Story by Matt Neuman | Photos by Carl Kulper
Of the 442 people elected to the Blackfeet Tribal Council since 1936, only nine have been women.
Betty Cooper is one of those women.
Cooper, now 80, was elected to the tribal business council in 2004, earning more votes than any of the other eight men on the council.
“Because I was the only woman on the council with eight men, I just told them every chance I got, ‘We were all elected equally and we’re all on the same team and I am willing to work with you.’”
But during her time on the council, Cooper said she was constantly undermined. A video recording of a 2006 council session shows the men on the council interrupting Cooper. In the video she was calling for the council members to be better communicators.
“This council never talks to each other,” Cooper says from her seat in the tribal council board room. “There will be two or three in a closed door session…”
She is cut off.
“What? What are we… Point of order Mr. Chairman?” one of the councilmen says. Another councilman chimes in, the pitch of his voice rising like a desperate child toward a parent.
“Mr. Chairman, I was speaking and she always does this. That is my concern, Mr. Chairman,” he says. Cooper sits stoic, her eyes straight ahead, her face unwavering.
“I always said, ‘I’m not here for this guy or that guy. I’m here for the Blackfeet people and what is best for them,’” Cooper says now.
As it did to many tribes throughout the nation, American political and religious colonization undid many of the traditional gender roles on the Blackfeet Nation.
Historically, women owned all property and led religious practices in Blackfeet society, while men were traditionally political leaders, according to Rosalyn LaPier, a professor at the University of Montana and enrolled Blackfeet tribal member. But for more than a century, the cultures of the tribes which make up the Blackfeet Nation were manipulated to serve the social constructs and power dynamics of a society dominated by men.
Missionaries, specifically the Jesuit sect of the Catholic Church, worked to strategically implement men as the new Blackfeet religious leaders from 1890 to 1940 as a strategy for male Catholic priests to more easily convert Blackfeet people to Christianity.
“There was a concerted effort to educate children, to convert children, but also to change over this idea that women were the center of religious practice,” LaPier said. Her daughter Iko’tsimiskimaki Beck wrote extensively on the subject for her senior thesis at Harvard College.
“That was part of the colonizing effort by Americans,” LaPier said. “There were these subtle, but foundational, changes in Blackfeet society in men and women’s roles. But I think that complementarity that had existed [between men and women] doesn’t exist anymore.”
However, in recent years, women have increasingly become the icons for Native American movements.
For instance, Elouise Cobell, possibly the most iconic name in modern Native American leaders, rose from being a treasurer for the Blackfeet tribe to leading the largest class-action lawsuit against the federal government in history. The lawsuit, claiming mismanagement of Native American lands by the federal government, was settled for $3.4 billion in 2008, with the restitution earmarked for the plaintiffs and land buy-backs.
Additionally, the main camp of the Standing Rock protests of 2016, the Sacred Stone camp, was founded by LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, a Sioux elderwoman. The protest, aimed at stopping the Dakota Access oil pipeline, grew well into the thousands of participants due in large part to its viral spread on social media.
Before the #metoo movement brought sexual harassment and abuse of all women into the mainstream spotlight, the #MMIW hashtag, which stands for missing and murdered indigenous women, created viral awareness of the disproportionate number of cases, often left unresolved, of Native American women affected by violent crimes.
Theda New Breast held up her slim black smartphone.
“This is the weapon,” she said, tossing her phone between her hands. “This is 256 gigabytes of power and truth. I carry a 9mm with two clips of hollow point bullets when I hike as my weapon against bears. But in this world, my phone is my weapon.”
New Breast, 62, lives alone near Babb, on the eastern edge of Glacier National Park. Although her cabin is isolated in the northern reaches of the Blackfeet reservation, she stays well connected. With 5,000 friends on Facebook, New Breast commands a small army with every post.
She recently began a campaign posting the names of one missing or murdered indigenous woman every day to raise awareness of the issue. The photos get hundreds of shares per day.
She says social media has become one of the only outlets for Native women to have an unfiltered voice on the Blackfeet Reservation.
“Our [traditional] way of life respects women,” New Breast said. “They owned the lodge, they made the food, they were the boss. But the Indian Reorganization Act diluted that structure.”
This reorganization act is the 1934 federal law which created the boilerplate American influenced constitutions and governing bodies on the reservations, like the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council. Previous to that, elders of both genders helped lead the tribe politically and religiously. Since the Indian Reorganization Act, only about two percent of Blackfeet council seats have been filled by women.
