Valerie Sherer Mathes explores American Indian culture in her writing

The brilliantly colored painting shows a warrior on an American Paint horse hunting a buffalo, an activity fundamental to the survival and culture of Plains Indians who inhabited the grasslands of North America prior to the animal’s near-extinction following settlers’ expansion into the West.

This work by talented American Indian artist George Campbell Keahbone has been proudly displayed in the Sonoma home of Valerie Sherer Mathes for the past 50 years. She is particularly fond of the painting, which she received as a gift from renowned historian and retired professor France Vinton Scholes. It vividly depicts an activity that was waning in 19th century American Indian life, which has been Mathes’ lifelong passion and focus as a teacher, writer and researcher.

“Unfortunately, the public gets its Indian history from TV and movies, and the portrayal is not accurate. Indians are often seen as the aggressor when in fact all they ever did was to defend their homeland from the white intruders,” she said.

Even as a young girl growing up in Toledo, Ohio, Mathes had a budding interest in Native American cultures, but it increased exponentially when her family moved to Albuquerque.

“Whenever we went to Santa Fe, the plaza was full of Pueblo Indians and Navajos selling their wares,” Mathes, 80, said. “My father knew several of the leaders of nearby pueblos, so we attended some dances. Also, when I was living in the freshman dorm my first year at University of New Mexico, I befriended two young Indian women who lived across the hall from me. Furthermore, I always have loved Indian art and jewelry, and began collecting early on.”

Mathes went on to forge an impressive career as a historian of American Indian history, having published 10 books and dozens of articles on the subject and winning several awards. She also taught classes on American Indian history and other subjects in the social sciences department at City College of San Francisco for 50 years, beginning in 1967.

She started teaching at the college after receiving a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in history from the University of New Mexico. Her interest in American Indian history led her to establish a one-semester course on the Pueblo tribes.

“Then, when I put together my two-semester Indian history class, I had to include all tribes,” Mathes said. “So, I started in the east and moved westward, researching and learning about as many tribes as possible. I believe I can safely say that at one time when I was still teaching, I could explain to students the history of the ‘Five Civilized Tribes’ [Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek or Muscogee, and Seminole] as well as I can Navajo and Apache.

“I have, however, concentrated most of my writing on the mission Indians of Southern California, primarily because I have continued to follow in [reformer Helen Hunt] Jackson’s footsteps.”

To enhance her lectures, Mathes included slides on American Indian art and cultures, and during a sabbatical she toured Southwestern Anasazi (Pueblo) sites, visiting and taking hundreds of photographs of such archaeological ruins as Mesa Verde National Park, Chaco Canyon and Canyon de Chelly National Monument, all in New Mexico.

“Teaching was the best gig in town,” she said. “It is the only occupation that I knew of that you can reinvent yourself every semester. I never tired of teaching. The only reason I finally retired was the commute between San Francisco and Sonoma had gotten so horrible.”

Written words

Mathes began writing about Native Americans in 1975 when her article, “A New Look at the Role of Women in Indian Societies,” was published in American Indian Quarterly. She gradually shifted her writing focus from American Indian women to Indigenous reformers — those who embraced, either by choice or by force, the dominant white culture.

“Because I am not Indian, I felt more comfortable writing about white women who joined the Indian reform movement,” she said. “I was never challenged by my students, but I definitely felt more comfortable.”

Mathes entered the doctorate program in history at Arizona State University in 1981, studying under prominent scholar Robert A. Trennert, who specialized in the late 19th century Native American reform movement. Mathes received her degree in 1988, with dissertation on Helen Hunt Jackson’s reform legacy. It was published two years later as a book by the University of Texas Press, becoming the first of her academic tomes.

Jackson was an American poet and writer who became an activist who sought the improved treatment of American Indians by the U.S. government in the latter half of the 19th century. She significantly broadened Mathes’ interest in American Indian reform efforts.

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

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

Women’s National Indian 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 People into modern American society through Christian education and missionary work, and abolish the reservation system. Looked at through the lens of history, much of the organization’s efforts are considered destructive to Native American cultures and ways of living.

The WNIA also influenced the Dawes Act of 1887, which authorized President Grover Cleveland to subdivide tribal communal landholdings into allotments for American Indian heads of families and individuals. This converted traditional systems of land tenure into a government-imposed system of private property by forcing American Indians to "assume a capitalist and proprietary relationship with property" that did not previously exist in their cultures.

“[The American Indian reform movement] is no longer seen as politically correct because of the assimilationist stance,” Mathes said. “However, the WNIA was unique in that it established missionary stations. Granted, the WNIA worked to Christianize and assimilate the Indians, but in doing so they also provided proper housing, medical care and all kinds of other assistance, including purchasing land for them. My current goal is to show how these positive attributes outweigh the negative policy of assimilation.”

The WNIA, which continued until 1951, initially began its missionary work to help women and children before adopting a more comprehensive focus.

All of Mathes’ 12 books focus on the American Indian reform efforts during the latter half of the 19th century except for “Sonoma Valley” and “City College of San Francisco,” both from 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,” from 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 as she went along. She gave hundreds of addresses annually before all kinds of public and religious groups to promote her association [WNIA]. She worked well with her male reformers and knew the most powerful religious, political and educational leaders in the country, including a number who served on the WNIA advisory board.

“She was responsible for founding well over half of the 60 mission stations and did not hesitate to go to the most rugged part of the country to scout out sites for new missions. She slept under mosquito netting in the wilds of the Everglades and under a wagon in South Dakota...”

Current reform efforts

Mathes has focused very little on modern-day tribal history in her academic work, but offered some opinions on current reform efforts.

“The only way to have meaningful reform is for more Indian men and women to become involved in politics and get themselves elected ... We at least have 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 far more.”

Mathes emphasized that women have historically played important roles that are not widely known outside of Native Indian cultures.

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

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

“They didn’t all ride horses and wear a Plains Indian headdress,” she said. “Some of the more powerful tribes, such as the Northwest Coast Indians, were fishermen and moved their villages seasonally. Some tribes were collectors and gatherers, moving from season to season finding food; others were hunters and fishermen; and yet others were agriculturists — 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 purchased a painting created in the 1970s by Helen Hardin, a Santa Clara Indian artist who was a sorority sister of mine,” she said. “Her mother, Pablita Velarde, also a Santa Clara Indian woman, is known for her paintings in the sand.”

Mathes also has an impressive collection of Navajo rugs.

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

“Unfortunately, the moths have ruled the day and so, my rug collection has dwindled. I have 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 for decades I wore in the classroom.”

Reach the reporter, Dan Johnson, at

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