experiences as an ethnic minority instilled a lifelong commitment to community activism and female empowerment.

Martinez’s father worked construction on the railroad, and his job took the family from Texas to Montana. The Acebedos settled in Butte, and Fidencio worked in the mines. The Acebedos were part of Butte’s small but significant Hispanic population, drawn to the booming copper mines in the first decades of the twentieth century. By World War II, “several hundred Mexicans and Filipinos” lived in Butte. The majority of the Mexican immigrants worked at the Leonard Mine and lived on the city’s east side. Unlike Filipinos, who encountered violence in the mines and tended not to stay, Mexican workers seem to have been generally accepted by the other miners, and Mexican families did not live in segregated neighborhoods. Martinez recalled that growing up “we were surrounded by different nationalities. We had Vankoviches and Joseviches and Biviches, and we had Serbians, and we had Chinese. We had italianos, españolas, and Mexican people. We had the whole United Nations around on the East Side.”

In spite of this ethnic diversity, Martinez did encounter discrimination. As she got older, and especially after she began to attend school, it became clear that she was trapped in a racial hierarchy that discriminated against Mexicans and Mexican Americans. She remembered, “As children we didn’t know there was a difference so we got along fine. It was when you’re . . . going to school when the teachers started to say, ‘well you gotta sit over there. All the Mexicans sit on that side.’ . . . [A]nd then we found out that there was a difference.” Martinez’s encounters with racism in her childhood instilled a determination to work for social justice, but they also gave her a “hatred” of Butte that she carried with her into adulthood.

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 “I Was a Strong Woman”: Adeline Abraham Mathias

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One of the last fluent Kootenai speakers, Adeline Mathias spent many hours recording Kootenai language tapes and other instructional material in order to preserve the language. Photo courtesy Gigi Caye

When the confederated Salish, Pend d’Oreille, and Kootenai tribes needed more information on historical events, cultural customs, or the Kootenai language, they did not look in a library or on the web; they asked Adeline Abraham Mathias. A member of the Ksanka band of Kootenai—or Ktunaxa—people, the elder lived her entire life on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Over the span of her lifetime (1910-2007), she witnessed how the influx of non-Indians profoundly altered her people’s homeland. The great-granddaughter of a Kootenai chief, Adeline Mathias was the recipient of cultural, spiritual, and historical knowledge, which she in turn passed along to the next generation of Kootenai people.

Atliyi “Adeline” Paul Abraham was born near Dayton, Montana, in 1910, the same year the fertile valleys of Flathead Indian Reservation were opened to homesteading. The arriving farmers transformed the diverse riparian habitat into a patchwork of fields and altered the course of rivers to suit their irrigation needs.

More profoundly, the newcomers brought different social and cultural ways that, over time, threatened the continuity of the Kootenai, Salish, and Kalispel (Pend d’Oreille) languages and way of life. In just three generations, the number of fluent Kootenai speakers fell to only a handful of individuals, one of whom was Adeline Mathias. Continue reading

Defining Gender Equality: The Debate over the Equal Rights Amendment in Montana

Handwritten letter from Sharon Luckenbill to Senator Lee Metcalf, dated February 27, 1975, opposing the ERA.

North Toole County High School student Sharon Luckenbell wrote this letter to Senator Lee Metcalf, expressing her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment. Click image to see larger copy. MHS Archives, MC 172 Box 352 F 1

When the U.S. Senate approved the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in March 1972, the next step—passage by two-thirds of state legislatures—seemed a formality. However, over the next decade, the battle over ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment revealed that America was still divided over equality between the sexes. In Montana the controversy over the ERA suggests equal unease.

The Equal Rights Amendment read simply, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” First proposed in 1923, the amendment passed out of Congress in 1972. It then went to the states for approval. In theory, Montana’s ratification should have been easy; the state  constitution, recently passed in 1972, included an “individual dignity” clause that already guaranteed Montana women equal rights. In fact, ERA proponents argued that ratification was a way for Montanans to ensure that “their loved ones in other states . . . enjoy the same benefits and protections which we have under our state laws.”

In reality, ratification was controversial from the beginning. The amendment “breezed through the House by a 73-23 vote” in 1973, but, despite the fact that forty out of Montana’s fifty state senators had signed on as sponsors of the bill, anti-ERA activists managed to convince the Senate to table discussion. Continue reading

Me, Me, Me, Me: Butte’s Bohemian, Mary MacLane

Portrait of Mary MacLane, 1906.

