Oshanee Kenmille dedicated eight decades of her life to making beaded gloves, moccasins, cradleboards, and other leatherwork for family, friends, tribal members, celebrities, and dignitaries. She had very little formal education, but learned from the Salish and Kootenai women in her life how to tan hides, sew buckskin clothing, and do beadwork. Kenmille then applied her expertise toward teaching others both these skills and the Salish and Kootenai languages, ensuring this cultural knowledge will continue with future generations. In spite of the many challenges and tragedies in her life, Oshanee Kenmille inspired others with her strength, her joyful spirit, and her commitment to preserving traditional tribal culture.
Oshanee’s parents, Annie and Paul Cullooyah, maintained their traditional Salish way of life on the Flathead Reservation. Oshanee, who was born in 1916, began beading at age eleven while watching her mother, whose praise for Oshanee’s first efforts inspired the child to develop her beading skills. Annie, who died in 1928 when Oshanee was only twelve years old, did not live long enough to see how well Oshanee succeeded.
At the January 24, 1914, meeting of the Hamilton Woman’s Club, the club president “presented the idea of the Club boosting for [a] Carnegie Library building here.” Club members concurred and appointed a committee to urge city officials to act. Mrs. J. F. Sullivan, head of the club’s newly formed library committee, approached Hamilton’s city council about asking industrialist and library benefactor Andrew Carnegie for funds. After Marcus Daly’s widow, Margaret, donated the land for the building site, Carnegie’s secretary approved the city’s request. Two years later, the Hamilton Woman’s Club moved its meetings to a specially designated room in the town’s new Carnegie Library, an institution that owed its existence to the clubwomen’s hard work.
The Hamilton Woman’s Club’s instrumental role in the library’s construction is not an isolated case. During the Progressive Era, women’s voluntary organizations frequently led community efforts to build public libraries. In 1933, the American Library Association estimated that three-quarters of the country’s public libraries “owed their creation to women.” More recently, scholars Kay Ann Cassell and Kathleen Weibel have argued that “women’s organizations may well have been as influential in the development of public libraries as Andrew Carnegie,” whose name is carved into thousands of library transoms across the United States.
Since the time of white settlement, Montanans seem to have been unusually passionate about books and libraries. In an 1877 edition of the Butte Miner, one writer noted, “The need for a library was felt here last winter, when aside from dancing there was no amusement whatever to help pass the long, dreary evenings. Dancing, in moderation, will do very well, but it is generally allowed to have been somewhat overdone last winter . . . this library scheme . . . will furnish a means of recreation . . . that is more intellectual and more to be desired in every respect.”
Rising to the call, women’s clubs founded libraries in communities across Montana. Most of these libraries started small: club members donated books, and a local milliner, dressmaker, or hotelier would offer shelf space. As the library (and the community) grew, it often moved to a room in city hall before, finally, opening in a separate building. By 1896 Montana could boast seven public libraries with collections of a thousand volumes or more, and the State Federation of Women’s Clubs maintained a system of traveling libraries. Continue reading Progressive Reform and Women’s Advocacy for Public Libraries in Montana→
Dorothy M. Johnson was Montana’s most successful writer of Western fiction. Born in Iowa in 1905, Johnson grew up in Whitefish, Montana. Her love of the West and nineteenth-century frontier history and folklore inspired her to write seventeen books, more than fifty short stories, and myriad magazine articles. On the basis of her publishing success and numerous awards, scholars Sue Mathews and Jim Healey have called Johnson the “dean of women writers of Western fiction.”
Johnson’s family moved to Montana in 1909 and settled in Whitefish in 1913. She graduated from Whitefish High School in 1922 and studied premed at Montana State College (Bozeman) before transferring to Montana State University in Missoula. By the time she graduated with a degree in English in 1928, she had already published her first poem.
After college, Johnson left Montana and worked as an editor in New York for several years. In 1950, she returned to Montana and became editor of the Whitefish Pilot. Three years later, she relocated to Missoula to teach at the university and work for the Montana Press Association. She lived in Missoula until her death in 1983.
Ironically, many people who might not know Johnson’s name are, nevertheless, familiar with her work. Three of her stories—“The Hanging Tree,” “A Man Called Horse,” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”—were made into motion pictures. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a 1949 John Ford film starring Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne, has the honor of being listed on the National Film Registry for its cultural significance to American cinema. Johnson recalled that she conceived of the story while questioning the western myth of manly bravado: “I asked myself, what if one of these big bold gunmen who are having the traditional walkdown is not fearless, and what if he can’t even shoot. Then what have you got?” Continue reading A “Witty, Gritty Little Bobcat of a Woman”: The Western Writings of Dorothy M. Johnson→
Born on a farm near Mansfield, Ohio, in 1879, Caroline McGill devoted her life to the people of Montana, her adopted state. In her work as a physician she earned the love and respect of the people of Butte, but her role in the creation of the Museum of the Rockies is her enduring legacy to all Montanans.
McGill’s family moved to Missouri when she was five, and at the age of seventeen she acquired a teaching certificate so she could support herself and complete high school. She achieved that goal in 1901 and continued her education at the University of Missouri. By 1908 she had a B.A. in science, an M.A. in zoology, and a Ph.D. in anatomy and physiology, thereby becoming the first woman to receive a doctorate from that school. She taught at her alma mater until 1911, and former students later “aver[ed] that she was the finest medical school instructor” they had had.
