Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Virginia Howard Billedeaux, 1870-1950
By Dee Garceau, professor, Rhodes College
In September of 1914, The Suffrage Daily News of Montana interviewed Virginia Billedeaux, a member of the Amskapi Pikuni tribe, also known as southern Piegans, or Montana Blackfeet. The reporter asked whether women in Indian country supported suffrage. "Yes," said Billedeaux, "Nearly every Indian woman thinks that she ought to have a right to help make the laws as well as the men." Intersectionality was central to Billedeaux's activism; moved by the traumas of colonialism and systemic racism, she transformed these stresses into the goal of empowering Blackfeet people through votes and office-holding.
In 1880, at age 10, Virginia Howard worked as a live-in servant in the home of a middle-class Irish couple in Helena, Montana. Boarding out children as servants was one strategy that impoverished parents sometimes used, to make sure their child had adequate food and shelter. It is possible that Virginia Howard's parents faced a lean year, and found work and board for Virginia to spare her from hunger. The bison economy had collapsed, and there was little paid work to be found on the reservation.
In 1883, the Amskapi Pikunis had been confined to a reservation just ten years, and the bison were fast disappearing. Blackfeet oral tradition holds that the last buffalo bull was shot in the fall of 1883, alone in a gully near the medicine line. By all accounts, the winter that followed was brutal. Deep snow, gale winds, and sub-zero temperatures froze the northern plains for eight months straight. Animals drifted south to escape the bitter weather, leaving Blackfeet families unable to fill their larders with game. At the same time, rations owed to the Blackfeet people for land ceded to the United States government failed to come through. Blackfeet elders refer to it as the "Starvation Winter," for nearly 25 percent of the Amskapi Pikunis starved to death. Virginia Howard was thirteen years old during the Starvation Winter, old enough to remember such a searing experience. She saw that the federal policy of Indian removal and confinement on reservations, combined with bureaucratic incompetence and anti-Indian racism made a lethal combination that cost 1 out of 4 Blackfeet their lives. For the rest of her life, Virginia Howard Billdedeaux never forgot the Starvation Winter.
After marrying rancher Edward Billedeaux in 1888, Virginia Billedeaux moved with him to the Blackfeet Reservation, where they responded to federal efforts to promote cattle ranching. Cattle promised a replacement for the old bison economy, and good horsemanship had become a Blackfeet tradition. So Billedeaux and her husband raised cattle and horses. The horses brought cash income, and the cattle, meat—a hedge against starvation. But Billedeaux saw that making ends meet was not enough. For security against federal meddling and corrupt reservation administrators, the Blackfeet people needed political capital—votes—to shape the policies that affected them. Thus in 1914, Billedeaux told The Suffrage Daily News, "Most of our children are educated and hold property and must obey the laws—so why not learn to be citizens?" Billedeaux's drive to empower a new generation of Blackfeet voters reflected her own keen awareness that political voice was necessary for both physical and cultural survival.
Although Montana legislated women's suffrage in 1914, indigenous people in Montana would not gain voting rights until 1924 when Congress granted citizenship to all Native Americans within the United States. Within Montana, voting law required that one be a U.S. citizen and a tax-paying property-owner. At first, Native Americans on Montana reservations fit neither criteria. However, under federal law, the potential was there for Indian citizenship and voting. In 1887, Congress passed the Dawes Severalty Act, which divided tribal lands held in common into individual allotments. The federal government would hold each allotment in trust for 25 years, ostensibly to protect Native allottees from greedy land speculators. After 25 years, an allottee could get legal title to their allotment, claim U.S. citizenship, and pay taxes. In Montana, this would make them eligible to vote. From 1906 to 1921, Congress passed a series of amendments to the Dawes Act, shortening the trust period for allottees who demonstrated "competency," such as residing on their allotment, farming it, holding a wage job, attending boarding school, or having half-white ancestry. The catch-22 was that citizen Indians who failed to pay taxes on their allotment lost their property, which in turn, disqualified them from voting. Many who sustained their households with a family economy of ranching, hunting, farming, harvesting wild plants, trade, and home industry were cash poor, and could not make tax payments on their land. And so land loss continued apace, and disfranchisement persisted.
Cole, Judith. "A Wide Field for Usefulness: Women's Civil Status and the Evolution of Woman's Suffrage," American Journal of Legal History 34:3 (Fall 1990): 287-302.
Ege, Robert. Blackfeet Heritage, 1907-08: Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Browning, Montana (Great Falls, MT: Blackfeet Heritage Program, 1969).
Farr, William. The Reservation Blackfeet: A Photographic History of Cultural Survival (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987).
Hoxie, Frederick. A Final Promise; The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, 1880-1920 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001).
Hungry Wolf, Beverly. The Ways of My Grandmothers (New York: Harper Collins, 1982).
"Indian Suffragette," Suffrage Daily News (Helena, Montana), September 24, 1914, p. 4.
Jackson, John C. The Piikani Blackfeet: A Culture Under Seige (Missoula, MT: Mountain Press, 2000).