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Native Woman Crush Wednesday: Molly Spotted Elk


I have decided to start a new blog activity on Wednesdays that are dedicated to influential woman in the indigenous community. As my first Native Woman Crush Wednesday, I have chosen Mary Alice Nelson Archambaud, or other wise known as Molly Spotted Elk from the Penobscot Nation. Being that I am currently in Maine, I felt it was most appropriate.

Molly Spotted Elk c. 1930
Molly Spotted Elk c. 1930

Mary Alice Nelson Archambaud was a 20th century actress, author, poet, dancer and student. Mary Alice Nelson was born on Indian Island, near Old Town, Maine, on November 17, 1903. She was the eldest child of Penobscot Nation governor, Horace Nelson, and well-known basket maker, Philomena Solis Nelson.

According to Maine: An Encyclopedia, when Mary Alice’s mother passed away, Mary Alice started learning and participating in traditional dances to support her family. She graduated from Old Town High School and went to the University of Pennsylvania to pursue a higher education in anthropology. While she only attended for two years, she was able to contribute to Dr. Frank Gouldsmith Speck’s Penobscot Man: The Life of a Forest Tribe in Maine.

After two years at the University of Pennsylvania, studying and doing janitorial work to support herself, Mary Alice began performing traditional dancing in multiple vaudeville acts across the country as her living and passion. She then became known as the native hit performer, Molly Spotted Elk.

Between 1922-1931, she traveled across country performing before achieving the lead role of “Neewa” in the last Paramount silent film “The Silent Enemy.”

Paramount's "The Silent Enemy"
Paramount’s “The Silent Enemy” Released 1930

While the film lacked decent exposure and popularity it was a turning point for native people and Molly Spotted Elk. It was had sent her off to her more well-known acts and performances in Europe, and more specifically France.

In 1931 Molly Spotted Elk became a part of the International Colonial Exposition, in the ballet section. There she was able to star in front of larger crowds, including members of European government and royalty.

While in France, Molly Spotted Elk married journalist, John Stephen Frederic Archambaud and together had a daughter, Jean. In 1940, the Nazis occupied France and Molly and her daughter were separated from John and the two had to flee France. They both returned to Indian Island, where Molly lived out the rest of her days. In these days wrote and translated children’s books from Penobscot tales and made native dolls, which can be currently seen in the Smithsonian Museum.

Molly Spotted Elk died in her homeland, on February 21, 1977, she was 73. Because of her many accomplishments as native and as woman during the time of great discrimination she is an incredible inspiration to the native people that have come after her. For this, she was inducted into the Native American Hall of Honor in Arizona, where she represents one of three natives from the Penobscot Nation.

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