The still-controversial life of Montana’s first Native woman elected to the Legislature

Dolly Smith Cusker Akers fought for and against her tribe for more than a half century

By: - September 15, 2022 7:02 am

A headline from a 1971 feature story on Dolly Smith Cusker Akers in The Billings Gazette.

Somewhere, Dolly Smith Cusker Akers is smiling. Maybe even laughing.

Her name isn’t a household word in Montana, nothing like the revered and reviled Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress who also happens to be from Montana.

Akers holds a different distinction, being the first female Native American elected to the state Legislature. She was elected as a Democrat from Roosevelt County, and served in 1933-34, receiving nearly 100 percent of the vote in the county even when Whites outnumbered Natives by nearly a 10-to-1 margin. She was 23 and the only female serving during the session.

Had her legacy just been one of trailblazing a path to Helena that is still difficult for women, she would be noteworthy. But it’s what happened after her time in the Legislature that makes her even more fascinating. Fittingly, the woman who marched to Washington, D.C.,  armed with photographs of poverty on the reservation to meet with then Vice President Richard Nixon remains controversial in death. That’s probably the way she would have wanted it.

She died in 1986, but her legacy and her history still cannot be completed even today, more than 30 years later.

Democracy Day

Today, the Daily Montanan, along with other news organizations throughout the States Newsroom network and beyond, celebrate Democracy Day – a recognition of the power given to “We the People.”

But democracy, both at home and abroad, is under threat. As Montclair State University has said:

“We’re currently facing an unrelenting assault on our democracy, a clear and present threat to our constitutional rights and our ability as journalists to exist and do our jobs. But as we inch closer to a possible democratic collapse in 2024, the magnitude of that threat isn’t well-understood by all Americans, nor is it being treated seriously enough by our elected officials. In some cases, elected officials are part of the anti-democratic efforts, and aren’t being held accountable.”

Today, the Daily Montanan reminds people that democracy works by public participation and hopes the stories of people like Dolly Akers inspire others to stand up and get involved in preserving open, transparent and accountable government.

A fighter for her people

Even before she went to Washington, D.C. for the first time, even before Helena, Dolly Smith was a headstrong leader, content to do what she wanted, regardless of public opinion.

Her stepfather, Charlie Hall, told The Billings Gazette in 1971 that Akers was a natural born politician and activist.

“You can’t tell her nothin’,” Hall said. “She knows everything – backwards and forwards.”

When the Fort Peck tribes sent two representatives to Washington, D.C., in the 1920s, Akers traveled along to translate because both elders didn’t speak English.

“The articulate young woman impressed the congressmen, whom she then lobbied in favor of universal citizenship for American Indians – an issue that had been debated for many years,” wrote historian Laura Ferguson in an article on Akers for Montana Women’s History.

It was more than 1,000 miles away from the open range near Wolf Point that Akers began what became the central theme of her life – full citizenship and self autonomy for tribes, which began with the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924.

She decided not to run for the Legislature after a rather uneventful session as a representative, but it was after that when she began to take on more leadership within the Fort Peck tribes, a relationship that would oftentimes prove tumultuous.

She first started participating in tribal government when her first husband was too inebriated to participate at meetings. She would show up after he had passed out.

“Cusker couldn’t be here, but here’s how he feels about this matter or that,” Akers later recounted.

Apparently, Akers was articulate and sophisticated enough that she was elected to the tribal council, and in 1956, she was elected chairwoman of the council, a position she held for two consecutive terms.

While she was working a ranch north of Wolf Point and working on the council, Akers was also working on a larger stage, helping to advocate for Native Americans.

In 1934, Montana Gov. Frank Cooney named Akers (then, Dolly Smith Cusker) to be the state’s first coordinator for Indian welfare, where she’d represent the Montana tribal communities to the Secretary of The Interior.

“American Indians were treated differently from non-Indians with regard to relief during the Great Depression, because states and counties did not want to assume responsibility for these new American citizens,” Ferguson wrote about Akers.

Ironically, the citizenship that Akers lobbied so hard for was now part of the impediment to getting food and aid during the Great Depression. Universal citizenship had, in law, granted Native Americans the same rights, but local and state governments refused to take responsibility for helping get aid to Indian Country, so Akers once again went to Washington, D.C.

“While in Washington,” Ferguson said, “Cusker succeeded in securing federal relief for tribal members.”

From accomplished to ‘agitator’

Akers continued to advocate in her outspoken ways, helping to secure funding that took nearly two dozen families from living in rat-infested shacks to new affordable housing. Yet she also rankled officials at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, switched political parties from Democrat to Republican, and believed in tribal self-government and self-sufficiency, all of which set her at odds with leaders at the local, state and federal level.

“I am a very necessary evil. I try to stay in the background, but every now and then I have to come out and kick somebody in the shins,” she said.

“Akers will be remembered differently by those who benefited from her actions,” Ferguson wrote, “and those whose shins got bruised.”

