In 1909 the Anaconda Standard ran an article called “The Uplift of the Indians.” It argued that Indians could be brought from their “untutored, childlike state” and transformed—through education, private property ownership, and conversion to Christianity—into productive American citizens. Perhaps no Montanan of her generation better exemplified this assimilationist ideal than Blackfeet descendent Helen Piotopowaka Clarke. While Clarke’s remarkable personal and professional accomplishments earned her great respect and admiration, they also revealed the persistence of anti-Indian prejudices at the turn of the twentieth century.
Helen was born in 1846 to a prominent Scottish-American, Malcolm Clarke, and his Blackfeet wife, Cothcocoma. She spent most of her childhood at a convent school in Cincinnati and returned to Montana just a few years before a group of Blackfeet men murdered her father in 1869. Later that year, Helen’s brothers participated in the Baker Massacre during which troops, ostensibly on a mission to capture Malcolm Clarke’s killers, slaughtered a peaceful and unassociated Blackfeet camp.
Following these tragic events, Helen Clarke moved back east and had a brief but successful acting career in New York. In 1875, she returned to Montana, where attorney and family friend Wilbur Sanders found her a teaching position in Helena. Not everyone in Helena was happy with her hire. Elizabeth Chester Fisk, whose husband edited the Helena Herald, withdrew her children from school because she objected so strenuously to Helen’s mixed ancestry. However, enough Helenans were accepting of the refined, devoutly Catholic, and talented woman that they elected Clarke county superintendent of schools in 1882. She held the position for three terms—one of the first two women (and only person of Indian descent) to hold elective office in Montana Territory. Continue reading Helen Piotopowaka Clarke and the Persistence of Prejudice→
A former member of the Communist Party who could brag of an FBI file over four hundred pages in length that monitored her political activity, Elsie Gilland Fox was a tireless and formidable activist and community builder from Miles City, Montana. Her modest upbringing in rural eastern Montana shaped her sense of economic justice, and Fox spent her life advocating democratic social change to alleviate the inequalities of the capitalist system.
Elsie Gilland was born on a Powder River ranch south of Broadus in 1907. Her parents divorced when she was four, leaving her mother, Marcie, to homestead and raise three young children by herself. Living on the edge of poverty meant that each member of the family had to contribute to the economic production of the homestead, and Elsie recalled planting potatoes and cleaning the chicken coop to help out. From her brother, she also learned how to hunt and fish, and fishing would become her lifelong love: “Whenever I’ve had a real crisis, fishing has brought me out of it,” she said in later years. “It’s being out of doors, the movement of the water, hearing the birds sing. Lots cheaper than a psychiatrist.” Continue reading “May the World Be a Peaceful and Happy Place to Live”: The Lifelong Activism of Elsie Gilland Fox→
In November 1916, Montana voters approved a referendum for the statewide prohibition of alcohol. Montana’s influential and well-organized branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union had led the effort to ban the manufacture and sale of liquor. The passage of the new law, which went into effect at the end of 1918, reflected the growing influence of female reform in Montana. Not all Montana women supported temperance, however, and, ironically, for some women, the ban on liquor created new and lucrative—albeit illegal—economic opportunities.
Although Montanans were pioneers in the Prohibition movement, the law itself did little to curb drinking. Historian Michael Malone pointed out that the “enforcement of the law in wide open and fun-loving Montana proved nearly impossible.” Moreover, the state’s remoteness and abundant supply of wheat created ideal conditions for a thriving bootlegging economy. Although we now imagine bootlegging as a masculine activity dominated by gun-toting gangsters, in fact many women were quick to cash in on the illegal liquor trade. Women around the state manufactured moonshine and operated “home speaks” and roadhouses to supplement the family income. Because it could be done at home in the kitchen, making “hooch” was an especially attractive industry for working-class women hoping to supplement their family incomes and for widows who could not easily work outside the home.
Given the strength of drinking culture in Butte, it is perhaps unsurprising that female bootleggers thrived in that “wide open” mining town. When Butte voters opposed the Prohibition referendum in 1916, one dry advocate had explicitly criticized the city’s women who, she scolded, wouldn’t vote for prohibition “because you want to have beer on your own tables in your own homes.” Continue reading Montana’s Whiskey Women: Female Bootleggers during Prohibition→
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→
Across the frontier West, abandonment, poverty, domestic abuse, and poor education led some women to crime. When women stood accused of serious crimes in all-male courtrooms, gender, race, and social status worked against them. And, once incarcerated, women served their time neglected and forgotten in prisons built for men. The Montana Territorial Penitentiary at Deer Lodge, built in 1871, was no exception.
