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  • Marie Louise Bottineau BaldwinIndigenizing the Federal Indian Service
  • Cathleen D. Cahill (bio)

To promote all efforts looking to the advancement of the Indian in enlightenment which leave him free, as a man, to develop according to the natural laws of social evolution.

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When Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin (Ojibwa/French), an attorney in the Indian Office, submitted a photograph for her personnel file in compliance with the federal civil service administration, she made a radical choice to indigenize her record. Baldwin, who had lived in Washington dc for many years, had photographs of herself dressed in the highest turn-of-the-century fashion, such as the portrait of her in a silk dress with her hair swooped and fastened with a fashionable feather clip (fig. 1). But she chose instead to submit a photograph of herself in Native dress with her hair plaited over her shoulders (fig. 2). The profile portrait, so similar to those taken by contemporary anthropologists, emphasizes the artistry of her outfit—the beautiful dentalia earrings, the intricately beaded front of her dress, and the patterned quilt wrapped around her shoulders. Baldwin’s portrait is clearly that of a woman asserting her Indigenous identity.

She knew the picture would go into the federal record. 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.

The portrait hints at the important themes and tensions in Baldwin’s life. She served as an employee in the Office of Indian Affairs (oia) for twenty-eight years, yet she became an active member of the Society of American Indians (sai), an organization that often criticized the oia. She was an urban, professional, and cosmopolitan Indigenous woman who also celebrated and collected Native women’s traditional art. Baldwin most likely submitted the picture to her file after 1911, and her [End Page 65]

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Fig. 1.

Formal Portrait, Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin. Marie Baldwin (Ojibwa/French), was a cosmopolitan woman who lived in Washington dc for almost half a century after moving there with her father to defend the treaty rights of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa. Newspaper articles used this photo to depict Baldwin in “modern American dress,” often paired with depictions of her in “Native dress” to emphasize a stark contrast. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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Fig. 2.

Marie Baldwin, Civil Service photograph. When required to submit a photograph for her federal personnel file, Marie Baldwin very deliberately used this photo to indigenize her file. It reflects her strategic choices about how to portray herself as a modern and multifaceted Indigenous woman. Courtesy of the National Personnel Records Center, St. Louis, Missouri.

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choice gives us a window into her development as a feminist and a Native activist. This essay focuses on three important periods of her life—the years before 1911, those between 1911 and 1919, and the rest of her life until her death in 1952—and traces the arc of her political growth.

Baldwin developed her political outlook in relation to tribal sovereignty while working with her father to defend treaty rights for the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Nation. Her position expanded into an intertribal political consciousness when she moved to Washington dc and became part of the community of professional Native people, most of them federal employees. After the death of her father in 1911, she entered the height of her political activism. Her participation in the mainstream feminist movement and the founding of the Society of American Indians radicalized her thinking. She threw herself into the work of the sai and became the preeminent spokesperson for the modern Indian woman. Nationally known, she met President Wilson, spoke before policymakers, and participated in public discussions about the place of Indians in American society. But the sai was wracked by tensions, and she suffered these on a personal level. Her experience reveals the Society’s heavy dependence on volunteer labor, especially women’s labor, and its...


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