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Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin

Kathryn S Gardiner | Published on 6/11/2021

Forgotten Foremothers

Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights

When, as a 49-year-old woman, Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin began her studies at Washington College of Law, she knew well the tight rope she walked as an Indigenous woman in a white-dominant culture. An author of the day, Louis Seymour Houghton, in her book titled Our Debt to the Red Man: The French-Indians in the Development of the United States, wrote, “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.”

This rather patronizing tone, even from supporters, was just one of the crucibles within which Marie lived and worked during her lifetime. 

Marie was born in 1863 in Pembina, North Dakota, a mixed-race—or metis—child. Of her lineage we know her grandfather was Pierre Bottineau, a French immigrant turned Minnesota frontiersman. Records of Marie’s grandmother conflict, with some sources naming Genevieve “Jennie” LaRence (or Larance) and others a woman of the Chippewa tribe named Margaret Clear Sky. Regardless of this inconsistency, it is undisputed that the French line of the family joined with the Chippewa when her grandfather immigrated to the United States.

US Govt Photo

Marie’s father, John (or Jean-Baptiste or “J.B.”) Bottineau identified as Chippewa and worked as a lawyer and advocate for the Chippewa/Ojibway Nation. His obituary calls him, “Jean Baptiste Bottineau (Boutineau), a French-Chippewa, mixed blood, successful fur-trader, surveyor, real estate broker, lawyer, justice of the peace.” Marie’s mother was Marguerite Renville, of whom we know very little, beyond the three children born of the union—Marie Louise, and her sisters Lillian Ann and Alvina Clementa. (Alvina, unfortunately, died in infancy.)

Marie’s childhood studies took her to schools in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and across the border to St. John’s Ladies College, a Roman Catholic institution in Winnipeg, Manitoba Canada. The rule of the day for Indigenous people was assimilation. Residential schools, like those attended by Sioux Dakota author and activist Zitkála-Šá in the 1880s, punished Native American children for speaking their own languages, forcibly cut their long hair, and confiscated their tribal clothing. 

Marie was never far from this fight, nor from the reality of unequal negotiations between the United States government and the various tribes whose lands it claimed. After her studies and at the end of her teen years, she began working as a clerk in her father’s law office in Minneapolis. It was during this time that the Chippewa nation began a heated dispute with the government over land. This dispute would span 22 years, from 1882 to 1904—from Marie’s early 20s until she was in her 40s—and Marie and her father were at the front of it. They met with tribal leaders to understand and attempt to communicate their position to the government representatives. In the 1890s, Marie relocated with her father to Washington, D.C. to continue the effort to bring Native concerns to the political ears of those who would hear them.

Some major issues in contention were whether the Chippewa, Pembina, and other plains tribes in the area had any legal right to the land in question, especially as they had been forced onto it so recently, and also, since so many of the tribe were mixed race, like Marie, with at least one French or Canadian relative, could they truly be considered Indigenous at all? 

This land dispute was, like so many others between Indigenous communities and the United States, riddled with bad faith actions on the part of the government. The Turtle Mountain Chippewa Reservation in North Dakota had been created in 1882 and encompassed 500,000 acres. Without warning, however, the U.S. government reduced that to 476,000 acres just two years later, entirely eliminating two inhabited townships. Even as Marie and her father worked to settle this dispute favorably, the U.S. government continued to winnow down the reservation. By 1892, the Chippewa had been excised from their own land and pushed onto just 34,000 acres, their already diminished network of 22 townships reduced to just two. Today, the reservation is six miles by 12 miles, and is one of the most densely populated reservations in the country.

The dispute was settled, such as it was, in 1904, with the official court record noting, “The Turtle Mountain Band, the Pembina Band, and the Government are each dissatisfied with one or another aspect of the Commission’s rulings.” This ruling, and others like it, are certainly not viewed as victories by the Indigenous populations. A column in Indian Country Today says of this time in history, “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.”