Some of those bruised shins included not only federal officials, but also tribal leaders.

For example, Akers lobbied for a policy referred to as “termination,” which would have ended the treaty obligations of the United States government, forcing tribes to survive on their own. Akers supported the measure, saying that land and mineral rights should be allowed for the tribe’s own economic development, and it shouldn’t rely on the federal government.

“There can be no real solution of the so called ‘Indian problem’ unless the Interior Department embraces the principle of self-determination of Indian people by actual practice,” Akers said.

Her support of “termination” and the Republican-led policies helped lead to her impeachment from the tribal government.

Undeterred, Akers went on a one-woman crusade to get better housing on Fort Peck, even as she entered her 70s.  She called that her greatest accomplishment, although it, too, wouldn’t be without controversy.

Several years after being appointed as the consultant to the Farm Home Administration, tribal leaders removed Akers from the Fort Peck Tribal Housing Authority because they accused her of giving preferential treatment to her supporters and failing to treat all applicants equitably.

She was a woman who embraced the term “agitator” and adamantly castigated the notion of women’s lib. Dolly Smith Cusker Akers didn’t need a social movement to give her equal standing, she was an entire social movement in herself. She was liberated before there was women’s liberation.

Sometimes, fight was all she had. After her second husband, John Akers died, Dolly spent years in court fighting to keep the ranch where they lived, even though John Akers had three different wills, all of them without mention of Dolly.

Even while she was fighting for her own property, she was railing against the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which she saw as paternalistic and an impediment to self governance. In a speech to a group of University of Montana students she explained her philosophy:

“I firmly believe the Bureau of Indian Affairs should sweep their own back porch. Indian people should not be forced to seek relief in federal courts on problems that could be solved administratively. These old-line BIA employees have had long practice and have the ‘know-how’ to trap the new Indian employees into exposing their weaknesses and then it is easy to control this new Indian employee and keep the old attitude and policies in force. It is my considered opinion that a few of the BIA employees who are anxious to stay on at their present posts are promoting their old game of divide and rule. This BIA activity would not be possible if the mixed blood Indian did not become a larcenous individual. The militant Indian calls these larcenous Indians ‘Apples,’ red on the outside, white inside. I don’t buy this. Indians are just people, like everyone else.”

Still controversial

During the span of almost a half century, newspapers in Montana and beyond chronicled Akers’ career. Many of the accounts seem doubly incredulous – a woman and Native American? She wasn’t quite a unicorn, but close enough.

She was stubborn, cagey and unwilling to admit failure, even after being booted several times from positions within her own tribe. The irony, of course, is that part of what made her famous, getting elected as a young woman to the Montana Legislature, was quite possibly the most demure part of her career.

For a woman known for riding stock in the early days of a Wolf Point rodeo to being a good friend of one-time presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, she was a five-foot-one-inch “dynamo.”

Journalist Shawn White Wolf recounted that Akers had made 57 trips to Washington, D.C., throughout her lifetime, her last coming in 1983 where she appeared before a congressional committee, wheelchair-bound, to discuss tribal issues on behalf of the Fort Peck tribe.

By the time she died on June 5, 1986, she had been fighting, speaking out and serving for 65 of her 85 years of life.

What remains of her record and legacy is found in a slim manila file folder at the state historical society, which contains a smattering of press clippings. There is the legislative journal from the session she served, and even one for the special session of 1934.

One tantalizing box of her own papers, donated by members of her family in the early 1990s, remains blocked from public view – even in death Akers can’t avoid controversy.

While beginning to catalog the papers that were donated, one of the archivists discovered some documents that may belong to the Fort Peck tribal authorities. Earlier this year, Fort Peck Tribal Chairman Floyd Azure demanded Akers’ papers be removed from the collection.

“(Akers) did not have rights to take tribal government information and distribute to another entity during the impeachment of their position,” wrote Fort Peck Tribal Chairman Floyd Azure on Feb. 1. “For this specific undertaking, I acknowledge the action may have been reason to exploit confidential documentation under malicious intentions towards the Fort Peck Tribal Government, at that time.”

Montana Historical Society Director Molly Kruckenberg told the Daily Montanan that the plan is to review the collection and return any property that belongs to the tribe and then move the remainder to the collection for public research. That isn’t expected until early 2023, Kruckenberg said.

Akers may be somewhere smiling because in a 1971 article in The Billings Gazette, she embraced her reputation as a boat rocker and seemed to anticipate the controversy that was sure to follow.

“A few have strong feelings toward their Indian ancestors and stand up for their beliefs and what they consider their rights,” she told a reporter. “It is these few and far between crusading Indians whom the BIA calls ‘agitators’ and the BIA uses the full power of their establishment to discredit and malign these so-called ‘agitators.’ When they kill off the rest of us who won’t stand for it, then they’ll have a field day.”

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.