Amember of the Turtle Mountain Band of the Chippewa Native American tribe, Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin was of métis (mixed) background: her grandfather Pierre Bottineau was a French immigrant who was also a renowned voyageur—one of the traveling fur traders and trappers that traveled northern North America's remote waterways. Pierre Bottineau married a Chippewa woman named Clear Sky, and his son, Jean-Baptiste Bottineau (also known as J.B. or John) was also identified as Chippewa. J.B. was married to Marguerite Renville in 1862, and the couple lived in Pembina, in what is now North Dakota. Marie was born the following year, on December 14, 1863, and was soon joined by younger sisters Lillian and Alvina.
The Bottineau family was given so-called half-breed scrip, which entitled them to claim land in the former Native American territories, and Marie's family benefitted as a result. J.B. Bottineau became a lawyer and worked when he could to defend the rights of the Chippewa people, whose position was being eroded by unfavorable treaties. After attending Minneapolis public schools, Marie was enrolled in a Catholic institution, St. Joseph's Academy, in St. Paul. At age 13 she married white businessman Fred Baldwin, but the marriage lasted only a short time. Marie then attended St. John's Ladies College in Winnipeg, Manitoba, returning to Minneapolis to take a job at her father's law office. She apparently spoke English, French, and Chippewa fluently.
Between 1882 and 1904, the Chippewa tribe was involved in a long dispute with the U.S. government over land claims in the former Chippewa lands. J.B. Bottineau met with several tribal leaders who entrusted him with the task of representing their interests in Washington, D.C. He moved there in the early 1890s, and Marie Baldwin went with him, serving as his clerk. Her job duties involved more than a clerk's usual tasks: she helped organize her father's lawsuits, Congressional testimony, and consultation with tribal leaders. The negotiations between the U.S. government and the Chippewa reached an unsatisfying end in 1904, and Congressional action imposed final settlements upon Chippewa claimants.
By that time, Baldwin had begun to look for work she could pursue after her father's death. In 1904 she was hired as a clerk in the Office of Indian Affairs (OIA; renamed the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1947), and the executive order appointing her was signed by President Theodore Roosevelt. Her starting salary was $900 a year, but increased after a year's service to $1,000. Her work as clerk often involved auditing shipments to Indian reservations and schools. Baldwin was one of only two Native American employees in the agency's Washington office, but there were others around the country. The goal of the OIA at the time was to encourage Native Americans to assimilate to the norms of white society, and it was thought that Native American employees could help facilitate this process.
During the first part of her career, Baldwin became a familiar figure among Native Americans who lived in or visited Washington, D.C., and she particularly valued her role as an example to young women. According to Cathleen D. Cahill in the American Indian Quarterly, one woman who knew Baldwin called her “the mother of all Indians here.”
In 1911, the Washington, D.C., office funded Baldwin's trip to Columbus, Ohio, to speak before the first national meeting of the Society of American Indians. In her talk, she described the position of relative equality held by women in many Native American tribes, but she argued that Native American women would do better to adopt the way of life of their white counterparts. She was eventually appointed the society's treasurer.
Expending much thought on the role of Native American women, and left alone following her father's death in 1911, Baldwin sought ways to make a positive impact. In 1912 she enrolled at the Washington College of Law (now the American University Washington College of Law).
At that time, female lawyers, let alone those of Native American background, were very rare, and the school had been founded by women's rights activists intent on increasing such professional opportunities.
Baldwin's high level of motivation and intelligence attracted attention at the school, and she completed the three-year course of study in two years. A Quarterly Journal of American Indians article quoted by Louise Seymour Houghton in Our Debt to the Red Man: The French-Indians in the Development of the United States noted of Baldwin: “Side by side with men fresh from college she competed for honors. Everyone knew her as the Indian woman whose wits were keen and whose mind was just a little bit more capable than the rest. Indian capacity was on trial, and Mrs. Baldwin, as a loyal Chippewa, a loyal Indian, finished her course with honor, proudly, but none too proudly.” When Baldwin left school in 1914 and was admitted to the bar, she did so as the school's first Native American graduate.
Baldwin apparently never practiced law independently, but her return to school deepened her political convictions. In 1913 she joined a group of female lawyers in a suffrage demonstration on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. She also became more closely involved with the Society of American Indians, emerging as one of its top officers and often serving as the sole woman on their roster of event speakers. She applied her organizational skills to the subscription services of the society's new journal, and she was an able and experienced legislative liaison. In December of 1914 she was part of a group that met with U.S. President Woodrow Wilson at the White House.
As one of the highest-ranking Native American women in the federal government, Baldwin was often asked to speak and be interviewed. Over time, her positions in defense of Native American identity grew stronger: gone was the talk of assimilating to the ways of traditional white female role models. “Did you ever know that the Indian women were among the first suffragists, and that they exercised the right of recall?,” she told one interviewer, as quoted by Cahill. “The trouble in this Indian question which I meet again and again,” she also noted, “is that it is not the Indian who needs to be educated so constantly up to the white man, but that the white man needs to be educated to the Indian.” Baldwin also stressed the value of education for women and, well ahead of her time, of equal pay for equal work.
When asked to submit a photograph for her government personnel file, Baldwin did not provide a conventional formal portrait. Instead, her profile photo shows her in Native American dress, with long shell earrings, a patterned shawl around her shoulders, short braids, and a column of beads on the front of her dress. Newspaper articles about Baldwin sometimes included two photos of her, one in traditional Chippewa garb and one in the dress of contemporary America.
Although Baldwin remained active in the Society of American Indians into the 1920s, she was increasingly affected by ideological divisions within the organization. Radical voices led by activist Carlos Montezuma questioned the loyalty of Native American federal employees to the cause of Native American rights, and this accusatory concern was likely difficult for her to stomach. Baldwin unsuccessfully resisted a consolidation of her treasurer's office with that of secretary, and after 1918 she stopped attending annual society meetings. The organization dissolved in 1923, the result of some of the same issues that had frustrated Baldwin.
Baldwin retired from the OIA in 1932 and was granted a federal pension. Although her subsequent activities are mostly unknown, items from her large collection of Native American art were exhibited in 1929 at the Department of the Interior, reflecting her encouragement that Native Americans express themselves artistically. That same year, according to Cahill, she told an interviewer: “I have traveled in practically every conveyance known to this country,” including travois (a platform mounted on poles and pulled by a draft animal), prairie schooner, and canoe. “I have traveled by airplane, and I find it is wonderful,” she added. In her old age, Baldwin vacationed on land she was given, located on a Chippewa reservation in Minnesota. She also visited the town of Red Lake Falls, where her father had lived. She moved to Los Angeles, perhaps to be near a family member, in 1949, and she died there, on May 17, 1952.
Houghton, Louise Seymour, Our Debt to the Red Man: French-Indians in the Development of the United States, Stratford, 1918.
American Indian Quarterly, summer 2013.