Indian women faced double discrimination since the first European colonists arrived in the Americas. Many fought back against the prejudice that destroyed their traditional way of life.
Some Indian women like Lucy Nicolar exploited stereotypes to put across a message of equality for all. Other Indian women like Gladys Tantaquidgeon used modern education to preserve traditional customs and arts.
Here, then, are six amazing Indian women from New England. If you know of others, please mention them in the comments section.
Lucy Nicolar, a talented musician, took the stage name Princess Watahwosa, and spent her life mixing entertainment with political activism.
She was born June 22, 1882, on the Penobscot reservation, which stretched along the Penobscot River in Maine from Indian Island to East Millinocket. As a child she traveled with her family to Kennebunkport. There they sold baskets and performed in Indian dress for tourists.
Lucy came to the attention of a Harvard administrator who hired her as his assistant, took her into his household and gave her musical and educational opportunities. Eventually she became a recording artist with Victor Records, performing adaptations of Indian songs such as By the Waters of Minnetonka and By the Weeping Waters.
Lucy Nicolar eventually returned to the Penobscot Indian Island Reservation with her husband Bruce Poolaw, a Kiowa entertainer from Oklahoma. They opened a gift shop while Lucy and her sister campaigned to improve life on the reservation. The two Indian women raised the educational standards for Penobscot children by gaining access to the public schools. They also persuaded the state to build a bridge to the island.
Lucy and Florence also demanded the right to vote for their people. When the state extended suffrage to the Penobscots in 1955, Lucy Nicolar cast the first ballot.
Betsey Guppy Chamberlain
Betsey Guppy Chamberlain promoted the then-radical idea that Indians – and Indian women — are people.
A half-Algonquian mill girl, she published some of the first criticisms of the treatment of Native Americans in short stories from 1841 to 1848.
Born sometime around 1797, perhaps in Wolfeboro or Brookfield, N.H., she was part European. She married Josiah Chamberlain, a farmer, in 1820 and they had three children. Her husband died in 1823. Betsey sold their farm and went to work in the Lowell textile mills to support herself and her children.
Harriet Hanson Robinson, a Lowell Offering contributor, wrote that Betsey Guppy Chamberlain probably came to the mills from a Shaker community.
She had inherited Indian blood, and was proud of it. She had long, straight black hair, and walked very erect, with great freedom of movement. One of her sons was afterwards connected with the New York Tribune.
Betsey Guppy Chamberlain wrote 37 stories and poems for the magazines. In them, she embraced themes of Indian gods and spirituality while satirizing Christian hypocrisy. Robinson called her the most original, prolific and noted of all the Offering writers.
In a story called A New Society she wrote of her dream where new rules of living are adopted. Among those rules:
- Resolved, That every father of a family who neglects to give his daughters the same advantages for an education which he gives his sons, shall be expelled from this society, and be considered a heathen.
Weetamoo, a Pocasset Wampanoag Indian, was married to Wamsutta, the eldest son of Massasoit. Massasoit had negotiated a treaty of friendship with the Pilgrims of Plimoth Plantation, and the English and Indians coexisted peacefully for 55 years.
Wamsutta succeeded his father as the tribe’s sachem. When war broke out between the English and the Narragansetts, Wamsutta and the Wampanoags joined the English against their rival tribe. After Wamsutta died, the Plymouth Colony grabbed more and more Indian land, subjected the Wampanoags to a humiliating peace treaty and hanged three of their men.
Weetamoo became sachem after Wamsutta died because the Wampanoags allowed women to become sachems in the absence of an adequate male heir.
Weetamo allied with her brother-in-law, Metacomet, also known as King Philip, to drive out the European settlers. They attacked the English in June 1675.
After months of bloody fighting in King Philip’s War, the English defeated the Wampanoags in August 1676. While trying to escape from them, Weetamoo drowned in the Taunton River. The English fighters mutilated her corpse, cut off her head and displayed it on a pole.
Molly Spotted Elk
Molly Spotted Elk was the stage name for Mary Alice Nelson, a Penobscot Indian acclaimed for her dancing in Paris.
She acted out the stereotype of the sexy savage to meet the racist expectations of white people. At the same time she strove for recognition as an entertainer, as a writer and as an anthropologist.
Molly was born on the Indian Island Reservation on Nov. 17, 1903, about 20 years later than Lucy Nicolar, with whom she performed early in her career.