Now located in Washington, D.C., Marie met other Indigenous people working within and for the government. In that same year, 1904, Marie’s appointment to the Office of Indian Affairs was approved by President Teddy Roosevelt. In this position, she was the highest paid woman of Indigenous descent in the entire agency, but still paid less than all her white counterparts. 

This began another challenging balancing act for Marie as she was also a member of the Society of American Indians, an organization that frequently criticized and found itself in opposition to the government-run Office of Indian Affairs. The OIA advocated for assimilation into white society while the SAI fought to preserve Indigenous cultures and ways of life. It is during these early years at the OIA that Marie is photographed in the white European fashion of the day, her long hair pinned up and a gossamer dress on her body.

Marie’s work with suffragists was similarly strained. She advocated for women’s right to vote, but found herself, and other women of color, frequently pushed out by white women who believed their involvement would weaken support in the southern states. Prior to the Women Suffrage Procession in 1913, organizer Alice Paul expressed a common belief of white suffragettes at the time, that women of color should be excluded because the march was “a purely suffrage demonstration entirely uncomplicated by any other problems such as racial ones.” But Marie’s rights as a woman were complicated by her identity as an Indigenous woman; the two could not be separated.

Her father died in 1911 and this seems to have been a turning point for Marie. For her official government portrait that year, she dressed in traditional Chippewa clothing with her hair in long braids. This was a small, yet radical statement, an assertion that, despite her work with the white-led government, her Indigenous roots would not be erased.

“She knew the picture would go into the federal record,” writes historian and suffrage researcher Cathleen D. Cahill in Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin: Indigenizing the Federal Indian Service. “As an employee of the Indian Office, she also knew the agency’s emphasis on assimilation and that the photograph told a different story. Despite the overtly resistant nature of this photograph, there was no mention of it in her file.”

Marie also spoke that year at the Society of American Indians and quickly gained a reputation for being the voice of the Native American in contemporary politics. Cathleen D. Cahill recorded in an article for the American Indian Quarterly that Marie was called “the mother of all Indians here.”

With white suffragists, Marie affirmed—rightfully—that many of their sought-after rights as women were based upon the greater equality observed within Indigenous societies. “Did you ever know that the Indian women were among the first suffragists, and that they exercised the right of recall?” she’s quoted as saying in that same American Indian Quarterly article. “The trouble in this Indian question which I meet again and again is that it is not the Indian who needs to be educated so constantly up to the white man, but that the white man needs to be educated to the Indian.”

In 1912, she began her studies at the Washington College of Law, completing the two-year program in just three years to become the first woman of color to graduate. In 1913, she marched with other female lawyers in the Woman Suffrage Procession, the first large political march on Washington, D.C., down Pennsylvania Avenue to demonstrate at the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson. Among other marchers were Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell.

While white women would be granted the right to vote in 1920 with the passing of the 19th Amendment, this did not apply to Indigenous people. The amendment states that “the rights of citizens of the United States” will not be denied or abridged “on account of sex.” Indigenous people were not, as the government saw it, citizens of the United States. It would be another four years before Native Americans were granted the same right with the Snyder Act of 1924. Also known as the Indian Citizenship Act, this officially made Indigenous people like Marie citizens whose right to vote had been granted by the 14th and 19th amendments. For most of her adult life, Marie worked for the government, while still being prohibited from voting for its leaders.

Marie worked in the Education Division of the Office of Indian Affairs until she retired in 1932 at age 69. Little is known of what she did after retirement. It seems that she vacationed on a Chippewa reservation in Minnesota and visited Red Lake Falls where her father had lived for a time. In 1949 she moved to Los Angeles and died there on May 17, 1952.

The tension between her government work and her Indigenous culture never eased during her lifetime. Many tribal leaders viewed any cooperation with the United States government as a betrayal; as a government employee, Marie would have been considered the worst of these. In 1929, just three years before her retirement, the Department of the Interior hosted an exhibit of her private collection of Native American art. Even as she worked for the colonizers, her official photo and carefully protected art pieces demonstrate her devotion to preserving Indigenous culture by what means she could.