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→
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”→