Although the University of Missouri offered McGill a full professorship, she decided to shift career paths and accepted a position as pathologist at Murray Hospital in Butte. In a letter to a family member, she explained her decision to move to Montana: “I’ll tell you right now I am making the biggest fool mistake to go . . . but I’m going.” “Feels sort of funny to stand off and serenely watch myself commit suicide, [but] I’ll just have to let her rip.” Continue reading A “Compassionate Heart” and “Keen Mind”: The Life of Doctor Caroline McGill→
The adage “behind every successful man stands a good woman” has become an outmoded cliché. Nonetheless, it remains remarkably true for Montana’s favorite son, cowboy artist Charlie Russell, whose wife, Nancy Cooper Russell, was instrumental in his success. In fact, while Nancy “stood behind” her husband in terms of providing nurture and support, when it came to managing the business aspects of his career—and earning him international fame in the process—she was fully out front. As Charlie’s nephew, Austin Russell, noted, “[S]uccess came tapping at the [Russells’] door or, rather, Nancy dragged success in, hog-tied and branded.”
Nancy Cooper Russell’s story would in many ways befit a Horatio Alger novel. She was born in 1878 into meager circumstances on a Kentucky tobacco farm after her father, James Cooper, had abandoned her then-pregnant mother, Texas Annie Mann. In 1890, Nancy moved to Helena, Montana, with her mother, half-sister, and her mother’s second husband, James Allen. Thereafter, Allen was most often absent, so Texas supported her daughters by taking in sewing and laundry. Eventually, Nancy hired out as a housekeeper as well.
Texas died in 1894 following a lengthy illness. After the funeral, which Nancy arranged and paid for, Allen returned to Helena, staying only long enough to claim Nancy’s half-sister, Ella. He left sixteen-year-old Nancy to fend for herself. At the recommendation of one of her mother’s former customers, Ben and Lela Roberts—a Helena couple who had relocated to Cascade—hired Nancy to serve as their live-in housekeeper and help care for their three young children. Years later Nancy would recall her excitement when, in the fall of 1895, she learned that the Roberts were expecting a special dinner guest: a former cowboy who had an established reputation as both an artist and a hellion. Eleven months later, Charlie and “Mame,” as he always called Nancy, were married in a ceremony held in the Roberts’s home. The following year, the newlyweds moved permanently to Great Falls believing that the larger city would offer them greater opportunities. Continue reading Behind Every Man: Nancy Cooper Russell→
Born in 1872 on the South Fork of the Sun River, Julia Ereaux was the daughter of a French immigrant, Lazare “Curley” Ereaux, and his A’a Ni Nin (White Clay—also known as Gros Ventre) wife, Pipe Woman. Julia, whose White Clay name was Sweet Pine, grew up in a bicultural family and was fluent in French, English, and Gros Ventre. She became a rancher and a newspaper correspondent, even as she served as a Fort Belknap tribal council member, promoted traditional indigenous arts, and worked to prevent the spread of tuberculosis on the reservation. A founding member of one of the first Indian women’s clubs in Montana, Schultz devoted her life to the well-being of the A’a Ni Nin people.
By the time Julia was born, her parents had already lost two children to a smallpox epidemic that took the lives of hundreds of American Indians in what is now north-central Montana. Along with several other mixed-heritage families, the Ereaux family settled near Augusta and took up farming. They were so poor, Julia later recalled, that her mother had to cut and thresh the grain by hand.
Julia received her schooling at St. Peter’s Mission School, an Indian boarding school in the Sun River Valley, which was attended by many Blackfeet and Métis children. Run by Ursuline nuns, the school also employed two famous Montanans during Julia’s years there: Mary Fields, a former slave who worked as handyman and gardener for the school and who became Montana’s first female postal carrier, and Louis Riel, one of the Métis leaders of the Northwest Rebellion of 1885. Continue reading Julia Ereaux Schultz, Health Advocate and Cultural Champion→
Alma Smith Jacobs served as the head librarian of the Great Falls Public Library for almost twenty years before becoming the Montana state librarian in 1973. Both of these achievements were historic firsts for an African American woman. Throughout her life, Jacobs demonstrated a passion for education and for community building and a commitment to working for racial justice in Montana.
Alma Smith was born in 1916 in Lewistown, Montana, to Martin and Emma Riley Smith, members of the wave of African American migrants who had been drawn to the Pacific Northwest between 1865 and 1910. Although Montana now has a reputation for being predominantly white, in the early twentieth century there were sizeable black communities in the state, especially in larger cities like Helena, Butte, Missoula, and Great Falls.
The Smith family moved to Great Falls when Alma was a child. After graduating from Great Falls High School, Alma took advantage of scholarships to achieve an impressive education, first at Talladega College in Alabama and then at Columbia University, where she completed a degree in library science. Credentials in hand, and newly married to World War II veteran Marcus Jacobs, she returned to Great Falls, where she found a position at the public library in 1946. Eight years later she became head librarian. From that position, she worked to build the presence of the library throughout the city and central Montana. Continue reading Alma Smith Jacobs: Beloved Librarian, Tireless Activist→
Evelyn Cameron (1868-1928) and Julia Tuell (1886-1960) were two women with similar talents but opposite perspectives. Each left an invaluable photographic record of life and culture in eastern Montana. Each was an artist in her own right, and because the work of each is so different, the two complement each other remarkably well.
Terry, Montana, on the state’s eastern edge, was home to Evelyn Cameron, who documented women in particular in both traditional and nontraditional roles on ranches and homesteads during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Cameron’s photographs capture the spirit of the West with shutter, lens, and expert eye.
Evelyn Cameron came to Montana from England with her husband, Ewen, to raise polo ponies, an enterprise that failed. While Ewen was a noted ornithologist and never actively worked on the ranch, Evelyn quickly learned to milk cows, break horses, and cultivate a garden. When they needed money, Evelyn learned the art of photography. She sold photographs, especially portraits, of neighbors. She also sold produce and took in wealthy boarders to support herself and her husband. Continue reading Photographic Legacies of Evelyn Cameron and Julia Tuell→