Montana’s first Native American legislator and the first woman chair of the Tribal Executive Board of the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes was not a women’s liberation advocate because she refused to acknowledge women’s limits. The fight Dolly Smith Cusker Akers did champion, however, was that of American Indians to determine their own destinies free from federal oversight and interference. Assertive and self-reliant—as she believed tribes should be—Akers achieved many notable accomplishments in her lifetime, but not without conflict and criticism.
Born in 1901 in Wolf Point, Dolly Smith was the daughter of Nellie Trexler, an Assiniboine, and William Smith, an Irish-American. She attended school on the Fort Peck Reservation and at the all-Indian Sherman Institute in California. Graduating at age sixteen, she returned to Montana and married George Cusker in 1917.
In the early 1920s, the Fort Peck tribes sent two elders to Washington, D.C., to lobby for school funding. Neither elder spoke English, so Dolly accompanied them as interpreter. The articulate young woman impressed the congressmen, whom she then lobbied in favor of universal citizenship for American Indians—an issue that had been debated for many years. In 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act became law, establishing the basis for American Indian suffrage and furthering the government’s long-term goal of gradual absorption of American Indians into American society.
At Fort Peck, Cusker frequently attended tribal executive board meetings on behalf of her husband, who was often debilitated by alcoholism. In time, the board appointed her the first woman on the tribal executive board, a position she held on and off for many years.
Concerned with the economic difficulties affecting Montana’s tribes during the Great Depression, Dolly Cusker ran as a Democrat for the state legislature in 1932 and received almost 100 percent of the vote in Roosevelt County, where whites outnumbered Indians by nearly ten to one. The first Native American person to be elected to the Montana legislature and just twenty-three, she was the only female legislator during the 1933-1934 sessions.
In 1934, Governor Frank Cooney named Cusker the state’s first coordinator for Indian welfare and asked her to represent Montana’s Indians to the Secretary of the Interior. American Indians were treated differently from non-Indians with regard to relief during the Great Depression, because states and counties did not want to assume responsibility for these new American citizens. While in Washington, Cusker succeeded in securing federal relief for tribal members.
Dolly remarried to John Akers in 1944 and invested in their ranch while maintaining her involvement in tribal matters. Now a Republican, she opposed the Indian Bureau’s management of tribal affairs, especially policies that prevented tribes from independently negotiating the development of their own natural resources and the sale or lease of Indian lands. “Why should Indian people,” she asked in 1952, “be forced to live under a law made some 80 years ago? That is the year in which the Indian Commissioner referred to Indians as ‘wild beasts!’”
Akers charged that the Indian Bureau sold land and mineral rights out from under tribes, robbing Indians of royalties that could have provided essential income. “There can be no real solution of the so-called ‘Indian problem’ unless the Interior Department embraces the principle of self-determination of Indian people by actual practice,” argued Akers. “The archaic protective rules and laws merely tend to hamper the Indian people from attaining their final goal of self-sufficiency, which is the goal of Congress for the Interior Department to foster.”
In 1953, the Republican-led Congress and Interior Department enacted their version of tribal “self-sufficiency” via Public Law 108, or Termination, which ended the federal government’s treaty obligations to tribes and left “terminated” tribes to sink or swim on their own. Akers, a supporter of the principles behind Termination, was elected the first female chair of the Fort Peck executive board in 1956. Her critics accused Chairwoman Akers of only serving her own interests and doing so in an underhanded manner. Alleging misuse of tribal funds, her adversaries voted to impeach her in 1958.
Nonetheless, Akers continued to exert her influence in Indian issues, briefly becoming vice president of the National Congress of American Indians in the 1960 and later serving on the Montana Intertribal Policy Board. As chair of the Fort Peck Tribal Housing Authority in the 1970s, Akers succeeded in acquiring federal funds for much-needed housing on the Fort Peck Reservation. However, the tribal council voted to remove her from the housing authority, complaining that she unfairly used her authority to secure houses for her supporters rather than treating all applicants equitably. In Aker’s defense, one woman reminded the council that Akers was the only person who “had the guts” to confront the Indian Bureau when it owed tribal members money from land sales.
Over the course of six decades, Akers made numerous trips to D.C. to voice her views on Indian matters and to influence politicians. Among the improvements she was most proud of having supported were a regulation permitting tribes to hire their own legal counsel and the 1968 Indian Civil Rights Act—both of which removed inequities that had hampered the autonomy of American Indian people. Reflecting on her career, this remarkable woman said, “I am a very necessary evil. I try to stay in the background, but every now and then I have to come out and kick somebody in the shins.” Kick she did, and Dolly Akers will be remembered differently by those who benefited from her actions and those whose shins got bruised. – LKF
Dolly Smith Cusker Akers has a manuscript collection at the Montana Historical Society. If you are interested in doing more research on either Akers or other Native women politicians, check out this bibliography on 20th c. Manuscript Collections or this bibliography on Native women in Montana.
Cantarine, Liz. “She’s Dolly Akers, 69-Year-Old Dynamo.” Billings Gazette, July 18, 1971: 1, 33.
Dolly Smith Cusker Akers papers, 1927-1985. A9:1-5. Montana Historical Society Research Center, Helena.
Dolly Akers, Vertical File, Montana Historical Society Research Center, Helena.
“Fort Peck Tribal Board Orders General Election.” Great Falls Tribune, February 5, 1959: 5. Reprinted in Wotanin Wowapi, June 19, 2006: 1.
Fourstar, Odessa Jones. Letter to the editor, March 5, 1976. Wotanin Wowapi, March 11, 1976: 3.
Freda Augusta Beazley papers, 1960-1975. Manuscript Collection 187. Montana Historical Society Research Center, Helena.
“Indian Relief Setup Organized for Peck.” Helena Daily Independent, December 21, 1934, 5.
Miller, David, Dennis Smith, Joseph McGeshick, James Shanley, and Caleb Shields. The History of the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, 1800-2000. Poplar, Mont.: Fort Peck Community College, 2008.
Palmer, Tom. “My People, My Life: Indian Elder Still Serving Her Tribe.” Helena Independent Record, March 3, 1985, 2, 3.
White Wolf, Shawn. “Montana’s 1st Indian Lawmaker Fought Her Entire Life to Keep Intact Her People and Their Way of Life.” Helena Independent Record, January 26, 2003, 1.
“Woman Indian Leader Finds Liberation Movement ‘Old Hat.’” Farmington Daily Times. July 14, 1971: 5A.