Although there is nothing immodest about 1906 portrait of Mary MacLane, her self-absorbed autobiography and bohemian lifestyle shocked her home town of Butte. MHS Photo Archives PAc 77-35.3

Temperance advocate Carrie Nation once pronounced Mary MacLane “the example of a woman who has been unwomanly in everything that she is noted for.” MacLane was no doubt delighted with the description. Writer, bohemian, and actress, Mary MacLane (1881-1929) was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and grew up in Butte, Montana. Best known for her two autobiographical books, The Story of Mary MacLane (1902) and I, Mary MacLane (1917), she also wrote features for newspapers, starred in a motion picture, and became notorious for her outrageous, unwomanly behavior.

MacLane was the child of failed fortune. Her father died when she was eight; after her mother remarried, her stepfather took the family to Butte in search of riches. According to legend, on the eve of Mary’s departure for Stanford University, her stepfather confessed that he had lost the family’s money in a mining venture and could not afford to send her to college. Whatever the truth, Mary did not attend college after graduating from Butte High School, but spent her days feeling restless and trapped, walking through Butte and recording her thoughts in her diary. In 1902, she sent the handwritten text to a Chicago publisher, Fleming H. Revell Co, under the title, I Await the Devil’s Coming. The editor who read the piece judged it the “most astounding and revealing piece of realism I had ever read.” But it was not the kind of material that the Revell, “Publishers of Evangelical Literature,” brought to the market. Fortunately, the editor sent it to another publisher, Stone & Kimball, who released it as The Story of Mary MacLane. Within a few months the book had sold eighty thousand copies, and MacLane may have earned as much as $20,000 in royalties in 1902 (approximately $500,000 in 2013 dollars).

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Freda Augusta Beazley and the Rise of American Indian Political Power

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Freda Beazley, a member of the Assiniboine Indian Tribe of Fort Peck Reservation and a vice-president of the National Congress of American Indians, at the 15th annual meeting of the National Congress of American Indians held in Missoula, Montana, during September 14-19, 1958.

In the mid-twentieth century, American Indian tribes faced crippling poverty, enormous land loss, and attacks on their status as semi-sovereign nations. One Montanan integrally involved in the efforts to fight these injustices was Freda Beazley, an Assiniboine woman from Klein and the widow of a former state legislator. Beazley served on the advisory council to Montana’s Office of Indian Affairs, the first such agency in the nation. She was an officer on the Montana Intertribal Policy Board (MIPB), the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians. She was also the first coordinator of Rural and Indian Programs for Montana’s Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Beazley worked steadfastly at state and federal levels to protect tribal sovereignty, end poverty, and improve Indians’ education and employment opportunities.

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The Women’s Protective Union

Young woman (and WPU member) behind the candy counter of Butte's Rialto Theatre

The WPU represented women who worked in service industries, including waitresses, cooks, maids, elevator girls, and janitors. By the 1940s, the union had won eight-hour shifts, the right to overtime pay, sick leave, and paid vacations for its members. Above, a WPU member is shown working the candy counter at the Rialto Theater. PH088 W.P.U./H.E.R.E. Photograph Collection, Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives.

In what must have been an unusual sight on a June evening in 1890, thirty-three women walked into the Butte Miners’ Union hall. They were waitresses, dressmakers, milliners, and saleswomen, and they had gathered to organize a protective association for Butte’s women workers. As the Butte Daily Miner reported the following day, “The ladies of Butte—God bless them!—are not going to be behind their brothers in demanding their rights.” From its inception, the Butte Women’s Protective Union (WPU) labored to improve the conditions of women’s work and to extend a network of support and friendship to Butte’s working women.

Most working women in Butte engaged in “commercialized domesticity.” Miners, carpenters, blacksmiths, pipefitters, and men who worked in scores of other occupations dominated the mining city. Until well into the twentieth century the majority of them were single. They needed to be fed, clothed, nursed, entertained, and generally looked after by women who performed domestic tasks for wages. Working men ate in cafes and boardinghouses, slept in rooming houses, sent their laundry out, and spent their evenings in saloons, dance halls, and theaters—except for the saloons, these were all places where women worked. Women’s work made men’s work possible. Continue reading

“You Have to Take What They Send You Now Days”: Montana Women’s Service in World War II

Butte native Irene Wold posed with her friend Helen in an army camp in Tlemcen, Algeria, in October 1944.

