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.
The post-World War II era was a precarious time for American Indian tribes. In 1953, the Eisenhower administration resurrected nineteenth-century assimilationist goals by enacting a policy to terminate tribal sovereignty. Euphemistically called “liberation,” Termination severed federal-tribal relations, ended trust status for Indian lands, and withdrew all federal services previously guaranteed in treaties. The policy’s blatant dismissal of tribal sovereignty and treaty rights galvanized emergent multitribal advocacy coalitions like the NCAI and the Affiliated Tribes.
The Flathead Reservation was one of the first reservations slated for Termination, but the Indian Bureau faced strong opposition from Montanans. As secretary for both the MIPB and the NCAI, Beazley urged Montana’s legislature and its congressional representatives to unite against Termination. Kept abreast of tribes’ concerns by Beazley and the MIPB, Rep. Lee Metcalf exposed Termination as a “land-grab” aimed at divesting tribes of their natural resources, such as hydroelectric power, oil, gas, and uranium.
With high unemployment and virtually no industry, most western tribes were already extremely impoverished. Energy companies took advantage of the Indians’ vulnerability. In Montana alone, Indian landowners lost over 1.5 million acres between 1953 and 1958—even without Termination. Beazley realized that accelerating land loss through Termination would only exacerbate Indians’ poverty. “Nobody will believe us about the starving and the pressure to sell our lands,” testified a Rocky Boy tribal member before a congressional committee in 1957. “Is it necessary that we sell out to get the services that the Federal government bargained with in the treaty days?”
Those federal services, promised in exchange for the lands ceded by tribes in treaties, included food, education, and assistance with economic development. Beazley pressed the government to fulfill its treaty obligations and advocated for both long-term economic development assistance and short-term aid.
As a voice for Montana’s tribes, she often interceded on their behalf. When overall unemployment in Montana reached 16 percent in 1958, it stood at 84 percent on the Blackfeet Reservation. “Their people are without food and without transportation,” Beazley reported while petitioning the government to provide surplus food to Montana’s Indians. Despite support from the Farmers’ Union, the Railroad Commission, and the AFL-CIO, tribes were denied surplus commodities year after year.
In December 1963, schools on the Blackfeet Reservation withheld lunches from children of less than one-quarter Indian ancestry, even though these lunches were often the children’s only sustenance. Parents turned to the tribal council, only to be denied assistance. A tribal member wrote to Beazley for help, saying, “Poor people were begging for money or purchase orders to get food for their children. The councilmen took off, leaving the poor needy people behind. . . . We have gone through all the proper channels, but we need help. The Blackfeet Indians are starving.”
Beazley and Montana’s Coordinator for Indian Affairs, Knute Bergan, discovered that Congress had delayed sending federal impact aid that should have subsidized the lunches. Furthermore, Blackfeet tribal funds were depleted. Beazley and Bergan contacted Montana’s congressmen to appropriate the overdue impact aid. Their intervention was successful, but ever-deepening tribal poverty remained a pressing issue.
Working with the NCAI in the early 1960s, Beazley helped draft specific measures aimed at improving conditions on the reservations and ensured their incorporation into President Johnson’s War on Poverty legislation. Most notably, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 benefited American Indian communities by enabling tribes, for the first time, to develop and operate their own federally funded programs, independent of the Interior Department.
Because of Beazley’s experience with governmental programs, Gov. Tim Babcock appointed her administrative assistant to the state’s War on Poverty office in 1965, and a year later, made her the Rural and Indian Programs coordinator for Montana’s Office of Economic Opportunity. Beazley helped teach tribal representatives how to apply for OEO grants and how to implement OEO programs—such as VISTA, full-day Head Start, Job Corps, Upward Bound, and Community Action Programs. In 1966, Beazley gave the commencement address to Montana’s first class of Upward Bound graduates.
Beazley frequently addressed civic and religious organizations about women’s rights, civil rights, and Indian affairs. A member of the League of Women Voters, a Democratic congressional committeewoman, and a feminist, she passionately believed that women had to be actively engaged in politics and economics. In 1966, she was elected the first woman vice-president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, an organization working to protect treaty rights. That same year President Johnson named Freda Beazley among America’s “Forty Outstanding Women” for her dedication to fighting poverty and inequality.
In 1970, Freda Beazley and the Indian affairs organizations she served celebrated a victory they helped bring about when President Nixon officially ended Termination and pledged support for Indians’ self-determination through tribal autonomy. Beazley continued to demonstrate her dedication to Indians’ well-being, civil rights, and women’s equality for the remainder of her career. She died in Helena in 1982, just shy of seventy-five years of age. LKF
Like this essay? You may also enjoy reading about these twentieth-century Montana Indian women activists and politicians: Lucille Otter, Dolly Cusker Akers, and Julia Ereaux Schultz.
“Affiliated Tribes Take Stand against Bill.” Daily Inter Lake, January 26, 1967, 11.
“Anti-Poverty Plan Aimed at Indians.” Billings Gazette, January 22, 1966, 6.
Arsenian, Victoriah. “Remembering the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians.” Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians. http://www.atniedc.com/atni-edc%20history.htm Accessed February 14, 2014.
Bohn, Dorothy. “Liberating the Indian: Euphemism for a Land Grab.” The Nation, February 20, 1954, 150-51.
Clarkin, Thomas. Federal Indian Policy in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, 1961 – 1969. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001.
Freda A. Beazley collection. MC 187, Montana Historical Society Archives. Helena, Montana.
“Freda Beasley Named to High Tribal Post.” Helena Independent Record, October 3, 1965, 25.
“Metcalf, Murray Criticize Treatment of Indians by GOP Administration.” Great Falls Tribune, December 4, 1958, n.p. Community Council of Cascade County, Vertical File. Montana Historical Society Research Archives, Helena, Montana.
National Congress of American Indians. http://www.ncai.org/about-ncai/mission-history Accessed February 20, 2014.
Office of Economic Opportunity. Wikipedia entry. Accessed May 2, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Office_of_Economic_Opportunity
Scott, Patricia. “Senate Action on Knowles under Attack.” Daily Interlake. July 13, 1963, 1, 2.