The Indian Question
July 19, 1933 — Round Table Meetings, International Council of Women for Civil Rights, Palmer House, Chicago IL
It will be necessary for me to present a few pictures to give you perhaps a different attitude toward the Indian question.
In Isaiah 1:18, we read: “Come now and let us reason together, saith the Lord.” And so we have come today to reason together, and our topic for discussion is “Equal Opportunity.”
I should like first to take you back to the earliest primitive days when this country really belonged to us. I am sure you must realize how we loved it, how we thrilled over the beauty of it as we roamed about visiting our loved ones. Then an invasion threatened to come in and destroy everything that we held nearest and dearest to our hearts, and we rose to the occasion as best we could, but we lost, and in the losing there were many tragedies and massacres laid at our door that we were not responsible for. At that time we were taught that it was wrong to fight, that we should be peaceful, loving and kind.
Some of us understood that call to higher understanding, realizing that progress is born of experience, and obeyed the call, but some of us refused to accept such a call as consolation for the sorrows and tragedies that burned deep in our hearts.
So we find in every walk of life those who struggle and strive to build for higher ideals and those who constantly stand on the sidelines, creating turmoil and tearing down in general, who are a detriment to any community.
Many years after that first invasion the country was threatened again with another intrusion, and of course this was a different story. You sent out your call to arms for the late World War, and the American Indian was among the first to respond to that call. We didn’t stop to think to whom the country belonged, but we gave from every possible angle, and went over there and fought by your sides as one of you.
I was in the midst of building a career for myself and was the first girl west of Chicago to respond to General Pershing’s call for volunteer entertainers. I wanted to prove to the world that where patriotism is concerned the American Indian is never found lacking.
I am purposely touching the high spots, as our time is limited today, and I am anxious to give you a different impression of the American Indian question.
Let me offer a few illustrations.
Some years ago great agitation was started to eliminate ceremonial Indian dances because the Commissioner at that time said they were savage, immoral, and obscene. The one particular ceremony the Commissioner wanted to eliminate at once was one in which the Indians danced three days in succession without stopping. The Commissioner thought they inflicted great injury upon themselves in so doing. The purpose of the dance was to build up physical strength, physical endurance, as only the runners took part in it. There was a lot of nation-wide discussion pro and con about old poor Lo and his last bit of freedom being taken away from him, when along came the marathon dancers, and certainly if there has ever been anything that was a discredit to our intelligence it was the marathon dances. The command was withdrawn at once and nothing has been heard of it since.
Soon after this experience, I was in Los Angeles on a concert tour with Charles Wakefield Cadman, when upon hearing this story a friend said to me: “You come with me to the downtown section of Los Angeles and I will show you something that will offset your Indian dance.” I went with her, and there in the downtown section of Los Angeles sat a man on a pole. He had been sitting there eighteen days to break a world’s record. As I looked at him, the thought came to me: “Here I am supposedly the savage, wild Indian some say, and there you sit representing a race of people that I am supposed to copy, supposed to emulate, and yet in all my primitiveness and savagery I would have known better than to do something like that.”
So you see, friends, there are always two sides to every picture.
Let us present another picture. Just suppose that today millions of Chinese came across Lake Michigan and conquered Chicago, drove you out of your homes, destroyed your loved ones right before your very eyes, and then selected a piece of property nearby and said: “Now you live there as long as I tell you to live, and I shall do your thinking for you.”
What would you do? You would fight to the last drop of your blood to prevent such an invasion that would take away your freedom, self-respect, and initiative. Some of you would follow the line of least resistance and accept the system with a shrug of your shoulders and say, “What the use?” But some of you would constantly rebel against such restrictions, fight for your right of self-expression and equal opportunity, and you would come forward regardless of any man-made laws. And so it is with the Indian.
Those who have accomplished things have done so in spite of our government or any of the injustices of civilization.
We often hear the words “primitive” and “savage” in speaking of the Indian. I want to ask a fair question. Who is the savage? Out of the heart of our civilization, so-called, supported and shielded by our Stars and Stripes, protected by our American Government, there stalks in the quiet of the night a fiend in human dress to commit a crime on an innocent child. You know, of course, that I refer to the Lindbergh tragedy. First, I know an Indian did not commit the crime, and secondly, I know that if it had been committed in the days of the so-called savage, the murderer would have been found and punished long before this.
