Women have served in the U.S. military since the Revolutionary War, when Gen. George Washington diplomatically took aside a woman disguised as a male soldier, congratulated her for her service and handed her discharge papers.
Researcher and Marine veteran Dwayne Nelson of Augusta will recount the service that women have provided in every U.S. war since that time during a Veterans Day talk at 11 a.m. today at the Montana Veterans Memorial.
After experience primarily as nurses on both sides during the Civil War, more women began serving larger, noncombat roles during World War I. That trend was especially true during World War II, when more than 250,000 American women served in the armed services, while hundreds of thousands more women took factory jobs.
Minnie Spotted Wolf, a slender, but tough family ranch hand from Heart Butte was one of the early women determined to play her part.
She is believed to be the first Native American woman to join the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve in September 1943, and because of her gumption and background, was featured in stories, photographs and even a girls’ comic book story that promoted the war effort.
Spotted Wolf died in 1988 after a 29-year teaching career. Her daughter, Browning public health nurse Gerardetta “Gerry” England, will speak at today’s ceremony.
“My mom would have been very proud to have been honored at this ceremony,” England said in a telephone interview. “She was very proud to have been a Marine, wife, sister, mom and grandmother.”
Spotted Wolf grew up on an isolated ranch on White Tail Creek about 15 miles northeast of Heart Butte, and helped her parents raise cattle, sheep and horses.
“Mom was real outdoorsy and helped her father with the animals,” England said. “She was really good at breaking horses, and folks said she could outride guys into her early 50s.”
Spotted Wolf started thinking about joining the military shortly after the U.S. entered World War II when she was 18, but initially was discouraged by a recruiter who told her “the war was really not for women,” England said.
“But Mom really wanted to go into the military to serve her country. Her brother had died, and she knew nobody else in the family would be able to serve.”
When Spotted Wolf finally got ready to sign up, she almost had to back out because her father was seriously injured in a horse riding accident. He soon died from those injuries, but her mother and sister urged Spotted Wolf to pursue her dream.
“The girls and I can manage,” Spotted Wolf’s mother told her, according to England. “Your country needs you more.”
She went through Marine boot camp training at Camp Lejeune, N.C.. She later was quoted in promotional blurbs describing boot camp as “hard, but not too hard” after all the physical labor she had done on her father’s ranch, including “cutting fence posts, driving a two-ton truck and breaking horses.”
Military public relations teams put out photos and stories showing Spotted Wolf standing next to her horse and holding a rifle just before joining, working with two other Indian women recruits and even shooting a bow-and-arrow – a photograph her daughter now thinks “was kind of phony.”
However, a dramatic, four-page comic-book-style recounting of Spotted Wolf that appeared in the “Calling All Girls” magazine for teen girls was an accurate accounting of what happened to her mother the year before she joined the military, England said.
Titled “One Little Indian,” the tale starts by stating “20-year-old Minnie Spotted Wolf, full-blooded Blackfoot Indian, did a man’s job before the war. Now she’s taking a man’s place in the United States Marines.”
The comic book shows her riding a horse through deep snow to get provisions for her family after a severe blizzard, then correctly predicting the spring melt would cause bad flooding.
After helping her father move the cattle to higher ground in the spring, she and her sister survived a severe truck rollover on a backcountry road. Soon after that accident, her father was severely injured after being bucked from a horse.
England said her mother’s family kept close to the ranch and visited bigger Montana towns only a few times a year.
“So she loved being able to travel, visit bigger cities and meet people of different backgrounds in the military,” England said.
Spotted Wolf spent four years in the military, including time at Hawaii and California bases working as a heavy equipment driver, a job usually done by men.
She was 5-foot-5 and weighed just 95 pounds when she joined the military, but was wiry and grew to 110 pounds with a special diet and exercise.
Spotted Wolf drove trucks on the ranch and male military friends taught her how to drive and repair other vehicles.
“She said she was soon able to keep up with the guys, and could take apart and rebuild an engine,” her daughter said.
Spotted Wolf’s roles in the military included driving trucks loaded with heavy equipment and ferrying visiting generals around bases as a Jeep driver.
“A few people picked on her for being an Indian, but most people treated her well,” England said. “Mom was proud of who she was. She wasn’t in the military just for herself, but for the Indian people. She wanted others to know who she was and where she came from.
“Mom always told us four kids as we grew up to remember that our people have been here for a long time, to be proud of everything you can learn about Indian culture and to take care of the land,” England added.
After being discharged in 1947, Spotted Wolf went to school at Northern Montana College and received a bachelor’s degree in education from the College of Great Falls.
She married Conrad farmer Robert England in 1952, and they had four children.
Spotted Wolf taught elementary school for 29 years in reservation schools and tiny country schools throughout Montana. She usually kept a horse for riding near where she worked.
Spotted Wolf remained patriotic and was active in Browning American Legion Post 127, wearing the post uniform as she carried a flag during the annual Indian Days celebration and while attending military funerals.
She was buried in that uniform, with black slacks and coat, when she died at age 65 in 1988, England said.
Reach Tribune Staff Writer Peter Johnson at 791-1476 or [email protected].