The turn of the 20th century was a time of intense change for American Indians. Native military resistance to U.S. domination had been vanquished, the population was at its nadir, and the U.S. policy of forced assimilation had produced unprecedented levels of poverty and land loss. By the early 20th century, however, Native people were organizing at the national level to improve conditions on the reservations, and to articulate and assert their political sovereignty. In 1911, they formed the Society of American Indians.
In an era known for its generally progressive political movements, SAI—the first major Native political organization (and the forerunner of today’s National Congress of American Indians)—was composed of many Native intellectuals, not just men but women as well, at a time when their white female counterparts had not yet won the right to vote.
Continuing our series on notable Native women, we look at three turn-of-the-century activists who helped pave the way to a better future for Indian country. All three lived their lives at the crossroads of the old life and the new, as the modern white world demanded change.
Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin
Born in 1863, Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin was Ojibwa from the Turtle Mountain reservation, in what was then Dakota Territory. Her mother was indigenous, and her father was a Frenchman who worked as the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Nation’s attorney and was known to be a fierce advocate for the nation. Marie would follow in her father’s footsteps and become an attorney in 1914.
By then she was living in Washington, DC (she was the first woman of color to graduate from the Washington College of Law), and employed by what was then called the Office of Indian Affairs, where she worked for twenty-five years. She simultaneously helped to found SAI where she served as Secretary-Treasurer in 1915. The American University Washington College of Law to this day offers a scholarship in Marie Bottineau Baldwin’s name.
Angel De Cora
Serving among the women in SAI was Angel De Cora. Not overtly a politician, De Cora brought a different set of skills to her activism. Like Maria Bottineau Baldwin, De Cora was Métis, but with a French mother and a Plains Indian father (Ho-Chunk). She was born at the Ho-Chunk agency in today’s Nebraska in 1871. The granddaughter of a prominent chief, she was raised on the reservation until she was 12 when she was kidnapped and taken to the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia (a historical black college that experimented with Indian education). She became one of the first Native Americans to attend Smith College where she studied art and after graduating from Smith, attended Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry in Philadelphia. As a painter, she was considered an artistic genius.
By 1906, De Cora was teaching Native American art at Carlisle Indian Industrial School. This represented a dramatic shift from previous Carlisle policy (which had prohibited Indian art), as the Native American arts and crafts movement had by then fully blossomed. De Cora traveled extensively, lecturing about Native American art and utilizing it as her platform to work for the progressive causes of SAI.
Susan La Flesche Picotte
While not a member of SAI, Susan La Flesche Picotte was a highly accomplished woman among the Omaha, born into a family of natural leaders. Her father, Joseph La Flesche (Insta Maza, or “Iron Eye”), is considered the last head chief of the Omaha and her brother Francis La Flesche was a prominent member of SAI. Her sister, Suzette La Flesche Tibbles (“Bright Eyes”) was a well-known educator on the lecture circuit of Indian rights activism.
La Flesche Picotte is most famous for being the first female Native American physician. Like Angel De Cora, she attended school at the Hampton Institute. In 1886, she was accepted to the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania where she graduated at the top of her class in 1889. She went back to the reservation where she worked at the government boarding school, and eventually opened a hospital for the Omaha in Walthill, Nebraska. She also supported the new controversial Peyote religion, the Native American Church (then a pro-temperance movement), believing that it could help Indians overcome alcoholism.
Susan La Flesche Picotte was also active in the Indian rights movement, advocating for Native citizenship status and fighting land fraud against the Omaha people. Today’s feminists recognize her as a leader in the early women’s movement, although she would eventually break with white feminist leaders Sara Kinney and anthropologist Alice Cunningham Fletcher over her advocacy for the NAC.