Marie Bottineau Baldwin was one of the first Native American women to become a force in federal politics for her people. She was born in 1863 to the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa/Ojibwe in North Dakota. As such, she crossed between two worlds: countries (Canada and the U.S.), cultures, and centuries. She lived at a time when all women had to fight for their rights, but women of color had to fight two battles.
Early in her career she believed that assimilation into white man’s culture was the best path to success for her people. That changed over time. For her government personnel photo, she famously posed in her Native Dress, a radical choice for the time.
By the turn of the century Native people organized to assert political sovereignty and improve conditions on reservations. The Society of American Indians (SAI) was the first major Native political organization. According to American Indian Today, it 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.”
Marie Bottineau Baldwin was one of those women.
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Of mixed (métis) background, she was born in Pembina, North Dakota December 14, 1863. Her mother was Chippewa and her father was French-Chippewa. Her grandfather was Pierre Bottineau, a French immigrant and renowned voyageur who was a fur trapper across northern North America’s remote waterways. Her grandmother was a Chippewa woman named Clear Sky.
Her father, Jean-Baptiste Bottineau, was an attorney for the Chippewa Nation whose land rights were decimated by unfair treaties.
Early in her education, Marie Bottineau Baldwin attended school in Minneapolis, St. Paul and St. John’s Ladies College in Winnipeg, Manitoba Canada. When she returned home to Minneapolis she worked as a clerk in her father’s law firm.
Between 1882 and 1904, the Chippewa tribe was involved in a long dispute with the U.S. government over land claims in the former Chippewa lands. Her father met with several tribal leaders who entrusted him with the task of representing their interests in Washington, D.C.
In the early 1890s Bottineau Baldwin and her father moved to Washington D.C. to better fight for tribal rights. There they became part of an established intertribal political community of Native Americans who worked mostly as federal employees in the nation’s capital.
As her father’s clerk, Baldwin performed higher level duties than the usual tasks. She consulted with tribal leaders, organized lawsuits and collected Congressional testimony.
Negotiations between the U.S. government and the Chippewa reached tragic end in 1904. Congressional action imposed final settlements upon Chippewa claimants which drastically eroded their land and rights. According to Indian Country Today.com
“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.”
In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Marie Bottineau Baldwin to the Office of Indian Affairs (OIA). It was an agency within the Department of the Interior and the forerunner of today’s National Congress of American Indians.
According to nps.gov, She made an annual salary of $900 with a raise to $1,000 in the first year. Although her salary was lower than the typical $1,000 to $1,800 other clerks received, she was the highest paid Indigenous female in the agency.
At the time it was expected that Native American employees would encourage their people to assimilate to the norms of white society. Having lived and worked in Washington society for many years, she often dressed in the highest turn-of-the-century fashion, such as the portrait of her in a silk dress with her hair piled on her head and clipped with a feather decoration.
But In 1911, Baldwin chose to be photographed in traditional dress with her hair in braids for her personnel file photo for the Office of Indian Affairs. This simple photograph was a radical act for its time, when she would have been expected to assimilate into white American culture.
According to Cathleen D. Cahill in studies in American Indian Literatures: Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin: Indigenizing the Federal Indian Service
“The portrait hints at the important themes and tensions in Baldwin’s life. She served as an employee in the Office of Indian Affairs (OIA) for twenty-eight years, yet she became an active member of the Society of American Indians (SAI), an organization that often criticized the OIA. She was an urban, professional, and cosmopolitan Indigenous woman who also celebrated and collected Native women’s traditional art.”
Her father died in 1911, the year, she gave a speech at the first meeting of the Society of American Indians. She became nationally known as a spokesperson for modern Indian people. She testified before Congress and met with President Woodrow Wilson in the White House in 1914.
Bottineau Baldwin worked with women across the United States to expand opportunities for Native Americans and to safeguard their cultures. Among them was Zitkala-Sa, writer, editor, translator, musician, educator, and political activist who asserted Indian suffrage.
Sexism and racism were tightly interwoven in the movement for women’s right to vote. Legions of women had fought for decades. Among them, Annie Peck and other mountaineers had famously planted banners atop mountain peaks. Victoria Woodhull had become a famous orator and made a run for the presidency in 1872. Nellie Bly covered the suffragists for the New York World newspaper and Paula Hopkins passionately demanded equal rights as writer and editor of The Colored American magazine.
In 1913, suffragists led by Alice Paul planned a march of thousands of women demanding their right to vote. It was designed to upset Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration on Washington D.C.’s Pennsylvania Avenue.
Initially, Paul had invited Black women from Washington DC to join in the parade. Many were members of Howard University’s Delta Sigma Theta sorority. But white southern women had threatened to pull out. Alice Paul stated that the parade was to be “a purely suffrage demonstration entirely uncomplicated by any other problems such as racial ones”.
About two-dozen Black American women marched that day. Most were local residents of Washington. Among them were Ida Wells, Washington power broker Mary Church Terrell and famed sculptor May Howard Jackson.
Bottineau Baldwin marched with other female lawyers. Aggression and disrespect for the marchers sparked the Committee on the District of Columbia to investigate the police’s handling of the event.
Bottineau Baldwin enrolled at Washington College of Law in 1912 at the age of 49. At that time, female lawyers, let alone those of Native American background, were very rare. Women’s rights activists started the school to expand professional opportunities for women. She completed the three-year course of study in two years as the school’s first Native American graduate.
Louise Seymour Houghton in Our Debt to the Red Man: The French-Indians in the Development of the United States noted of Baldwin:
“Side by side with men fresh from college she competed for honors. Everyone knew her as the Indian woman whose wits were keen and whose mind was just a little bit more capable than the rest. Indian capacity was on trial, and Mrs. Baldwin, as a loyal Chippewa, a loyal Indian, finished her course with honor, proudly, but none too proudly.”
The American University Washington College of Law to this day offers a scholarship in Marie Bottineau Baldwin’s name.
According to nps.gov:
“Changing politics and priorities within the OAI led to Marie disengaging from the group in 1918 or 1919. She continued to work for the Indian Office in Washington, DC until 1932, when she retired for health reasons.”
She died in Los Angeles in 1952.
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