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Clubwoman Spotlight: Elizabeth Bender Roe Cloud (1888-1965)

A recent visiting researcher in the Women’s History and Resource Center reminded us of the important legacies that GFWC clubwomen have left for their families, communities, and the nation. Renya Ramirez, American Studies professor at the University of California in Santa Cruz, came to the WHRC to investigate the contributions of her grandmother, Oregon clubwoman Elizabeth Bender Roe Cloud. The legacy of Mrs. Cloud, a Native Ojibwe, highlights the important role that GFWC volunteers played in promoting the welfare of Native Americans.

The GFWC Indian Welfare Committee was created at the 1921 Salt Lake City convention, under the direction of California State President Stella Atwood. GFWC clubwomen united in protest against the Bursum Bill (1922) that targeted the land claims of Pueblo Indians and would have devastated their communities. Throughout the next several decades, GFWC clubwomen volunteered time and resources to improve the lives of Native Americans through scholarships and health programs and by promoting the economic viability of native arts and crafts. 

Elizabeth Roe Cloud was a local celebrity at the GFWC convention in Portland, Oregon in 1948. She was the founder of the Oregon Trail Women’s Club on the Umatilla Indian Reservation, where her husband, Dr. Henry Roe Cloud, was Superintendent. Representing the Oregon Trail Women’s Club and the Women’s Club of Pendleton in presenting the first evening’s entertainment, Elizabeth Roe Cloud was introduced as “the only Indian woman appointed by our late President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to serve on the National Child Welfare Committee.”  She served as Chair of GFWC’s Indian Affairs Division from 1950-1954, during the administrations of GFWC Presidents Dorothy Houghton and Mildred Ahlgren.  Elizabeth Roe Cloud visited many Native American reservations and communities throughout the country, including in Alaska.  According to her report in the October 1952 General Federation Clubwoman, “The objective of the GFWC program is to help improve Indian standards of living through better jobs, better health, better schools, better homes and equal civil rights.”

Professor Renya Ramirez is currently researching and writing a family history about her grandparents, Henry Roe Cloud and Elizabeth Bender Roe Cloud. Although much has been written about Henry Roe Cloud, Elizabeth’s contributions are less well known. According to Ramirez,

My grandmother, Elizabeth Bender Roe Cloud, was born on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota in the late nineteenth century.  In 1903 she was sent to Hampton Institute, a government boarding school in Virginia, as part of the U.S. government’s attempt to civilize American Indians. The website Hampton Normal & Agricultural Institute: American Indian Students (1878-1923) includes a first-person account written by Elizabeth Bender in 1915.

After graduating from Hampton, she continued in the teacher training program there and became a teacher for the Indian Service in Browning, Montana in 1908. She was an early member of the Society of American Indians where she met my grandfather, Henry Roe Cloud. She took an advanced teacher training course at Hampton Institute and taught at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania in 1915. 

Henry Roe Cloud and Elizabeth Bender married in 1916. They founded and ran an interdenominational Christian college preparatory high school for Native young men, the American Indian Institute, until the early 1930s. This school was revolutionary for the time, as most Native Americans were only provided vocational education in government boarding schools. Because my grandfather was in charge of fundraising, this left my grandmother to run the school in his absence. When my grandfather decided to take another job, he asked the school’s board of directors to hire my grandmother to take over his job as superintendent, but she was denied on account of her gender. 

While working at the school, Elizabeth was often asked to travel and speak about Indians to church groups across the country.  When my grandfather moved to Oregon to work at the Umatilla Reservation for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Elizabeth became active in women’s groups in Oregon. She eventually became chairman of the Indian Welfare Committee.

In the 1950s, she was involved in fighting against termination of Indian tribes’ rights as part of her work as chairman of the Indian Welfare Committee for the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. She attended an emergency session called by the National Congress of American Indians and wrote a proclamation against termination.  In 1950, she won the American Mother of the Year Award for her work in women’s clubs and her raising four daughters who all graduated from college. 

Professor Ramirez will continue her research in the WHRC and would be grateful to hear if any GFWC clubwomen have information about her grandmother’s work in GFWC. Any information can be sent by e-mail to the WHRC.


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