For most of the Equality State, this year has been a celebration of events marking the 150th anniversary for women’s suffrage.
But that isn’t the case for all Wyoming women.
This is only the 150th anniversary for some women’s right to vote. But it doesn’t include Native American women, who called Wyoming home long before settlers came to the state.
Wyoming has the one of the largest Native American reservations in the country, and for the Native American women living in Wyoming, most didn’t receive the right to vote until 1924, when Native Americans were finally recognized as American citizens. This was four years after women received the right to vote nationally.
For Rep. Andi Clifford, D-Riverton, this is something she’s known her whole life. Clifford is the first Northern Arapaho woman to be elected to the Wyoming Legislature. She was elected in 2018, and represents a large portion of the Native American population in Wyoming.
Clifford said the lack of legal protections, such as the right to vote, wasn’t an issue for indigenous women until colonization.
Before white people came to Wyoming and colonized native’s lands, women had the right to vote in their tribes and held key positions of political power.
“My ancestors, before colonization, my people – the women were held in high regard and equal to men. They were in positions of power, they were in key political positions in our tribe. They were listened to,” she said. “I want that to be known, we had it before colonization. Women were equal.”
Clifford said Wyoming doesn’t really feel like the Equality State for her. The more she learned about her history, the less true it felt.
There are still concerns about voting among her constituents when it comes to being encouraged to vote. For example, Clifford said there were still obstacles, such as validating tribal IDs to get registered to vote.
“I’m a third-generation American. My grandparents were not born citizens of the United States, since they were 11 or 12 years old. That’s, like, real, and very, just to think of it in those terms, is very – I cant express it – it’s baffling,” she said. “And then with the women’s rights, taking that claim, yes – it was just for white women. Not for my grandparents, not for my grandmas.”
Native North American cultures did not subordinate women the way EuroAmerican cultures did, said Dee Garceau, professor of history at the University of Montana at Missoula. Garceau has learned elements of tribal history from Salish and Blackfeet elders. She credits Blackfeet elders Kenneth Charles Eaglespeaker and Marie Gussman, and Salish elders Felicite Sapiel McDonald and John Arlee for providing this information.
“In traditional Blackfeet culture, men and women had gendered divisions of responsibilities, but these responsibilities were of equal importance,” Garceau said. “Even though men and women, for the most part, did different things, women were not subordinated in traditional Blackfeet culture.”
The historic Plains Indian tribes that were located in Wyoming were the Arapaho, Arikara, Bannock, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Crow, Gros Ventre, Kiowa, Nez Perce, Sheep Eater, Sioux, Shoshone and Ute tribes, according to the state of Wyoming.
The Wind River Indian Reservation is now home to the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes.
“Coming from an egalitarian society, as a woman, from a tribal perspective, we have always had a seat at the table when it came to diplomacy and really having a say in our own communities,” said Shoshone woman Lynette St. Clair.
St. Clair said because Native Americans weren’t even considered citizens until the 1900s, she wants her vote to count and voice to be heard. She said she owes it to her ancestors to cast her vote because they didn’t get that opportunity.
Historically, women were the first on site to butcher game and tan its hides. Through work like this, she said women had to carry the weight of the tribe on their backs, and because of that responsibility, it gave women the opportunity to learn how to be leaders in their own rights.
St. Clair said many tribal societies were, in fact, matriarchal societies, and women were held in esteemed positions. She said Shoshone women had a voice and carried a lot of the workload in their tribe.
In fact, the famous Native American woman Sacajawea, who helped navigate the Lewis and Clark expedition, was a Shoshone woman and is buried in either Wyoming or North Dakota. In fact, during the fur trade era, many Native American women acted at cultural guides between the tribes and the fur traders.
When fur traders came to the Northern Plains, tribes responded to them as they would another tribe – they reached out to establish diplomatic and trade relations, Garceau said. In this context, if a native woman married a EuroAmerican trader, family ties strengthened the alliance between the two groups.
Native wives of EuroAmerican traders acted as cultural mediators between the traders and the tribes, she said. As part of the fur trade, native women served as interpreters, canoe guides, supply makers and fur tanners.
Moving forward to the late 19th century, federal legislation at the time made it difficult for Native Americans to gain U.S. citizenship and voting rights.
The Dawes Act of 1887 created a path toward citizenship and voting rights for Native Americans, but it was extremely slow. The Dawes Act divided tribal lands held in common into individual allotments. Once an individual tribal member gained legal title to their allotment, they could claim U.S. citizenship and voting rights.
But the federal government held each allotment in a trust for 25 years. During this time, the Native American neither owned the allotment nor got their citizenship.
Due to state voting laws at the time, which, for the most part, said people had to own property and pay taxes, Native Americans seldom got that opportunity.
The Burke Act of 1906, shortened the federal trust period by requiring individuals to prove “civic competence” through wage work, farming, boarding school attendance or half-white ancestry. This was part of the federal government’s efforts to convert Native Americans to EuroAmerican culture.
Since wage work was scarce on reservations, Native Americans who gained ownership of their allotment under the Burke Act often ended up losing the land because they were unable to pay taxes. Once they were off the tax rolls, they lost the right to vote.
Today, St. Clair said she feels like Native Americans have made headway since 150 years ago. The fact that Native Americans and women have the right to vote is a little bit celebratory, she said.
“We have an obligation not only to our community,” she said, “but to our ancestors to express ourselves through our vote and to make a difference.”