As Molly Spotted Elk, she started out on her own performing Indian dances along with the Charleston and the Black Bottom. She carried her typewriter into dressing rooms and between shows wrote poetry and adventure stories, literary fiction and traditional Penobscot tales.
In 1930, she starred in the film documentary The Silent Enemy. The next year Molly Spotted Elk left for Paris in the ballet corps of the International Colonial Exposition. When the troupe returned home, she stayed behind.
Shortly after she arrived in France, she met Jean Archambaud, a reporter for Paris Soir newspaper. Soon he wrote passionate love letters to her. She agreed to marry him, and they had a daughter. She worked on a book of Penobscot stories and found a publisher willing to bring it out.
The Nazi invasion of Paris separated Molly and Jean. She fled with her daughter on foot over the Pyrenees and found her way home to Indian Island. For the rest of her life, she drifted between New York and the reservation, taking menial jobs. She died on Indian Island on Feb. 21, 1977 at the age of 73, in poor physical and mental health. But she left a legacy: a book of traditional Penobscot stories in English and a dictionary of the Penobscot language.
Buffy St. Marie
Buffy Sainte-Marie was a rising pop star in the 1960s until her activism on behalf of her Native-American people put a lid on her career.
She was born Feb. 20, 1941, on the Piapot Plains Cree Nation Reserve near Craven, Saskatchewan. Her parents abandoned her as an infant. Albert and Winifred Sainte-Marie, a Wakefield, Mass., couple of Mi’kmaq descent, adopted the baby known only as Beverly.
Nicknamed Buffy, she played piano and guitar by the time she went off to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
There she began to write songs about Native-American rights, addiction, incest and war. When the singer Donovan recorded one of her songs, Universal Soldier, it rose to the top of the charts. That launched her on a successful recording career – which began to sputter in the mid-1960s.
Starting in the 1990s, Buffy Sainte-Marie came out and said the industry blacklisted her in the 1960s because of her activism. She sent money to buy water for the Indians who seized Alcatraz Island the year before. She’d also set up a foundation to send young Indians to law school.
Her career took a twist in 1975, when Sesame Street called to ask her to make a one-time appearance on the show. Buffy Sainte-Marie then appeared on Sesame Street for the next five years.
Medicine woman Gladys Tantaquidgeon revived dying Indian traditions, published books on traditional herbal medicine and helped the Mohegan tribe gain Federal recognition.
She was born on June 15, 1899 to Mohegan parents, a descendant of the Mohegan chief Uncas. She grew up on Mohegan Hill in Uncasville, Conn.
Indian women elders selected her when she was five years old for training in traditional pharmacology and culture. While studying anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, Gladys researched traditional Indian herbal medicine. Over her lifetime, she published several books about traditional medicine.
In 1931, Gladys, along with her father and brother, started the Tantaquidgeon Indian Museum. It displays eastern Indian artifacts and is still run by the Mohegan tribe.
During the Great Depression, she worked as a native arts specialist with the Indian Arts and Crafts Board. She helped western tribal artisans preserve traditional skills and arts by finding ways to sell their work. She also saved customs like the Ghost Dance and the Sun Dance, banned in the 19th century.
Gladys saved tribal records and correspondence, documents that helped the tribe’s case for federal recognition.
Gladys Tantaquidgeon died in 2005. Her great niece, Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel, continues her work as an author and the current Mohegan Medicine Woman.
Images: Gladys Tantaquidgeon By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37390510. Thanks to Bunny McBride for research on Lucy Nicolar and Molly Spotted Elk in Sifters: Native American Women’s Lives (Viewpoints on American Culture) edited by Theda Perdue and Molly Spotted Elk: A Penobscot Indian in Paris . Thanks to Annalyssa Gypsy Murphy for her research on Betsey Guppy Chamberlain in Dissent Along the Borders of the Fourth World: Native American Writings as Social Protest and Judith A. Ranta in The Life and Writings of Betsey Chamberlain: Native American Mill Worker. And thanks to Jason Schneider for his research on Buffy St. Marie in Whispering Pines: The Northern Roots of American Music… from Hank Snow to the Band. For more about Weetamoo, read Longing To Be Free: The Bear, The Eagle and The Crown by Judith Guskin. This story was updated in 2020.