HELENA — About 140 years ago, a Native American woman made history in Lewis and Clark County. Helen Piotopowaka Clarke was one of the first two women elected to public office in Montana, before it was even a state.
Clarke was elected to the position of Lewis and Clark County School Superintendent in 1882—a position she held for three terms. A woman was elected to the same position in Meagher County that same year.
“She was doing things most people—most women—did not do at that time,” Helena-Lewis and Clark County Historic Preservation Officer Pam Attardo said. “She was doing it at a very racially difficult time, and she did a wonderful job, and she just kept doing it.”
Clarke was of Blackfeet descent. She was born in Montana at the mouth of the Judith River, and then sent to school in Cincinnati as a child.
“The impressive part is she survived the boarding schools,” Little Shell Chippewa Tribe member Daniel Pocha said. “They call it a convent, but it was actually a boarding school where they sent her to remove the Indian from her. During the course of that time, there’s probably tens of thousands of Natives who never made it back.”
Clarke had a career in acting in New York, then she returned to Montana and became a teacher.
Pocha said the fact that Clarke was able to become an educator and an elected official was a feat at the time.
“They were trying to teach them to be a maid, maybe a seamstress, not necessarily an educator,” Pocha said.
Along with her time in public office, Clarke was also one of the first women to serve as an allotment agent for the Indian Bureau.
Clarke was a member of the Blackfeet Tribe and was granted an allotment on the reservation. She died in 1923. A section of Highway 2 between East Glacier and Browning is named after her.