Alice Lee Jemison was an extraordinary woman. She was a prominent journalist, and was in fact the most prominent Native American journalist in the United States from the 1930s until her death in 1964 . For the majority of her journalistic career, Jemison was pegged as a “dangerous subversive” by federal officials and was put under FBI surveillance due to her unyielding criticism of the United States government . Jemison’s questioning and criticism of the policies was deeply rooted in her Seneca culture and history, especially when it came to how women were viewed.
Alice Lee Jemison (born Alice Lee) was born in 1901 in Silver Creek, New York . As a young person, Jemison wanted to become an attorney, but unfortunately she came from a poor family and her dreams of attending law school were dashed . Instead, Jemison turned to journalism, which she studied at Silver Creek High School, and would later make a career out of it . The same year she graduated from high school, Alice Lee married Le Verne Leonard Jemison, but the two separated almost a decade later due to her husband’s chronic alcoholism . As a result, Jemison had to struggle to support her mother and two children and did so by having a plethora of jobs including working in a factory, as a clerk, peddler, dressmaker, practical nurse, stone and gravel hauler, legal researcher for a Buffalo attorney, secretary and researcher for the president of the Seneca Nation, and worked for the U.S. Bureau of the Census .
By the 1930s, Jemison’s worldview had already been formed, and having grown up in Seneca society, she was constantly reminded that it was up to the women to preserve the Seneca lands and identity . Jemison was an Iroquois traditionalist and looked at the state and federal governments as enemies who were fostering Indian dependence and welfare . Jemison worked to condemn the agencies which “had done little to prevent the alienation of over ninety million acres of the Indian land base since the passage of the Dawes General Allotment Act of 1887” .
Due to her worldview that women were responsible for the preservation of land and identity, Jemison was heavily involved in the rising Iroquois nationalist movement, and her writing showed that. In 1930, Clothide Marchand, a white woman and wife of artist and museum designer Jules Henri Marchand, was supposedly murdered by two Native American women in Buffalo, New York . Jemison moved to Buffalo and began writing letters to public figures and had begun writing for the Buffalo Evening News; the two women were convicted but were later released due to legal questions involving the fairness of the trial . Her experiences in lobbying and publicity gave Jemison the push she needed to finally start her career in journalism; and by 1932 her articles were being syndicated by the North American Newspaper Alliance and had reached a wide audience . Due to her work for the Senecas, Jemison was nominated by the Seneca National Tribal Council for positions in the Indian Service at least twice . In 1943, Jemison moved to Washington, D.C. where she wrote for the Washington Star, served as a lobbyist for the Seneca Nation, monitored congressional activities on Indian affairs, and became the major publicist-lobbyist for the American Indian Federation . While working for the AIF, Jemison witnessed the seizing of more reservation land by the government and wanted to preserve her people and her people’s homeland at all costs .
Jemison had long wanted to see the abolition of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and that decision went to Congress in the 1950s . Some congressmen wanted to terminate the BIA for cost-saving reasons while others looked at the ruling of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas and they urged the termination of the BIA as “a means of freeing the Indians from oppression” .
Alice Lee Jemison was a strong woman who spoke out for what she believed in. Although she used the mass media available to her at the time to get her points across and to help her people, she did not merely operate from behind the scenes as many other Iroquois women have done in the past. She was a modern woman who whole-heartily believed in the traditional message that Iroquois culture, sovereignty, and rights should be respected . Jemison was willing to sacrifice everything for her cause, and was a true “mother of the nation” who wanted to protect and ensure Seneca survival into the future .
Laurence M. Hauptman, Seven Generations of Iroquois Leadership: The Six Nations Since 1800 (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2008).