The Right to Procreate: The Montana State Board of Eugenics and Body Politics

Catalog #PAc 95-39.20

The Board of Eugenics approved over two hundred sterilizations at the State Hospital for the Insane at Warms Springs. This photo shows the hospital’s administration building in 1938. Photo courtesy MHS PAc 95-39.20.

In 1924, headlines across the state decried the “butchery of the helpless” at the Montana State Hospital for the Insane at Warm Springs, where eleven inmates were forcibly sterilized. Hospital staff responded that all sterilizations had received the required approval and that eugenics was “necessary to the future welfare of Montana.” Eugenics—the idea that “human perfection could be developed through selective breeding”—grew in popularity in the early twentieth century, including support for forced sterilization. The movement reached its zenith in Montana in the early 1930s, and, despite growing concerns, the practice of forced sterilizations continued into the 1970s.

Montanans’ support for forced sterilization was part of a national trend. Eugenics proponent Albert E. Wiggam, a national lecturer and trained psychologist, helped spread the eugenics gospel in Montana through a column in the Missoulian. “Already we are taxing ourselves for asylums and hospitals and jails to take care of millions who ought never to have been born,” Wiggam wrote. Many Montanans agreed, including the Helena mother who wrote the state hospital in 1924 in support of sterilization polices. “I am a tax payer. That means I wish there was no insane, no feeble minded, and no criminals to support and to fear. . . . The very fact that these people are inmates of state institutions proves that they are morally or mentally unfit to propagate their kind.” Continue reading

Gifts of Love and Gratitude: Belle Highwalking

222WHM B&W portfolio Belle Highwalking

Pictured here in her late seventies, Belle Highwalking lived most of her life on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. She died October 30, 1971. Courtesy Jerry Mader, Photographer.

Pictured here in her late seventies, Belle Highwalking lived most of her life on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. She died October 30, 1971. Courtesy Jerry Mader, Photographer.

A custom among many tribes, the giveaway—and the love and gratitude it represents—strengthens social bonds through reciprocal acts of generosity. Similarly, the tribal tradition of adoption to replace lost family members helps heal broken hearts and builds family ties. These culturally prescribed acts of generosity and love were central to the life of Belle Highwalking, a Northern Cheyenne woman.

Belle’s mother died giving birth to her in 1892. The Cheyennes pitied the motherless child and considered Belle poor, for a mother provided material and emotional sustenance. Belle’s grandmother took the infant to nursing mothers to be fed until Belle was able to drink milk from a can.

As a young girl, Belle traveled on horseback with her grandmother to visit relatives on the Crow Reservation, where she recalled first experiencing a giveaway: “They gave us many fine gifts. . . .  They sang songs for the different Cheyennes and gave out the gifts—shawls, quilts and dress goods. Some received horses. . . . When I arrived home, an old man, Braided Locks, gave me a beautiful shawl. He said, ‘My granddaughter helped me drive the horses very well and I will give her a shawl that I received as a gift.’”

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A Young Mother at the Rosebud and Little Bighorn Battles

This drawing, from the Spotted Wolf-Yellow Nose Ledger, shows Buffalo Calf Road Woman rescuing her brother through a hail of bullets. Buffalo Calf Road Woman wears an elk tooth dress. Her brother, Comes in Sight, wears a war bonnet. According to the book We, The Northern Cheyenne People, the horse’s split ears indicates that it is a fast one. Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives, Bureau of American Ethnology, ms. 166.032

This drawing, from the Spotted Wolf-Yellow Nose Ledger, shows Buffalo Calf Road Woman rescuing her brother through a hail of bullets. Buffalo Calf Road Woman wears an elk tooth dress. Her brother, Comes in Sight, wears a war bonnet. According to the book We, The Northern Cheyenne People, the horse’s split ears indicates that it is a fast one. Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives, Bureau of American Ethnology, ms. 166.032.

In 1876, the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho people defended their sovereignty, their land, and their lives against the United States. The Rosebud and Little Bighorn battles proved the tribes’ military strength but ultimately contributed to tragic consequences for the victors. A young Cheyenne mother, Buffalo Calf Road Woman, fought alongside her brother and husband at both battles in defense of Cheyenne freedom.

Buffalo Calf Road Woman lived during the Indian wars, an era of extreme violence against the Native inhabitants of the West. American settlers frequently trespassed onto tribal lands, and tribes retaliated by raiding settler camps. Several brutal massacres of peaceful tribal groups by whites led to widespread fear among the tribes and shocked the American public. Such violence increased tensions in the region.

After Lakota chief Red Cloud decisively defeated the U.S. military in 1864 to close the Bozeman Trail, the United States negotiated a peace treaty with the Lakotas. The 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty established the Great Sioux Nation, a huge reservation encompassing present-day western South Dakota, and designated the unceded lands between the Black Hills and the Bighorn Mountains, including the Powder River country, for the Indians’ “absolute and undisturbed use.” Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho bands also occupied this region. Continue reading