American Indian origins of Native American Day

Inaugural Conference of the Society of American Indians (wikimedia)

SAN JOSE, September 25, 2014 — On September 26 in California and in a few other states will celebrate American Indian Day or Native American Day as a way of remembering the people who came before the United States ever existed. The holiday had its origin in 1968 in California when then Governor Ronal Reagan signed into law the day to remember American Indians for their genuine contributions to the U.S. culture. A Democrat-controlled legislature changed the name to be “Native American Day” in 1996. It may seem hard to believe that such a holiday exists in light of recent controversies regarding sporting teams named after American Indian symbols and mascots depicting references to the Indian peoples.

Especially the name of the football team of the Washington Redskins has made the headlines  in more recent times. Many Americans, who may for the most part, be unconcerned about the controversy, may have the mistaken impression that all of those people of American Indian or Native American heritage are offended by names like “Braves,” or “Chiefs,” or “Redskins.” But such an assumption would be incorrect. It is a smaller minority of people of such heritage and others that are generating the publicity and the law suits as a method dividing people and creating a dissonance over race. At the root, is an effort to undermine First Amendment freedoms.

In the midst of controversy, those of American Indian heritage will celebrate the day that their ancestors called for over 100 years ago. If this is news to some, it is because the U.S. history taught in U.S. schools today doesn’t take into account specific instances of cooperation between the native population and the European descendants. Most of what is focused upon is the clash of cultures and destructiveness and warfare that is part of the history existing on record. Unfortunately, much of that historical record since the 1960s, is severely biased against efforts to foster understanding and unity between people. It is focused upon dredging up old wounds and deep resentments between peoples.

Like many young people today, many native young people do not know completely the history of their people. Many do not realize that it was educated and intelligent members of the Indian community in the 1900s that tried to create a more formal and fulfilling relationship with the whites in a white-dominated culture that stimulated the desire for a single day to remember the Indian. In the early 1900s, a number of genuine efforts were made by American Indians to advance the concept of a day dedicated to the recognition of significant contributions by the  first Americans during the establishment and growth of the U.S. Today, even many American Indians do not know this history of Indian efforts to create unity between the races.

In 1909, Mr. Rodman Wanamaker, a wealthy New York businessman associated with the famous Wannamaker Department Store, proposed the idea to create a national monument to honor the American Indians. It was to be a privately funded monument on the scale of the Statue of Liberty. By December of 1911, enthusiasts had actually succeeded in persuading Congress to set aside federal land for the project on the site of Fort Tompkins on Staten Island in New York; yet, Congress did not make any provisions for the building of the proposed 165-foot-tall statue and monument. Wanamaker had pledged to raise the funds for the monument and intended museum. Sadly, the effort was interrupted by World War I, and was never built.

The actual dedication ceremony, however, was quite spectacular. On George Washington’s birthday in 1913, in one of the last ceremonial acts of William H. Taft, the president broke ground for the monument in a massive ceremony, which included 32 chiefs representing 15 Indian tribes who were invited to sign a Declaration of Allegiance to the United States. Then, later that year, Wanamaker initiated a seven-month “expedition of citizenship” attempting to visit all of the American Indian tribes on behalf of the U.S. government in order to obtain additional signatures for all who wished to sign the Declaration of Allegiance. Actually, 900 chiefs that represented each of the 189 tribes, once considered independent nations, signed the document.

This effort was incredibly significant as it was the only document signed by the leaders of every one of the existing American Indian tribes within the United States. It represented the voluntary tribal acknowledgement of U.S. sovereignty after decades of the conflict and destructive turmoil between the American Indians and the American descendants of the European culture. This expedition of citizenship essentially was an incredible effort in and of itself. It involved travelling 20,000 miles by boat, train, automobile, stagecoach, horse, and donkey. The effort was a public and official representation of the end of the era of American Indian independence. Yet, it did not signify that the Indians were ready to become American citizens.

This Declaration of Allegiance to the United States did represent, however, the beginning of a ten year movement to grant full citizenship rights to the American Indian. On September 28, 1915, the Congress of the American Indian Association had made a bold proclamation as a representative body of the American Indian community recommending that American Indians become officially recognized as U.S. citizens and called upon “every person of American Indian ancestry” and all Americans to observe every second Saturday in May as a national “American Indian Day” to honor the memory of the native peoples. This was the first time an official Indian organization ever made such a formal indication that Indians wanted to become U.S. citizens.

This historic proclamation represented a dramatic reversal of Indian sentiment toward the dominant society. It may have been manifested because the Congress of the American Indian Association was led by sincere Christians and well-educated, honorable men. Rev. Sherman Coolidge, the president of the Congress, was a full blooded Arapahoe Indian who was also an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church. Dr. Arthur C. Parker, was a Seneca Indian who served as the National Secretary of the Congress. At the time, he was the director of the Museum of Arts and Science in Rochester, N.Y. These two Christian men were the embodiment of their people’s future, and helped to lay the foundation for such a future.

The appeal of the Indian leaders at the Congress made to the nationwide population of American Indians noted that their forefathers had fought against domination “for home, for family, for country, and the preservation of native freedom…” acknowledging the noble efforts at preserving their culture, but the delegates recognized that they needed to turn their attention to the future of their people so that they could “live in greater fullness” and “to move forward and acquire those things that make races and nations more efficient and more noble…” Careful consideration of such intent of the American Indians was to not just create a special day of remembrance, but to forgive an enemy, put the past in its place and move on with their lives.

Ultimately, the efforts of these American Indian leaders yielded fruit in May of 1916. The State of New York, Dr. Parker’s home state, was the first U.S. state to formally establish an American Indian Day in that year. Many other states eventually followed New York’s example. By 1919, Illinois, offered their version of the proclamation. Finally in 1924, Congress got motivated and passed the Indian Citizenship Act that extended citizenship to all U.S.-born American Indians who were not already covered by treaty or other federal agreements. In reality, an act that already should have been accomplished by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. However, this long process made it a mutual effort to come to terms with a new reality.

During this historically significant period, the proverbial “hatchet was buried.” For the Indian people, this demanded incredible humility, and the capacity of heart to forgive in the attempt to heal the bitterness, resentment, and deep wounds as a result of the pattern of abuse and mistreatment at the hands of the whites and the U.S. government. It is a bit reminiscent of the early Christians who could willingly forgive their Roman persecutors. Now in this day, from 1990, Americans dedicate the entire month of November each year as “National American Indian Heritage Month.” This may seem a token gesture, but it is a foundation for hope for a brighter future in the things that “make nations more efficient and more noble.”


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Dennis Jamison reinvented his life after working for a multi-billion dollar division of Johnson & Johnson for several years. Now semi-retired, he is an adjunct faculty member at West Valley College in California. He currently writes a column on US history and one on American freedom for the Communities Digital News, as well as writing for other online publications. During the 2016 presidential primaries, he worked as the leader of a network of writers, bloggers, and editors who promoted the candidacy of Dr. Ben Carson. He founded the “We the People” Network of writers and the Citizen Sentinels Project to pro-actively promote the values and principles established at the founding of the United States, and to discover and support more morally centered citizen-candidates who sincerely seek election as public servants, not politicians.