“White males created the glass ceiling, that only allows any Hillary or any Nancy Pelosi to rise so far,” New Breast said. “We’ve seen our Native men who have adopted the thinking of the white male privilege now have Native male privilege. Women can only go so far before the buckskin ceiling knocks them back down.”
New Breast is the daughter of Betty Cooper, one of the nine women to have ever served on the council, and she witnessed the psychological abuse her mother endured as the only woman on the council at the time.
“It seems like our Indian men don’t hear it or see it,” her daughter said. “I don’t know if it’s a strategy, but men don’t want women in.”
Cooper said she had planned to run for council chairman, chairwoman, actually, she corrected herself with a chuckle. But that never happened. Cooper wasn’t re-elected in 2008, and instead worked as a field manager for Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. As her daughter would say, she hit the buckskin ceiling.
Susan Webber teaches women’s studies and other courses at Blackfeet Community College — a role she relishes: teaching young people that Blackfeet women were traditionally centers of authority.
She points to the federal government’s General Allotment Act of 1887, when tribal lands were parcelled up and put under men’s names, as one of the catalysts that robbed Blackfeet women of their power.
“Lineage had always followed the mother until 1887, and all of a sudden it was paternalism,” Webber said. “Whereas, if you look at our world, all of the Blackfeet women are the movers and the pushers behind it all.”
Webber holds fast to those roots. After holding numerous administrative and directoral roles in the tribe, Webber was elected to the Montana House of Representatives in 2014. This year, she is running unopposed for her state senate district.
Webber said some women on the reservation unwittingly help perpetuate stereotypes and power structures that make it harder for women to rise into positions of power. She specifically mentioned a sentiment she has heard before: women bicker too much to serve on council.
“We have to overcome 100 to 150 years of an oppressive stereotype of Indian women,” Webber said.
“What is really crazy and almost ironic is that this is [the attitude] on the reservation that we need to overcome,” she said. “But often on the outside, outside the reservation, we are seen for our abilities, our accomplishments, and they recognize us more on what we’ve done and how we can lead. But the people here don’t see it because we have blinders which started with that history [of U.S. oppression].”
Before running for state office, Webber worked in the tribal enrollment office, the tribal court and a slew of other tribal agencies. She said she regularly saw men treated preferentially over women, giving the example of the time she caught a man she oversaw at the tribal health office stealing a total of $80,000.
“His brother in law was on the council, so they arranged for him to pay it back, $25 per month,” she said. “And then I was told I was going to be fired for basically being a whistleblower. I quit. But that’s a luxury. I don’t need the tribe for employment because of my education, but a lot of women do.”
Sandy Schildt spent a day composing her thoughts before settling down at her computer to continue a lengthy Facebook post about the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council.
From the house behind the convenience store and gas station her family owns in North Browning, she usually writes about a lack of transparency, a need for better record keeping, and wasteful spending by the council.
After a decades-long career as a data compliance specialist and trainer for the federal Indian Health Service, and as a freelancer, she has tried to bring her expertise to the council, mainly in the form of presentations. But after her proposals were shot down by the council or ideas sold off to other contractors, she took to the pulpit of Facebook.
“Elouise Cobell, the woman who sued the government over our land, was in the store one day before she passed away and told me, ‘Sandy you need to keep going with what you’re doing. If I wasn’t sick I would help you,’” Schildt said. “She had the same passion as I do for what she was doing.”
She said the lack of reliable data-keeping in the tribe creates barriers to winning state and federal grants, which often require detailed proof of need and proper use. As she wrote in one Facebook post in early April, “When our barriers are removed, so are our limits.”
On April 8, around 10 p.m., Schildt drove her minivan a mile to the Tribal Administration Office, passing the neighborhood of half-built homes which were abandoned when the federal funding ran out. Filing for the tribal council candidates opened the next morning at 8 a.m., and she was intent on being the first to sign up — meaning her name would appear at the top of the ballot. It was just 23 degrees, and windy as always, but she had a thick fleece blanket and her red camping chair.
She set up under the incandescent light of the tribal office’s awning, outside the paint-smeared glass doors. At the end of the sidewalk, a stop sign caked in mud rested face-up in a puddle.
“I just want to do what’s best for our people,” she said. “Women know best how to care for a family, they know how to nurture and heal, and I think that’s something our people need.”