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Oklahoma’s Kate Barnard: Catholic champion for American Indian orphans
By Dana Attocknie
Kate Barnard felt a calling from God to help people, no matter the cost.
Born to Irish-Catholic parents on May 23, 1875, in Geneva, Neb., Catherine Ann “Kate” Barnard was eventually brought to Oklahoma by her father when she was 12. Her mother had died when Barnard was an infant. Barnard attended, and would later teach, at Saint Joseph parochial school in downtown Oklahoma City.
She devoted her adult life to seeking and obtaining justice for other people. She tackled child labor laws, unemployment, work hours and conditions, compulsory education, prison reform, mental health issues, and business and industry regulations.
Barnard was elected, and served two terms, as Commissioner of Charities and Corrections in 1907, making her the first woman to win a statewide elected office in the United States. Her victory came without any votes from women, since women were not allowed to vote in Oklahoma until 1918.
During her tenure, she had 30 statutory laws passed through the Oklahoma Legislature. Three of her articles were part of the final draft of the state’s constitution. Her work blossomed into what is now known as the Department of Corrections, Department of Human Services and Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.
She faced many challenges, discrimination and retaliation in her career, and it hit a crescendo in 1910 when she began seeking justice on behalf of American Indian orphans. She realized the court-appointed guardians of American Indian orphans were stealing farmland, timberland, coal and oil land, and oil and gas holdings. The guardians did so by raising fees, forgery, forcing people to sign deeds, kidnapping and more.
Barnard called the injustice, “the greatest blight upon Oklahoma.”
In “Mankiller: A Chief and Her People,” by Wilma Mankiller, she quotes Barnard, saying, “I have been compelled to see orphans robbed, starved and burned for money. I have named the men and accused them and furnished the records and affidavits to convict them, but with no result. I decided long ago that Oklahoma had no citizen who cared whether or not an orphan is robbed or starved or killed – because his dead claim is easier to handle than if he were alive.”
In 1911, Barnard and J.H. Stolper, a special prosecutor, worked on and won 107 cases across 25 counties. Her work implicated corporations, politicians and judges, and led to a federal investigation by the United States Board of Indian Commissioners.
“Kate Barnard was, indeed, the champion of an Indian rights crusade. The Indian Allotment Act was established on Feb. 8, 1887, which divided tribal reservations into individual tracts of land for tribal members known as trust patents. The land was to be held in trust by the U.S. government for a period of up to 25 years. When the timeline of the act ended, many Indians found themselves subject to state law,” said Linda Capps, vice chairman of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.
“This came with state property taxes, which resulted in the sale of much of the land that the Indians received through the Allotment Act. Many Indians lost their land during this time. Not only land was involved, but the precious minerals beneath the land was at stake. Kate Barnard was a powerful force as she demanded the federal government resume jurisdiction over the legal affairs of Indians in need of protection. Although, the federal government would eventually gain jurisdiction over trust land, guardianship was held by the probate courts, which led to manipulation and abuse by the system. This is when Barnard’s glory was revealed as she fought against those who would profit by illegally possessing allotment lands from Indian children and orphans. It is said that she gained back over a million dollars for Indian children."
Capps said Barnard’s efforts were a tremendous help to the American Indian people, and she was a champion for American Indian children. Capps is the recipient of the 2017 Kate Barnard Award from the Oklahoma Commission on the Status of Women.
Because of Barnard’s advocacy for American Indian orphans, the legislature began an investigation into her office. No wrong doing was found, but her budget was gutted and she would only receive funding for her salary.
“At the time, they wrecked my office in the state house. The Standard Oil click bought up all the newspapers of the city, and some 500 county newspapers, and not a word was allowed to seep through of the wrecking of the Department of Charities by the 4th Legislature of Oklahoma. The silence was universal, deadly, ominous,” Barnard wrote in her typewritten diary.
“To this day … 20 years after … hardly a voter in Oklahoma knows that my office was wrecked and my life work ruined by the very men they returned to office. Since my office was wrecked and I was ostracized because I would not surrender my fight to return to Indian orphan children the oil lands stolen from these little ones … it must be apparent that one thing the nation needs is public ownership of the press.”
Barnard soon would disappear from public life and focus on her health issues. She died in February 1930 at age 54.
“No one knows … but God … how much I might have accomplished for human progress during these 20 years I have been forced into silence … forced into idleness … banished into obscurity dense as the tomb,” Barnard said.
Her funeral was held at Saint Joseph Old Cathedral in downtown Oklahoma City with nearly 1,400 people attending and seven former governors serving as honorary pallbearers. It wasn’t until 1982 that she received a headstone.
Today, a statue of Barnard sits in the state Capitol and a community correctional center bears her name.
According to a Dec. 10, 1972, issue of Orbit magazine, Barnard’s will stated, “I give my soul to God. I bequeath the example of my public life to the youth of the world, praying they may emulate me in dedicating their own lives to securing justice for the poor of their generation, as I did mine.”
Dana Attocknie is managing editor of the Sooner Catholic.