Her name wasn’t Helen. She wasn’t a telephone operator at the Many Glacier Hotel in Montana. There were no Native American telephone operators at this hotel. It is highly unlikely that there were any Native American employees there. The photograph wasn’t even taken in 1925; according to historian Ray Djuff, it was taken in 1913.
Hoke Smith was an editor at the Minneapolis Tribune hired by the Great Northern Railway to work in its advertising and publicity department. It was his task to sell the railway to potential travelers, especially by promoting the newly created Glacier National Park (1910). Combining fact with fiction, he wrote stories that were picked up by the newspapers. He created a Blackfeet princess named Dawn Mist. And the public, not aware that Dawn Mist was fiction, believed it.
Several Blackfeet women took on the role of Dawn Mist. We don’t know who this woman is posing in what was probably a publicity shot for the Great Northern, but she could be one of the four Blackfeet who portrayed the fictional princess.
Glacier National Park borders the Blackfeet reservation. During the time when Hoke Smith was writing publicity for the Great Northern Railway, Blackfeet were hired by the hotel to perform for the visitors. They drummed and danced. They spoke about their culture. The hotel insisted that they spoke their native language and used sign language; it insisted that they wore authentic regalia. In a harsh world where Native Americans were forbidden to speak their languages and practice their cultural ways, this helped the Blackfeet hang onto their heritage. And in that world where employment for people of color was difficult to come by, the income they made performing during the summer helped them through the winter.
But it wasn’t all a “bed of roses” so to speak. The Blackfeet performed outside and were not allowed in the hotel. So, it is impossible that there was ever a Native American telephone operator wearing Native dress in the hotel.
The stories that Hoke Smith fed to the public were fiction and to this day, remnants of that fictionalization are still passed on as fact. The fictionalization is passed on in the photograph of “Helen of Many Glacier Hotel,” which is in the Library of Congress. If you search the internet, there are photographs of “Princess Dawn Mist;” in one of them, she’s standing with “Abraham Lincoln” in front of a teepee. The Library of Congress holds a photograph of Princess Dawn Mist with President Calvin Coolidge.
Real history is so much more than the fictional accounts, but we must search for it.
I began my journey to find out who Helen was by contacting the Glacier Park Foundation. Carol Dahle forwarded my email to the board members. Ray Djuff, has researched Waterton and Glacier parks, contacted me with a wealth of information. I am indebted to him. He has several books on Amazon.
Photograph Credit: Female Indian telephone switchboard operator – “Helen of Many Glacier Hotel.”, 26 June 1925. Digital ID: (digital file from original neg.) ggbain 38272 http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.38272. Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ggbain-38272 (digital file from original negative). Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print.