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The Indigenous Newspaper Editor Who Galvanized Native Americans

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n 1949, Marie Mason Potts took on a role that would transform the latter half of her life. She became editor of Smoke Signal, the first newspaper in California to be written, edited and controlled exclusively by Indigenous Americans. Potts took over just as a new, post-war wave of Native American activism was swelling. And what she did with the paper for the next 30 years would indelibly impact the lives of countless Indigenous people all over America.

Smoke Signal was first established by Potts’ youngest daughter, Kitty Flores, on behalf of the Federated Indians of California (FIC). Its first issue published in January 1948, when Flores was just 22. When Flores was forced to relocate for her husband’s job, Potts — who had contributed to the paper for the past 18 months — wasn’t about to let Smoke Signal fall out of print. She remained dedicated to it, even during times of personal crisis, for the rest of her life.

Smoke Signal’s initial goal was to unify disparate Indigenous communities so that they could work together as one force. “In Unity, There is Strength” its masthead declared, issue after issue. However, the longer Potts worked on the paper, the more embedded she became in every aspect of Indigenous activism — something she had already been involved with since her teens. Potts’ work at the paper ultimately transcended the normal commitments of a reporter or editor, and stretched into the realms of personal advice and legal assistance.

When Smoke Signal’s readers were struggling to deal with government officials or institutions, Potts sent them the forms they needed, instructions on how to file them and a list of official contacts who might be able to assist with land claims, civil rights issues and other legal battles. Potts’ willingness to be so hands-on provided essential support for Native communities in California — but her impact was much wider.

Smoke Signal’s longevity was due not just to Potts’ knowledge and dedication to its readers, but to how successfully the paper reflected the communities it was serving. Potts recognized that writing about activism alone would not hold a large enough audience’s attention. So alongside news, analysis and regular columns, she made sure there were notices of obituaries, births and events — and, crucially, not a small amount of humor.

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“An Indian was being interviewed for a position,” one Smoke Signal joke read. “Among the questions asked was, ‘Do you know a foreign language?’ His reply was: ‘Yes. English.’”

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otts knew the importance of levity during dark times. Indeed, she had endured plenty of her own. Potts was born in Big Meadow, Plumas County, the ancestral lands of the Northern Maidu. Today, we know it as Taylorsville, a name given to the area by white settlers during the Gold Rush. Potts’ birth, in fact, was the result of a rape committed by a white prospector. On the subject of her biological father and others like him, Potts once said, “They called the child a half-breed. I don’t know why they were ashamed of fathering a child. But that’s white society for you. My father was one of those sons o’ bitches.”

At five years old, Potts was enrolled — terrified and convinced she would be murdered — at the government-operated Greenville Indian School. She attended alongside several cousins and her older sister and brother. (The three siblings were given the last name Mason while attending.) By the time Potts had graduated from Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School in 1915, she had no homeland to return to. Big Meadow had been submerged under a new hydroelectric reservoir, Lake Almanor.

Potts never recovered from the loss of her homeland. But she captured its splendor in The Northern Maidu, a book Potts wrote in 1971 to leave a permanent record of how her people had lived.

How wonderful it was, lying awake at night sometimes, to hear the coyotes bark and the hoot owls uttering their calls among the trees. Sometimes there would be the running clatter of squirrels on the bark slabs above us; and in spring and summer, just as it grew light before the sun rose, there came the enchantment of the bird chorus, the orchestra of the Great Spirit all around us. That clean pine smell on the morning wind — where can we find it now?

Though Carlisle was an institution founded on ideas of settler colonialism, Potts thoroughly enjoyed her time there. She was an eager student and a social butterfly who thrived because she was able to connect with Indigenous people from all over the country. Her circle of girlfriends included women from the Chippewa, Cherokee, Pomo, Cayuga, Konkow and Pawnee nations. Carlisle was also where Potts cultivated an interest in journalism, while contributing to the school’s two newspapers, the Arrow and the Red Man.

Shortly after graduation, Potts married Hensley Henry Potts, of the Konkow nation. (“A branch of the Maidu, but we didn’t speak the same Indian language,” she later explained.) The couple quickly got to work building their family. Raising children would dominate the next two decades for Potts. The couple’s first daughter, Josephine, arrived in 1916. Then came Jeanne in 1918, William in 1920, Nora in 1921, Pansy in 1922 and Kitty in 1924.

With the Potts’ large family, however, came much tragedy. William died in infancy, Kitty was killed in a car crash in her mid-twenties, and Josephine passed on before she’d reached the age of 30. Potts found great comfort in her 20 grandchildren and, of course, in fighting to improve the lives of those that remained around her.

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nce her children were grown, Potts had more time to dedicate to her personal passions. She moved to Sacramento in 1942 and went to work lecturing at Sacramento State about her heritage, Native American history and cultural preservation. She gave speeches all over the country about Indigenous issues — and her years raising a family came in handy. That background enabled her to talk to groups of small children and at youth groups, after she’d given speeches at civic organizations and churches.

Potts’ commitment to Smoke Signal spurred on her activism everywhere else. Starting in 1950, she chaired the “Indian exhibit” at the California State Fair. During the Korean and Vietnam Wars, she ensured Native American veterans, and those still fighting overseas, received free copies of the newspaper. In the ‘60s, she was western regional vice president of the California League for American Indians, an organization that helped Indigenous people access higher education. She also assisted the National Congress of American Indians with their community outreach and activism. She planned and attended countless Indigenous conferences, providing detailed summaries of each for Smoke Signal readers.

When Potts’ grandson (one of Pansy’s children) took part in the occupation of Alcatraz, not only did she spend time on the island with him and his fellow protesters, she actively assisted them. She printed their “Proclamation to the Great White Father and All His People” on the front page of Smoke Signal, along with a list of supplies and equipment that the occupiers needed. She helped to distribute and collect petitions in support of the occupation.

Just as Potts knew the importance of providing humor alongside the news in Smoke Signal, she also understood that joy and revelry were useful tools in the struggle. In addition to traveling with Maidu dancers to demonstrate traditional dances and explain their significance to others, Potts had also enthusiastically assisted in bringing back the annual Bear Dance.

In The Northern Maidu, Potts explained:

From ancient times, the Maidu observed a Spring ceremony which took place when the first edible shoots came through the ground … It was an offering of thanks for having survived the winter, as well as an appeasement, not only to the bear spirits, but to the rattlesnakes … The grizzly bear was a symbol of life to us. If he had survived the winter, so had the tribe.

It was after traveling to the Bear Dance in Janesville in June 1978 that Potts’ spirit took the “no looking back” journey to the great “unknown.” The location felt fated. It was just 25 miles from Potts’ birthplace in Susanville. She was 83. When Potts died, Smoke Signal died with her. But the paper’s legacy lives on — a testament to a life lived passionately, thoughtfully and in a near-constant state of service.

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To learn about other Rebel Girls from Bay Area History, visit the Rebel Girls homepage.

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