A summary. What to do about it? The first and most important thing to do is to correct the pages of our American history that is so unfair and unjust to the American Indian. It would seem to me that we have come to the parting of the ways of truth and lies, and now is the time to tell the truth. I think it is time to rewrite those pages of American history that have called the conflict between the Indian and the whites a massacre if the Indian woman and a battle if the white man won.
More than a hundred years ago an Indian girl, Sacajawea, blazed the trail to the Northwest for the Lewis and Clark Expedition, a hazardous journey that took two years to complete. A monument stands in Portland, Oregon, as mute evidence to the Indian’s contribution to civilization. What do we hear of her? Practically nothing. I remember hearing a lady say once that she thought this was a remarkable thing for an Indian girl to do, and that she intended writing a book on outstanding Indian women of history. I am perfectly sure that, if any other woman had accomplished such a feat, our histories would be full of it and there would be monuments all over the country.
When we lose our false sense of race prejudice and lay aside our small, petty thoughts of big “I,” self-egotism, then we can truly thrill over the achievements of other races and give the full credit for their contribution to progress.
The Indian is a victim of race prejudice, and because of our governmental system, has had a severe case of inferiority complex forced upon him. America has denied the Indian race the right to self-expression, the equal opportunities, and then is prone to criticize the Indian for not advancing more rapidly. No race of people could give proper contribution to civilization, that is shut away from the rest of the world and has the doors closed on equal rights.
The Indian child is sent away to school many miles, in most cases, at a very tender age, which is in itself a handicap, because the mother-tie in Indian life is our strongest force, and many children get so homesick they fall ill.
While the child is away in school, the village is not prepared to meet the new thought upon its return, and the result is a wide breach. In the Indian race our fathers will not tolerate an expression of superiority; their code is equality. We need to do away with the system of years standing that has been such a failure. But the sad part of it is that there is too much money involved in the Indian question.
Free the Indian and let him take his proper place in civilization. He could not be in a worse plight than he is today. The Indian race has too long and too consistently had to follow other people’s wishes instead of its own. For generations America has been bent upon trying to do something to them, not with them. Reluctant to admit her lack of success she says that the Indians are hopelessly primitive.
Eliminate all matters from schoolbooks tending to race prejudice. Write a next textbook that will give the Indian as fair a picture as you give yourselves. The Indians are too human to make good marionettes.
However, in all his sufferings, injustices, and handicaps, you never hear the Indian complain. He is a silent sufferer, and because of that he has been an easy victim. Perhaps his inherent dependence on the Great Spirit is his comfort and his solace. The average person’s concept of the Indian religious thought is that the Indian is a worshiper of many gods. That is not true. The Indina worships one God, but he sees him reflected in all living things. He has never hoarded because he had faith that the Great Spirit would always provide for him if he kept himself purified.
Friends, our Heavenly Father left a law for you and me almost two thousand years ago when he said, “Love one another, and love thy neighbor as thyself.” He didn’t say the man next door was your neighbor, nor did He say if the man living next door to you happene to be an Indian, don’t love him so much. No, friends, he meant that we should love our fellowman and give no thought to race, color, or creed.
We should remember that the world is wide, that there are a thousand million different human wills, opinions, ambitions, tastes, and loves, that each person has a different history, constitution, culture, character from all the rest. Then we should go forth into life with the smallest expectations, but with the largest patience, with a charity broad enough to cover the whole world’s evil, and sweet enough to neutralize what is bitter in it.
Friends, it does not matter to whom the country belongs. None of us can take it with us when we leave this earth. So let us share it in a spirit of true brotherly love; let us be friends, and as we go down the trail of life, let us go as brothers and true fellowmen; and when we come to the end of that long trail and step into the Happy Hunting Grounds from which no hunter returns, let us go unafraid, with trust and faith in God and each other, so that we may receive the final benediction: Well done, thou good and faithful servant.
Source: Our Common Cause: Civilization: Proceedings of the National Council of Women of the United States. Including the Series of Round Tables, July 16-22, 1933, Chicago, Illinois (New York: National Council of Women of the United States) 1933, pp. 794-796.