Indian culture

Valerie Sherer Mathes explores Native American culture in her writings

“Jackson basically led me from topic to topic,” Mathes said. “But once I was introduced to the Women’s National Indian Association [WNIA], it seemed to me that I had acquired a real desire to tell their story. The association is so embedded in Indian history that scholars of women’s history have ignored it.

“So starting with my book, ‘Divinely Guided: The California Work of the Women’s National Indian Association,’ my goal has been to write as much as possible about the association and its members and to raise awareness about the subject.”

Indian National Women’s Association

Founded in 1879 by a group of white American women, the WNIA included educators and activists Mary Bonney and Amelia Stone Quinton. It aimed to assimilate Indigenous peoples into modern American society through Christian education and missionary work, and to abolish the reservation system. Viewed through the lens of history, much of the organization’s efforts are seen as destructive to Native American cultures and ways of life.

The WNIA also influenced the Dawes Act of 1887, which authorized President Grover Cleveland to subdivide tribal communal land holdings into allotments for heads of families and Native American individuals. This converted traditional land tenure systems into a government-enforced private property system by forcing American Indians to “assume a capitalist, proprietary relationship to property” that had not previously existed in their cultures.

“[The American Indian reform movement] is no longer considered politically correct due to the assimilationist position,” Mathes said. “However, the WNIA was unique in that it established mission stations. True, the WNIA strove to Christianize and assimilate the Indians, but in doing so it also provided them with adequate housing, medical care, and all manner of other forms of assistance, including the purchase of land for them. My current focus is to show how these positive attributes outweigh the negative politics of assimilation.

The WNIA, which continued until 1951, first began its missionary work to help women and children before adopting a more holistic approach.

All of Mathes’ 12 books focus on American Indian reform efforts during the second half of the 19th century, with the exception of “Sonoma Valley” and “City College of San Francisco”, both published by Arcadia Publishing.

Her most recent book, published this year, is “Amelia Stone Quinton and the Women’s National Indian Association: A Legacy of Indian Reform,” published by the University of Oklahoma Press.

“Quinton was amazing,” Mathes said. “She traveled all over the country establishing auxiliaries, made half a dozen trips across the country, organizing herself as she went. She has given hundreds of addresses every year to all kinds of public and religious groups to promote her association. [WNIA]. She worked well with her male reformers and knew the country’s most powerful religious, political and educational leaders, including a number who served on the WNIA’s advisory board.

“She was responsible for founding more than half of the 60 mission stations and did not hesitate to travel to the most rugged part of the country to scout sites for new missions. She slept under a mosquito net in the wilderness of the Everglades and under a wagon train in South Dakota…”

Ongoing reform efforts

Mathes focused very little on modern tribal history in her scholarly work, but offered some opinions on ongoing reform efforts.

“The only way to have meaningful reform is for more Indian men and women to get involved in politics and get elected… We have at least two indigenous women in government now [Deb Haaland, a Laguna Pueblo from New Mexico, and Sharice Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation from Kansas]but we need much more.

Mathes pointed out that women have historically played important roles that are not widely known outside of Native American cultures.

“Indian women had a lot of power,” she said. “They could become shamans after the menopause; they could become leaders, leading men into battle; and among the Iroquois they possessed the houses, the lands and the fields, and chose the chiefs. Some tribes are matrilineal and others patrilineal, and in the former women have a lot of power.

She also drew attention to common misconceptions of 19th century American Indians.

“Not all of them were riding horses and not all wearing Plains Indian headdresses,” she said. “Some of the most powerful tribes, like the Northwest Coast Indians, were fishermen and moved their villages seasonally. Some tribes were collectors and gatherers, moving from season to season to find food; others were hunters and fishermen; and still others were farmers – and the women did the farming.

Mathes is still immersed in writing books and articles on American Indian history, including a new essay on how Jackson influences her work.

She also continues to cultivate her art collection.

“I bought a painting created in the 1970s by Helen Hardin, an Indian artist from Santa Clara who was a sister in my sorority,” she said. “His mother, Pablita Velarde, also an Indian from Santa Clara, is known for her sand paintings.”

Mathes also has an impressive collection of Navajo rugs.

“For a decade, my sister [Patricia Kelliher] led the Navajo teacher training program on the reservation at the University of New Mexico,” she said. “Because she was always on the reservation or around the Navajo Indians, she would call me and tell me she had this great Navajo rug. I acquired most of my prize rugs that way.

“Unfortunately moths ruled the day and so my collection of rugs has dwindled. I returned some to my sister, but I still have a number of rugs on my walls. I also collected a lot of Navajo and Pueblo jewelry, which I’ve worn for decades in class.

Contact the reporter, Dan Johnson, at