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

Like Father, like Daughter: Women Who Worked for the Northern Pacific Railroad

238WHM Women Taking the Place of Men in Great Falls (National Archives)

During World War I, many women joined the workforce both for the economic opportunity and out of a sense of patriotism. The War Department cataloged this photo of two women working on the Great Northern Railway near Great Falls, c. 1918. National Archives, Records of War Department, General and Special Staffs (165-WW-595-D-14).

When the Northern Pacific Railroad established its Central Division maintenance facility at Livingston, Montana, the town became a magnet for men seeking jobs on operational and maintenance crews. At the start of the twentieth century, one-sixth of the town’s population worked for the railroad. Most of these workers were recent immigrants to the United States. Later, during the two world wars, many of their daughters also found good-paying work with Northern Pacific, one of the few employers in the state that paid women equally to men.

One of the first women employees was Natalina Indendi, who had immigrated to the United States from Italy when she was five years old, in about 1905. Her father had emigrated three years earlier, but the rest of the family originally were denied passage because her brother was blind in one eye. When they were finally permitted to leave Italy, they went straight from the emigration office to the boat without a single piece of luggage. “We were supposed to meet Dad in Chicago. . . . [But] the day we landed in New York he took off for Montana, because they were building up a crew [to extend a railway line from Livingston] to Wilsall.” Natalina’s mother found a job in a garment factory in Chicago. As soon as he could, her father sent money, and the family moved to Livingston. Continue reading

More Than Just a Happy Housewife: Home Demonstration Clubs in Post-World War II Montana

Members of the Fort Peck Friendly Homemakers Club prepare to serve food at a fund-raiser for a children’s Christmas party, circa 1948. Early clubs on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation were segregated by race, but the Extension Office worked to integrate clubs in the 1960s.

Members of the Fort Peck Friendly Homemakers Club prepare to serve food at a fund-raiser for a children’s Christmas party, circa 1948. Early clubs on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation were segregated by race, but the Extension Office worked to integrate clubs in the 1960s. Roosevelt County Extension Service, “Annual Report of Cooperative Extension Work, 1949.” 22.

Home Demonstration clubs—also known as Homemakers clubs—were created in 1914 as part of the Cooperative Extension Service in Agriculture and Home Economics. Their goal was to bring “expert” instruction on the subjects of home economics and agriculture to rural women. Originally intended to “uplift” rural women through professional instruction, Home Demonstration clubs became a way for Montana women to socialize and learn from one another and to serve their communities. While the clubs attempted to reinforce conservative domestic values, the experiences of Home Demonstration clubwomen in the post-World War II era suggest that farm women adapted them to their own ends.

At their inception, Homemakers clubs reflected a Progressive-era faith that expertise and government intervention could improve American society. Targeting women who were unable to attend college, Home Demonstration agents instructed women in “scientific” methods of child rearing, food preservation, cooking, consumerism, nutrition, women’s and family health, and home and farm management. Department of Agriculture employee Mary E. Creswell expressed optimism that proper instruction would improve the lives—and character—of rural women: “With increased opportunity for training, . . . and with the opportunity for permanent service in her county, the work of the county woman agent will continue to be the most potent influence for progressive and happy country homes.”

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Faith Inspired Early Health Care

Beginning with the arrival of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth in 1869, women religious played a vital role in providing health care for Montanans. Here Sister Camille (near instrument stand) and Sister St. Charles assist Doctors (left to right) Thomas H. Pleasants, Fred Attix, and Joseph Brice with a 1909 surgery at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Lewistown. MHS Photo Archives 949-002

Beginning with the arrival of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth in 1869, women religious played a vital role in providing health care for Montanans. Here Sister Camille (near instrument stand) and Sister St. Charles assist Doctors (left to right) Thomas H. Pleasants, Fred Attix, and Joseph Brice with a 1909 surgery at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Lewistown. MHS Photo Archives 949-002

Catholic sisters and Protestant deaconesses established and refined health care in Montana. These dedicated women brought better medical care to the sick and played important roles in the evolution of nursing in the state.

The first five Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, Kansas came by stagecoach to Helena in 1869. Within a year, they established St. John’s Hospital, the first Catholic hospital in the territory. These sisters were Montana’s first trained nurses.

The sisters began canvassing Montana’s remote camps on horseback, begging funds to establish a hospital in Deer Lodge. St. Joseph’s saw its first patients in 1873 and went on to serve Deer Lodge for ninety years. Among other acts of service, the sisters tended the wounded after the Battle of the Big Hole in 1877. They cared for casualties among both soldiers and Nez Perce at the battlefield before returning to Deer Lodge with their patients under terrible conditions; once at the hospital, the sisters found maggots infesting the combatants’ wounds.

Three more sisters traveled from Leavenworth in 1875 to Virginia City to open St. Mary’s Hospital. One of them, Sister Irene McGrath, was a young novice barely eighteen. By 1879, the mining camp had dwindled and patients were few. The sisters were never meant to be ornamental, and so they moved on.  Continue reading