Helen Hunt Jackson, Indian rights activist

Helen Hunt Jackson c. 1880

Born today in 1830, the author and poet Helen Hunt Jackson found her cause late in life. At the age of 48 — moved by the testimony of Chief Standing Bear — she decided to devote her life to remedying the injustices suffered by Native Americans.

Named Helen Maria Fiske at birth, she grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts. Over the years, she befriended Emily Dickinson; the two became lifelong pen pals.

Tragedy marred Helen’s childhood. She saw two baby brothers die in infancy. Her mother passed away when she was 15 years old. Her father — a Unitarian minister and professor at Amherst College — followed three years later.

However, their inheritance helped Helen and her sister obtain an excellent formal education, which was unusual for women at that time.

Helen Fiske Hunt & a son in the 1850s

At the age of 22, Helen married Captain Edward Hunt of the U.S. Army, an accomplished scientist. His military assignments often forced him to spend long periods away from their family.

Misfortune afflicted the Hunts. In 1854, their firstborn son died of a brain disease in infancy; two years later, she gave birth to a second boy. During the Civil War, while working to develop torpedo technology her husband died in an accident at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. Diphtheria killed Helen’s sole remaining child at the age of 9 in 1865.

After these losses, she began writing and publishing poetry and prose, primarily travel and children’s literature. Ralph Waldo Emerson and other contemporaries appreciated her work.

In 1873, she went west to Colorado Springs to seek treatment for tuberculosis. There, she met and married town founder William Sharpless Jackson, Sr., a railroad executive and banker.

She continued writing and found enduring inspiration while visiting Boston in 1879. Helen attended a speech by the Ponca chief Standing Bear, who had recently won his freedom in federal court, setting the precedent that Indians are in fact persons protected by the U.S. Constitution (Standing Bear v. Crook).

Chief Standing Bear of the Ponca

As the chief recounted the hardships inflicted on his people by white settlers and federal authorities, Helen resolved to crusade for the rights of Native Americans.

She devoted herself to researching and documenting the entire catalog of crimes against the Indians, past and present, from massacres and lawless land grabs by white settlers to the broken treaties, abuses and exploitation perpetrated by corrupt Army and Indian Bureau officials.

At first, Helen’s findings made little difference. Elected representatives ignored her petitions, and even when newspapers printed her articles, she failed to persuade most readers. A consensus of Americans continued to view Indians as a doomed race of savages, mere impediments in the path of Manifest Destiny, and inevitable losers in the Darwinian struggle.

In 1881, she compiled her research into a book, entitled A Century of Dishonor: A Sketch of the United States Government’s Dealings with Some Indian Tribes. Here is a choice excerpt from the conclusion:

The history of the Government connections with the Indians is a shameful record of broken treaties and unfulfilled promises. The history of the border white man's connection with the Indians is a sickening record of murder, outrage, robbery, and wrongs committed by the former, as the rule, and occasional savage outbreaks and unspeakably barbarous deeds of retaliation by the latter, as the exception. 

Taught by the Government that they had rights entitled to respect, when those rights have been assailed by the rapacity of the white man, the arm which should have been raised to protect them has ever been ready to sustain the aggressor.

Despite some gratifying reviews, Century of Dishonor did not sell well at first and had little immediate impact on public opinion.

Then and now, people prefer to read fiction. Helen had seen how Harriett Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin had helped turned the northern public against slavery, so she decided to write an equivalent novel for Native Americans. In Ramona (1884), she spun a melodramatic tale of an Indian maiden in the context of actual oppressions endured by the Indians of southern California under Mexican rule.

Ramona sold well, but did not replicate the massive literary phenomenon of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Nor did it change the minds of many readers. People enjoyed the story, but tended to miss Helen’s implicit point about the full humanity of Native Americans.

In 1885, she suffered a bad fall and died from stomach cancer while bedridden. In a condolence letter to Helen’s bereaved widower, Emily Dickinson wrote, “Dear friend, can you walk, were the last words that I wrote her. I can fly — her immortal (soaring) reply.”

If, as Dickinson suggested, Helen’s soul remains sentient, then the author now knows that her work — especially A Century of Dishonor — has inspired generations of Native American activists, helped reshape public opinion, and ultimately led to some reforms to improve conditions on reservations. However, she would lament the continued plight of this country’s indigenous people, who remain the poorest, unhealthiest, shortest-lived, least educated, least employed and most ignored minority group in our society. In the spirit of Helen Hunt Jackson, we should resolve to break with past centuries of dishonor and challenge ourselves to remedy these injustices, starting today.

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