Indigenous North America: 19th Century Intellectuals

As I read the report accounting the 1911 Society of American Indians conference, I was stricken by the sheer impact of an assembly. This assembly is especially symbolic and rhetorical, but in ways that challenge colonial narratives that mark American Indians as resistant. These proceedings, instead, clearly articulate that cooperation is an essential goal for the 1911 SAI conference in order to promote good citizenship and freedom of discussion regarding the welfare of American Indians. Further, to me the conference was a symbolic event to solidify an organized identity for American Indians on a national scale and strengthen a presence politically, on policies, in education, and in economics.

I found one quote to be particularly representative of the conference’s goal:

“The thinking Indian of today, viewing events and conditions I their true perspective, asks, therefore, that the entire race may be given the freedom which will enable it to develop normally as an American people in America.”

— Report of the Executive Council on the Proceedings of the First Annual Conference of the Society of American Indians, 1912

The use of the term race here is undoubtedly framed by the historical context, and as Deloria mentions, involves a whole range of political performances (36). The proceedings were also interesting in that they clearly stated a move away from traditional indigenous practices and beliefs in order to participate in a colonized order that had systematically and violently moved westward and swallowed land and resources in its path. This was also an order, however, that did provide a range of opportunities in higher education, and in other spheres.

I wanted to look up some background information on the land-related events that occurred prior to this meeting in 1911 that would help shape the complexity of life during this period, which can hopefully shed a little light on the tensions between not only settlers and American Indians, but also the viewpoint of the SAI in opposing traditional practices:

  • 1851 – the United States Congress passed the Indian Appropriations Act
  • 1860s – President Ulysses S. Grant pursued a stated “Peace Policy” as a possible solution to conflicts as a result of the Appropriations Act. The policy was controversial from the start, and involved reorganization of Indian Service, according to Wikipedia, “with the goal of relocating various tribes from their ancestral homes to parcels of lands established specifically for their inhabitation.” Under this policy, gov’t officials were replaced by religious men to oversee Indian agencies on reservations.
  • 1876, June 25 & 26 – The Battle of Little Bighorn
  • 1887 – General Allotment Act (Dawes)

By 1905, as shown in the map below, there were reservations designated across the United States, with most of them located west of the Mississippi River, far from the urban center the SAI was held (Deloria notes this may have been a deliberate move).

There are long, long gaps between each of the events I listed above, and the events I listed are the same sort of events that are often historicized and referenced. While they are indeed important, I’m more interested in the ways that American Indians reacted to this scene by building relationships, cooperating, and becoming part of the institutions formed during westward expansion–all actions occurring in between and during these events. To borrow an idea from de Certeau, I’d like to know how American Indians were conforming to this societal structure only to evade it from within. As I read the proceedings of the annual SAI conference, I wondered, weren’t they conforming to this structure, not to evade it, but to find cooperative ways of building relationships to progress within that structure?

As Philip Deloria argues in “Four Thousand Invitations,” while many have written about the assimilation of American Indian intellectuals, and Charles Eastman in particular, into the colonial project, but “It is also the case, however, that everyone in this cohort— in one way or another— worked actively to preserve elements of Native cultures and societies from destruction” (26).

There’s simply far too much that I can write that would reflect the complexity of this event. Instead of attempting to focus on everything, I’d like to briefly discuss the drafting process of the “Indian letter” which was produced during the second committee meeting, Tuesday, June 20, 1911. It was agreed that a letter be sent out, accompanied by a pamphlet providing essential conference information, to Indians across the country. “The members of the Committee present then selected extracts from letters which had been sent in by absent members and formulated what is known as the “Indian letter.” Each letter sent in by absent members was read by the Secretary and discussed by all members present” (11). The Committee also agreed that a separate, “non-Indian” letter be written. Provided the historical context, it seemed advantageous for this letter to be written by Professor F.A. McKenzie, Department of Sociology and Economics at the Ohio State University; the letter would then bear his institutional credibility and knowledge as an academic of Indian affairs during the time period.

I’m not exactly sure what it is about these letters that fascinates me so much, but there’s a sort of rhetorical essence about them that calls to me. Two letters crafted by the same group with a goal of outreach, support, and presence to two different audiences. Both letters asked for a contribution of $2.00, which according to an online inflation calculator, amounts to $49.27 today. According to the minutes of the second meeting, “It was agreed that each one of these letters be accompanied by a card, stating that the letter was sent at the suggestion of the person furnishing the name and address” (11). As Deloria notes, the “Indian letter” provides a curious number: “The following communication was mailed to about 4000 Indians” (15). So while the sending of these letters was strategic (and the use of numbers, possibly rhetorical), I’d very much like to know how many of those letters were sent and what sort of response they received. Again, as Deloria mentions, there were 44 active members in attendance at the conference (as indicated in the proceedings).

The length of both is brief, and the wording presents a careful and concise call to action. If I had more time to talk about them, I’d love to look at the rhetorical moves made in both letters to see if any similarities or differences can be drawn—in turn, I think much could be learned about the SAI’s organization and circulation of public documents, and how the documents themselves may have helped compose a multicultural audience at the conference. So, while there was a deliberate rhetorical move to compose a letter for two different audiences, the end goal was to gather as many people as possible in an effort to hold a cooperative event that would build a future for both American Indians and the country.

What’s most interesting to me of all is the kind of stories these documents help tell, the way they worked to organized an event that has become part of even more stories. I agree with Deloria–I believe that this event, regardless of however it might have pointed to assimilation, that it worked to preserve the rich history of Native cultures and societies.

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