Butte native Irene Wold (pictured left, with her friend Helen in Tlemcen, Algeria, in 1944) titled this photograph “Combat Kids.” Wold joined the Army Nurse Corps in 1941 and served in both Algeria and France. MHS Photo Archives PAc 2008-34A1p17b

Women have worked for the American military in every major conflict, but until World War II they were largely classified as “civilians” and denied the benefits extended to men in uniform. The creation of the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corp (later renamed the Women’s Army Corp) in 1942 represented the first step toward official recognition of women’s military service. Other branches of the military quickly followed suit, and, like their national counterparts, Montana women took advantage of new opportunities to serve in the armed forces.

Mary Jo Hopwood, who was born in Colorado but eventually settled in Darby, Montana, served for three years in the Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES). A combination of civic duty and desire for adventure motivated her to enlist: “[I]t was right after Pearl Harbor and everybody was patriotic,” she said. “[A]nd my brother was in the Navy, and I was just kinda restless. . . . It was adventure, mostly.” Although Hopwood worked in payroll, a common occupation for civilian women by the 1940s, she encountered doubts about her fitness to serve. “When we went in,” she recalled, “[the] commander said, ‘Well, I’m not used to having women around the office,’ but he said, ‘You have to take what they send you now days.’” Ultimately, that commander changed his mind, as did many other servicemen: “[T]hey didn’t think much of all these women,” Hopwood remembered. “But before we got out, they accepted us.”

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Bonnie HeavyRunner: A Warrior for Diversity

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Bonnie HeavyRunner, pictured here a year before her untimely death, was the founding director of the University of Montana’s Native American Studies department. Photo courtesy Aislinn HeavyRunner-Rioux

“We in the Native American community know that the warrior of old no longer exists. So we ask ourselves, ‘What do we have left?’ We have individuals who are culturally aware, who realize the value of getting a ‘white man’s education’ and utilizing that to the benefit . . . of the community. They have the ability to turn this whole negative picture of cultural genocide around.” Bonnie HeavyRunner spoke these words in praise of her sister, Iris HeavyRunner, but she could have been describing herself.

One of thirteen children, Bonnie HeavyRunner grew up in Browning on the Blackfeet Reservation, where she experienced the daily reality of poverty, relatives struggling with alcohol addiction, and the sudden loss of family members. At a young age she vowed to stay sober and remain true to her cultural values. Her personal integrity became the foundation of her determination to improve the lives of American Indian people by being an advocate for Native and women’s issues while building cross-cultural bridges. As the director of the University of Montana’s Native American Studies program, she worked tirelessly to bring about greater cultural awareness of American Indians while making the academic world more hospitable to Indian students.

HeavyRunner earned a bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Montana in 1983 and then a law degree in 1988. One of only a few women in the School of Law in the 1980s, HeavyRunner was also the only American Indian law student in her class. She went on to become a clerk, and then a judge, on the Blackfeet Tribal Court, but she did not forget the cultural isolation she had felt at the university. Many Native students dropped out of school because they experienced such a wide gap between themselves and the non-Indian culture of the university community at large. HeavyRunner wanted to change that. Continue reading

“Becoming Better Citizens of Our Adopted Country”:  Montana’s Ethnic Women’s Groups

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Cornish women in Anaconda came together to form the Daughters of St. George, shown here picnic at Gregson Springs, July 30, 1925. MHS Photo Archives 941-933

 “Thanksgiving Day is over and we have Women’s Meeting Sale at Elling Rogenes and it is quite enjoyable when there are so many Norwegians together,” Rakel Herein wrote in her daybook in 1917. Two years later, a March entry reads simply, “Have had Women’s Meeting. . . . Yes it was extremely delightful.”

Herein arrived in Carbon County in 1899 as a twenty-year-old immigrant from Norway and married a local Norwegian immigrant sheep farmer within the year. Translated years after her 1943 death, her scattered, terse daybook documents the birth and growth of five children and a lonely, despairing life. This context makes her descriptions of Red Lodge’s St. Olaf Lutheran Church women’s group—“delightful” and “enjoyable”—that much more telling. Herein yearned for the companionship and support of women who understood how hard it was to immigrate to a foreign, male-dominated western landscape. She found that companionship and support within the Women’s Meeting.

Herein’s Women’s Meeting was one of hundreds of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Montana women’s groups. Montana women gathered whenever they could under a wide range of banners: to pursue education, art, community improvement, children’s activities, homemaking, health, their families’ occupational interests, and church growth and stability. Typically, these women’s groups supported the status quo, celebrating their members’ primary roles as mothers, wives, and daughters; yet for the women themselves, they were lifelines leading out of their homes and into a larger world. Continue reading