Helen Pi-O-To-Po-Wa-Ka Clarke

By Joyce Clarke Turvey
Updated 1/17/05

Helen P. Clarke was born at the mouth of the Judith River in Fergus, County, Montana on October 11, 1816, and died March 5, 1923 at 77. She is buried at the Clarke/Dawson cemetery in East Glacier with her brother Horace (1849-1930), and sister Isabel (1861-1935). Another brother, Nathan (1853-1930) is buried at the Robert Gruel Ranch south of Ulm.

Helen P graveyardShe also had a half-sister, Judith (1864-1897) who is buried along with their mother on a hill east of East Glacier Park. Her father was Major Egbert Malcolm Clarke (1817-1869), and her mother, Coth-co-co-na, a Piegan Indian. “Aunt Helen”, as she was called, made Midvale her home from about 1902 where she lived with her brother, Horace, at the Clarke homestead house. This house was built about 1889-92 by Horace’s son, Malcolm Clarke, and was one of the first homes to be built in Midvale. It was next to tee 9 at the Lodge’s golf course and on the original 13 acres of Horace Clarke homestead property. This landmark home burned to the ground on April 28, 1962.

Helen’s growing up years were spent at convent schools in Minneapolis while living with her aunt, Charlotte Van Cleve. After the tragedy of her father’s murder, Helen and her sisters stayed with their aunt, Mary Lincoln, in Cincinnati, where Helen received further education from November 1869 to September 1875. A cousin, Florence Lincoln (1857-1938), was an Ursline Sister, Mother Angela, who had audiences with four Popes and was a close companion of the famed Mother Amadeus who founded the first missions in Montana. Mother Angela is buried at St. Ignatius, MT where she spent her last years.

It was at her time in the East that Helen went to the school of drama in New York and then had her short, if remarkable, stage career. She knew Maude Adams and Helen’s press clippings were of an impressive stage career in New York, Paris and Berlin. A letter from the Kaiser commending her portrayal of Lady Macbeth, as well as a note from the Queen of the Netherlands were all ample evidence of an overwhelmingly successful stage career. Miss Clarke played the part of Megmerilles in Shakespearean repertoire with Sarah Bernhardt, but she said in speaking of it, “I was too much aware of self to become great. I could not forget that I was Helen Clarke and become the new being of imagination”.

Successful as she was, she was not happy and returned to the land of her birth, making her home for fifteen years with the W.F. Sanders family in Helena, MT from 1875-1890. After teaching in Fort Benton and Helena, she was nominated by the Republican Party for County Superintendent of Public Instruction in Lewis and Clark County. The Democratic Party supported her nomination also, and so she was elected as the first woman to hold elective office in Montana. She was re-elected in 1884. She was also a charter member of the newly formed Montana Historical Society and made many contributions to it.

Helen P. Clarke in Tent

In 1887 the Indian Allotment Act was passed and Miss Clarke was asked to act as an interpreter and mediator for the Blackfeet Nation. She was so successful, the Office of Indian Affairs appointed her to the duty of making allotments to the Poncas, Otoes, Pawnees, Tonkawa and Oto Indians in the Oklahoma Territory. This was from 1891 to 1899, excluding the years of 1895 and 1896, when she returned to MT to help with treaty work.

A picture of Helen Clarke is included in Time-Life books The Old West: The Women in 1978 (page 210-211). Recognizing her tribal relationship with the Piegan Tribe in Montana, Helen came to the Blackfeet Reservation to lend her assistance to her people in the framing of some of the clauses in the Treaty of 1895. This was the first Indian land allotted in the United States and she is credited as being one of the few women who helped manage the federal Indian program.

Her home at Midvale, with its fine library of books, was the rendezvous for many writers, artists, and musicians who came to Montana for “material”. Some of these notables were author, Helen Fitzgerald Sanders, (who dedicated the introduction of The White Quiver to Helen and Horace), and famed western artist, Joseph H. Sharp.

Helen P. Clarke was a handsome woman with an excellent intellect, well-read and independent in thought and character. She was a devout member of the Catholic Church in which she was baptized as a baby. At her funeral, Rev. Father Joseph Halligan said, “May the life of this good citizen and sincere Christian be an inspiration and guidance to us all, especially to the women of our country, for Miss Helen Clarke’s life was an embodiment of everything that is beautiful in womanhood. May she rest in peace.”

In her honor, a mountain in the Two Medicine Valley [of Glacier National Park] at the upper Two Medicine Lake bears her name.