In 1878, Hispanic prostitute Felicita Sanchez became the first female inmate at Montana’s prison. True to form, her ethnicity, profession, and gender were factors in her three-year sentence for manslaughter. As the warden led her to an empty cell within the men’s cell house, three guards refused to attend a female prisoner and resigned.
A year later, Mary Angeline Drouillard was the second woman sentenced to Deer Lodge. Drouillard sat in the Missoula County jail for a year, awaiting trial for the shooting death of her abusive husband. At twenty-four, she was three times married and twice divorced, a battered woman whose multiple partners implied loose morals. These factors and her French Canadian heritage guaranteed conviction. Although Mary’s young daughter had witnessed the crime and could have corroborated her mother’s story, no one questioned her, and the judge sentenced Drouillard to fifteen years in the penitentiary. Continue reading Biased Justice: Women in Prison→
The legacy of a nineteenth-century Apsáalooke grandmother lives on in the traditions of the Crow people today. Born in 1856, Pretty Shield belonged to the last generation of children raised in an intact Apsáalooke culture. Just thirty years later, the tribe faced the loss of their indigenous identities and cultural heritage as well as their lands. Thus, by the 1920s and 1930s, as she raised her grandchildren, Pretty Shield confronted a twofold challenge: first, to bring them up in the poverty of the early reservation years; second, to instill in them a strong Apsáalooke identity during the era of assimilation. She was well aware of the difficulty—and importance—of her task.
Pretty Shield herself had enjoyed a happy childhood. Her elders taught her how to harvest plants, preserve meat, cook, and sew. They guided her spiritually, educated her, and brought her up according to the traditions of the Apsáalooke worldview. Too soon, these happy years gave way to the destructive forces of American colonization.
In 1872, smallpox killed hundreds of Crow people, including Pretty Shield’s beloved father, Kills in the Night. At the same time, American military campaigns against other Plains tribes threatened all intertribal trade and safety while the extinction of the bison destroyed tribal economies. Reduced to poverty and starvation, tribes were forced to relinquish more and more of their homelands. Between 1851 and 1904, the Crows themselves lost 35 million acres. The U.S. government outlawed indigenous ceremonies, mandated that Native children attend government or mission schools, and sent emissaries of assimilation onto the reservations to enforce American policies. Many Crows converted to Christianity, took up farming, and sent their children to be raised at boarding schools, where their Apsáalooke identity succumbed to white American values and a wholly different relationship to the natural world. Continue reading Pretty Shield’s Success: Raising “Grandmother’s Grandchild”→
On November 3, 1914, Montana men went to the polls, where they voted 53 to 47 percent in favor of women’s suffrage. Along with Nevada, which also passed a suffrage amendment that year, Montana joined nine other western states in extending voting rights to non-Native women. (Indian women would have to wait until passage of the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act to gain the ballot.) Montana suffrage supporters rejoiced, and in 1916 followed up their victory by electing Maggie Smith Hathaway (D) and Emma Ingalls (R) to the state legislature and Jeannette Rankin (R) to the U.S. Congress. In this seeming wave of feminism, May Trumper (R) also became the state superintendent of public instruction.
An air of inevitability surrounded the victory but it had not come easily. Montana women’s rights advocates first proposed equal suffrage twenty-five years earlier at the 1889 state constitutional convention. Fergus County delegate Perry McAdow (R), husband of successful businesswoman and feminist Clara McAdow, championed the cause. He even recruited long-time Massachusetts suffrage proponent Henry Blackwell to address the convention.
Blackwell was an articulate orator, but he did not have the backing of a well-organized, grassroots movement. “There has never been a woman suffrage meeting held in Montana,” he lamented. Nevertheless, Blackwell hoped to convince the delegates to include constitutional language allowing the legislature to grant equal suffrage through a simple majority vote instead of requiring a constitutional amendment. That proposal failed on a tie ballot.
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→