Freda Augusta Beazley and the Rise of American Indian Political Power

Freda Beazley strides into a meeting holding a folder titled "Welcome Delegates. 15th Annual Convention, National Congress of American Indians.

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. MHS Photo Archives Lot 31 B5/13.02

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.

Continue reading

“I am a very necessary evil”: The Political Career of Dolly Smith Cusker Akers

Dolly Cusker Akers, 1933

Elected to the Montana House of Representatives in 1932, with almost 100 percent of the vote, Dolly Cusker Akers was the first Native American to serve in the Montana legislature and the only woman to serve during her two-year term. She was also the first woman to serve on the Fort Peck Tribal Executive Board. Legislative Collection, MHS Photo Archives.

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.

Continue reading