“A Right to Help Make the Laws”: Helen Piotopowaka Clarke, Virginia Billedeaux, and Blackfeet Empowerment

19 November 2019

In September 1914, the Suffrage Daily News of Montana interviewed Blackfeet activist Virginia Billedeaux, asking whether women in Indian country supported suffrage. Billedeaux replied, “Yes, nearly every Indian woman thinks that she ought to have a right to help make the laws as well as the men.” Billedeaux and her contemporary, Helen Piotopowaka Clarke, were Amskapi Pikuni, also known today as Montana Blackfeet. In most histories of suffrage on the Northern Great Plains, American Indian women remain invisible. But recent research reveals their participation in the sea change we call the women’s rights movement. If you survey newspapers from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, their names will emerge: Katie Yarlott Stewart (Crow); Daisy Norris (Blackfeet); and of course, Virginia Howard Billedeaux and Helen Piotopowaka Clarke (Blackfeet).

American Indian women like Billedeaux and Clarke, however, supported suffrage for reasons markedly different from those of Euro-American feminists. Billedeaux and Clarke’s priority was the political empowerment of Blackfeet people. Both activists came of age as settler colonialism wreaked havoc on Blackfeet lives. They saw the United States government confine the Amskapi Pikuni to a reservation, where continued dispossession, starvation, and violence plagued the survivors of the Plains Indian wars. In addition, a disparaging discourse about mixed-blood people and intermarriage emerged at the turn of the century that persisted well into the mid-twentieth century.

Clarke and Billedeaux knew that without a political voice, the Blackfeet people could not protect their interests. They saw suffrage as one of several paths to Blackfeet empowerment. Property ownership, ranching, and lobbying state legislators also became ways to protect Blackfeet livelihoods and rights. While Billedeaux promoted votes for women, Clarke ran for public office and later worked tirelessly behind the scenes as an advocate for the Amskapi Pikuni. Their stories reveal both the persistence of the Amskapi Pikuni against great odds and the flexibility of American Indian cultures to meet modernity with new strategies for the protection and well-being of their people.

Dee Garceau


The full version of this essay appears in Equality at the Ballot Box: Votes for Women on the Northern Great Plains. Dee Garceau is a historian and documentary filmmaker who specializes in American Indian history of the Northern Great Plains as well as selected topics in western gender history. After twenty-two years at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, where she earned the rank of full professor, Garceau now works as an adjunct professor at the University of Montana, Missoula.

The image at top is of Helen Piotopowaka Clarke, c. 1910. Montana Historical Society Research Center