Glacier Centennial: Helen P. Clarke

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As the 2010 centennial of Montana’s Glacier National Park approaches, I’ve been looking at the histories and stories of those who are part of the park’s heritage.

Helen Piotopowaka Clarke (1843-1923)–known by many as “Miss Nellie”–was the first woman in the Montana Territory to be elected to public office (1880) when she became Superintendent of Public Instruction for the county now named Lewis and Clark. Previously, she had worked as a teacher in Ft. Benton.

After the Indian Allotment Act was passed by Congress in 1887, Clarke, helped the Blackfeet establish their allotments, and then was appointed as an allotment agent by President Benjamin Harrison in October 1890. She worked with multiple tribes out of the Ponca Agency in the Oklahoma Territory where she was the only female agent.

When prospectors and developers found gold, copper and other minerals on the Piegans’ mountain land in the years after the Civil War, public pressure forced the Federal Government into negotiations to obtain the land so that legal claims could be filed and worked. Helen helped her tribe in the negotiations that eventually led to the sale of the land east of the continental divide in today’s Glacier National Park in 1896. The boom–which included a mining town named Altyn in the current park’s Swiftcurrent Valley–lasted only a few years before it was obvious that the mineral deposits were insufficient to support mining operations. This mountain land has historically been called the ceded strip. The park was created in 1910.

Helen’s parents were a Scottish-American fur trader and rancher Egbert Malcolm Clarke and Kakokima (often spelled Cothcocoma), daughter of the Piegan (Blackfeet) Chief Big Snake. Malcolm Clarke had an excellent relationship with the Piegan in spite of the growing hostilities between whites and the Piegan at the time. His Piegan name was Nisohkyaiyo (Four Bears). In addition to Helen, he and Kakokima had three other children, Horace, Nathan and Isabel.

Helen P. Clarke’s name often surfaces in history as a survivor of the night when Piegan relatives murdered her father and wounded her brother Horace after weeks of disputes over Malcolm Clarke’s stolen horses. The Piegan side of Helen’s family had always been welcome on her father’s ranch on Prickly Pear Creek along with others from the tribe; most of the tribe mourned his murder. Helen blamed only Eagle Ribs (who killed Clarke) and Pete Owl Child (who wounded Horace). Owl Child was Helen’s mother’s cousin and Eagle Ribs was a son of Mountain Chief.

The public saw Clarke’s murder as another in a long series of incidents of unacceptable unrest in the territory and demanded retribution against the overtly hostile Mountain Chief. While a grand jury had indicted five Piegans in the murder of Malcolm Clarke and had requested their apprehension by the Army, General Philip H. Sheridan preferred to “strike” Indian Camps. William T Sherman, General of the Army, approved of Sheridan’s approach even though officers in Montana said the solution required a police-style approach.

Colonel E. M. Baker was sent with a troop to “chastise” Mountain Chief and his band of Piegans. The orders stated specifically that friendly Chief Heavy Runner and his band on the Marias River was not to be harmed. On the morning of January 23, 1870, Baker’s troop swept through the village of Heavy Runner, killing the Chief and 173 others, including 140 women and children. Even though he was told by his scouts it was the wrong camp, Baker would maintain later that he did not know this. Baker’s superiors supported his action. The action is now known alternately as “The Baker Massacre” and “The Marias Massacre.”

After the death of her father, Helen went east where she studied drama. Subsequently, she would perform for a short period of time to much acclaim, especially her Shakespeare, in London, Paris and Berlin. After serving as the school superintendent and the allotment agent, she taught briefly in San Francisco before returning to a ranch with her bother Horace in Midvale (now East Glacier) on land that came from their allotments.

Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier, sits on a portion of Horace’s allotment which was purchased by the Great Northern Railway for the hotel site. The Hotel was built in 1913.

Although the source of Glacier National Park’s Lake Helen is debated, explorer, writer and friend of the Piegan Jame Willard Schultz attributes the name to Helen Clarke.

Author Jack Holterman has written that when Miss Nellie was in her 70s, she was described as a woman with a large bony, stooped frame, black sparkling eyes, beautiful white hair, and a deep theatrical voice. She is buried in the family cemetery at Midvale.

Today, more people know of her for her father’s murder than for her own good works. Helen’s Piegan name, Piotopowaka, is certainly apt. It is best translated as “The Bird That Comes Back.”

For More Information, consult the following books in addition to Internet resources:

Who was Who in Glacier Land, by Jack Holterman
Walking in Two Worlds: Mixed-Blood Indian Women Seeking Their Own Path, by Nancy M. Peterson
The Blackfeet: Raiders on the Northwestern Plains, by John C. Ewers

Copyright (c) 2009 by Malcolm R. Campbell author of “The Sun Singer,” a novel set in Glacier National Park.

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5 responses

    • Thank you, Kimberlee. I think I would have enjoyed meeting her. In a yet-to-be-published novel, one of my characters visits her in her library at East Glacier.

    • Thanks, Montucky. As I wrote about the Baker Massacre, I thought of the view of such things from the South. Southerners see it was the same generals who tore up the south needing something else to do. So they took an overly aggressive stance against western Indians.

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