Biographical Sketch of Helen Piotopowaka Clarke

Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Helen Piotopowaka Clarke, 1846-1923

By Dee Garceau, professor Rhodes College

Actress, educator, allotment agent

Blackfeet activist Helen Piotopowaka Clarke saw the utility of votes and office-holding for the Amskapi Pikuni, or southern Piegans. Born in 1846 to an Amskapi Pikuni mother and a Scottish father who traded with the Blackfeet, Clarke grew up on a prosperous ranch in the Prickly Pear Valley outside Helena. In 1869, Clarke witnessed her father's murder at the hands of a small faction of Blackfeet led by Pete Owl Child. Owl Child's grievances stemmed from white authorities' unjust execution of his nephew for horse theft, though the youth was innocent. Owl Child blamed Helen's father, Malcolm Clarke, for colluding in that injustice. To avenge the murder of Malcolm Clarke, federal troops attacked the wrong band of Blackfeet, in the infamous Baker Massacre. On a frigid January morning in 1870, soldiers gunned down Heavy Runner's band, who had nothing to do with Owl Child, and nothing to do with the murder of Malcolm Clarke. Like the hasty execution of Owl Child's wrongly accused nephew, the massacre of Heavy Runner's band revealed a profound devaluation of Blackfeet people's lives at the hands of Euro-American authorities. Helen Clarke was so traumatized by these events that she fled to relatives in Minnesota.

In the urban Midwest, Clarke attended Catholic schools, where she learned composition, argument, and elocution, skills that would serve her well in politics. She went on to train as an actor, joined a Shakespearean theater company, and performed in New York, London, Paris, and Berlin, earning high praise for her role as Lady Macbeth. But Clarke could not forget who she was; the traumas visited upon the Amskapi Pikuni burned in her memory. "I was too much of self to become great [as an actor]," she reflected, "I could not forget I was Helen Clarke and become some being of imagination."

In 1875, Clarke returned to Montana and the solace of visits with her father's good friends, the Fisk-Sanders clan. Wilbur Fisk Sanders, a wealthy white legislator, mentored Helen Clarke, helping her secure a teaching job, and encouraging her to run for office. In 1882, Helen Clarke ran for School Superintendent of Lewis & Clark County, won, and was re-elected in 1884 and 1886. As an educator, Clarke emphasized the value of teaching students—white and Native, male and female—composition and elocution, so that they could enter public life and argue their views persuasively.

After a brief stint during the early 1890s as a liaison between federal officials and Oklahoma tribes to promote the Dawes Allotment Act, Clarke returned to Montana. Her Blackfeet name, Piotopowaka, translates to The Bird That Comes Home. She moved to the Blackfeet Reservation, operated a ranch with her brother Horace, and refocused her energies on advocacy for her mother's people, the Amskapi Pikuni. In 1903-1904, Clarke led a drive to remove the reservation Superintendent, William Monteath, who extorted cooperation with the allotment program by withholding rations from Blackfeet families. Monteath had slashed the ration rolls from more than 2,000 names to fewer than 100. By 1906, Helen Clarke's advocacy bore fruit; Monteath was removed from his post. In another example of Clarke's political advocacy, she lobbied Senator Sanders for equal pay for Blackfeet workers on the Cutbank irrigation project.

As a bilingual, mixed-blood woman, Clarke moved fluently in both white and Blackfeet cultures. But educated white society in Helena, despite Senator Sanders's example, rejected Clarke as an equal. Single, intelligent, vivacious, and beautiful, Helen Clarke drew the attention of eligible white men in the Fisk-Sanders orbit, but none would consider her for marriage. Clarke lost patience with white racial biases regarding mixed-blood peoples. As one biographer told it, "she did not want to be pitied or patronized by people who were no better than she." During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, white Montanans accepted the social segregation and subordination of Native and mixed-blood women uncritically. Clarke, herself adept at connecting with people of different cultures, had to navigate the racist biases of educated whites.

Helen Piotopowaka Clarke's journey toward political activism grew out of traumatic experiences resulting from settler colonialism. Clarke grieved the execution of Owl Child's nephew, her father's murder, and the unjust massacre of Heavy Runner's band. Clarke saw continued dispossession of the Amskapi Pikuni, in the form of increasing settler controls over Blackfeet rangelands, water, and timber. She saw engagement with the American political system as a pragmatic strategy. In her efforts to empower the Blackfeet, Clarke chose multiple, related paths, including woman suffrage, office-holding, and lobbying. Unlike Euro-American woman's rights advocates in Montana, Clarke was not preoccupied with gender discrimination. Rather, she wanted to outfit Blackfeet people with the rights, knowledge, and political skills necessary to protect themselves from colonial exploitation, racist discourse, and economic disaster.

Sources:

Peterson, Nancy Mayborn. People of the Old Missury; Years of Conflict (Frederick, CO: Renaissance House, n.d.): 83. Xerox copy, Montana Historical Society, Helen Clarke papers, SC1153, Vertical File.

Turvey, Joyce Clark. "Helen Piotopowaka Clarke," History of Glacier County (MSS, Montana Historical Society, Helen P. Clarke papers, SC1153, Vertical File): 87.

Additional Reading:

Graybill, Andrew. The Red and the White; A Family Saga of the American West (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013).

Hoxie, Frederick. A Final Promise; The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, 1880-1920 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001).

Jackson, John C. The Piikani Blackfeet: A Culture Under Seige (Missoula, MT: Mountain Press, 2000).

Hungry Wolf, Beverly. The Ways of My Grandmothers (New York: Harper Collins, 1982).

"Women's Suffrage," My Montana (Helena, MT: Montana Historical Society, Nov. 9, 2014).

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