Pioneer Chippewa female attorney fought for the rights of Native Americans and all women

Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin was the first known female Native American to actively work on legal matters, and she was born in Pembina in what would eventually be North Dakota.

Marie Louise Baldwin as seen sometime between 1910 and 1915.
Contributed / Library of Congress / Flickr: Mrs. Marie L. Baldwin (LOC) / Public domain

FARGO — The first known female Native American to actively work on legal matters was born in Pembina.

When Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin traveled to Washington, D.C., in the early 1890s to assist in the defense of the territorial rights of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa, there were no female Native American attorneys. According to the American Bar Association Journal, “Lyda Burton Conly, a member of the Wyandot tribe, became the nation’s first female lawyer of Indian descent” when she was admitted to the Missouri State Bar in 1902.

Determined to do more to help her people get proper legal representation, Marie, at the age of 48, in 1912 enrolled at American University’s Washington College of Law, and graduated two years later. She became “the first Native American and the first woman of color to earn a degree from the college.” At that time she was working for the U.S. Office of Indian Affairs. Marie was also active in the women’s suffrage movement and, in 1913, along with other suffrage leaders, “met with President Woodrow Wilson to enlist his support.”

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Marie Louise Bottineau was born Dec. 14, 1863, on Ojibwa/Chippewa land in the extreme northeastern corner of what would soon become Dakota Territory. Her parents were Jean and Marie (Renville) Bottineau, and her paternal grandfather was Pierre Bottineau, a founding father of Minneapolis-St. Paul, and a legendary hero of the American frontier. The North Dakota city and county of Bottineau were named in his honor.

Marie’s father, Jean Baptiste Bottineau, a son of Pierre Bottineau, was a lawyer and became an advocate for the Chippewa nation in North Dakota and Minnesota after the Chippewa were forced to cede over 10 million acres of land to the U.S. government. Earlier, he had been a successful fur trader, surveyor, real estate broker, justice of the peace and sutler in the U.S. military service.


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In 1867, the Bottineaus moved to Minneapolis where Jean set up his law office. Marie attended public schools for her elementary education and graduated from St. Joseph’s Academy in St. Paul, a Catholic high school for girls. She then enrolled in St. John’s Ladies College in Winnipeg and worked part time at a cigar and tobacco store. After graduation, Marie returned home, and in 1888, married Fred S. Baldwin, a white Minneapolis businessman. Fred and Marie remained together for only a couple of years and, “after a falling out... she decided to regain stability in her life by working as a clerk for her father’s law firm.”

Marie arrived in time to assist her father with a big challenge. In 1892, the U.S. government finally agreed to pay for the land they had seized nearly 30 years earlier but paid the Chippewa only $1 million dollars — 10 cents per acre. Consequently, this agreement became known as the Ten Cent Treaty. Part of that agreement was that the Chippewa reservation was to be reduced from 460,000 acres to 46,080 acres, and Marie and her father were forced to make the best of a bad situation. For her role in all of this, Marie helped “organize and speak at her father’s meetings that pertained to the treaty.”

Largely because of her deep commitment to the welfare of Indigenous Americans and a growing legal expertise, Marie received “an appointment from President Theodore Roosevelt to serve as a clerk in the U.S. Office of Indians Affairs (OIA) in Washington, D.C., in 1904.” She became “the second indigenous person and the first woman to work in that office.” Marie “was able to take control in allocating resources, like food, to different populations in Indian reservations.”

By doing this, she could make sure that her people were not being cheated out of their promised resources. Marie came to represent the success that could be achieved by Native American women and, “from 1910 to 1912, she was invited as a formal speaker at graduation ceremonies funded by the OIA.”

Marie Louise Baldwin as seen sometime between 1910 and 1915.
Contributed / Library of Congress / Flickr: Mrs. Marie L. Baldwin (LOC) / Public domain

While working for the OIA, Marie “also helped found the Society of American Indians (SAI),” in 1911. This was “the first national American Indian rights organization run by and for American Indians.” The SAI was a movement that promoted unity among the different tribes and was made up of “prominent professionals from the field of medicine, nursing, law, government, education, anthropology, and the ministry.” After the establishment of the SAI, an executive committee made up of 15 Native American leaders was formed, which included Marie as an officer.

In 1912, Marie “decided that she could be a bigger asset to her community had she also gotten a law degree.” Despite the fact that she would soon be 49 years old, Marie enrolled at the American University’s Washington College of Law. This was a college “founded by feminists in order to retaliate against the male dominance of legal practice.”

Most of the women at the college were white suffragists, and soon after entering the college Marie was drawn into the suffrage movement. During the summer months, she returned to North Dakota and became part of the leadership of the women’s movement in this state. In 1913, Marie marched in Washington, D.C., as part of the National Woman Suffrage Procession. She was also part of the delegation that met with President Woodrow Wilson to enlist his support.

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Marie graduated in 1914 “with highest distinction” and returned to her work at the OIA, and resumed her duties at the SAI. She traveled across the country, giving talks at schools and other organizations about the value of women and Native Americans in the workforce. She stressed the value of equal opportunities in education and said that “there should not be a male-dominated industry and how women should have more opportunities to sustain themselves in the workforce.” She favored equal pay for equal work regardless of gender.


Soon after she was elected treasurer of SAI in 1914, jealousy appeared to occur among some of the other members, and Marie “began to feel marginalized and attacked by other leaders of the organization.” In 1919, Marie withdrew from the SAI, but continued her work at the OIA until her retirement in 1932.

Marie died on May 17, 1952, and the Marie Bottineau Baldwin Scholarship was established by the Washington College of Law student organization. I found it interesting that her death certificate lists her full name as, “Marie Lillianbotti Bottineau Baldwin.”

Curt Eriksmoen has been writing a weekly history column for The Forum since 2004. He has taught at both the high school and college level and served as social studies coordinator for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction for 13 years. He is the author of nine books and is know for inventing barroom team trivia in 1974. Reach him at or calling 701-793-8508.
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