August 13, 2017

Doing "what I could," Wilma Mankiller changed Native America

Review by Sequoia Carrillo

Wilma Mankiller
Wilma Mankiller. Photo by James Schnepf, courtesy of the Wilma Mankiller Foundation.

“I hope that when I leave it will just be said: I did what I could.” –Wilma Mankiller

In Mankiller, by filmmaker Valerie Red-Horse Mohl, the legacy of a true female powerhouse is explored. Born in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in 1945, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, Wilma Mankiller was the sixth of eleven children. When she was 11 years old, her family moved to San Francisco under the Bureau of Indian Affair’s Relocation Program. The move was supposed to relieve the family of the poor living conditions in their homeland and bring them to a “modern world.”

Through archival footage and photographs, the documentary depicts the obvious flaws in the BIA’s reasoning. The Mankillers’ move to the Bay Area resulted in dangerous conditions and the striking realization that they were poor. In Oklahoma they often lacked running water and electricity, but they consistently had a community of people who lived the same way. They quickly found that what was poor in Oklahoma was destitute in California.

“It was in San Francisco during the Civil Rights Era that she found her voice and the power to make change.” —President Bill Clinton

A teenage Wilma Mankiller acclimated to an environment with elevators and societal unrest as the 1960s roared around her. Although she was a peer with many of the student activists who gave the San Francisco Protest movement its voice, by the time she was 20 years old she was married and a mother of two. Despite this, she assisted and supported the early Black Panthers in their mission to feed elders and children. In fact, her daughters emphasize in an interview clip that the political and activist side of life was always a given with their mother.


“Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival begins to play as archival footage of the occupation of Alcatraz rolls. The film does a brilliant job of depicting the spark that Alcatraz set off inside Wilma Mankiller. She and her family participated in the protests alongside such activists as John Trudell and Richard Oakes. Many Indians herald the occupation, which began in November 1969 and lasted 19 months, as the event that brought Native America into the modern era. The occupation yielded direct results in federal policies signed by President Richard Nixon.

“More than anything it was like coming home and I felt that I was where I should be.” —Wilma Mankiller on the occupation of Alcatraz

Following the occupation, Wilma Mankiller continued to volunteer frequently in the Indian community. She and her daughters eventually moved her back to Oklahoma to work for the Cherokee Nation. Much of the film’s dialogue following her return to Indian Country is from her peers. I found this particularly poignant because of the widespread reverence she received from Natives and non-Natives, Democrats and Republicans. This support is unusual for any politician, but especially for a woman more than a generation ago.

After successfully initiating and raising the funds for a clean-water project that reinvigorated unemployed tribal members in Bell, Oklahoma, Mankiller gained recognition. As a result, she was approached to run as deputy chief in Ross Swimmer’s 1983 bid to be principal chief. Despite rampant sexism, including death threats, she won alongside Swimmer.

Groundbreaking as deputy chief
Deputy Chief Mankiller (center) at the groundbreaking for a new development project. Photo courtesy of the Wilma Mankiller Foundation.

After Swimmer stepped down in 1985, Mankiller ran two successful campaigns earning her a decade as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. In her last race, she won 83 percent of the vote. The headlines flash across the screen as a victory that ten years before was scoffed at becomes a reality.

“In a just country, she would have been elected president.” —Gloria Steinem

Wilma Mankiller was the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. President Bill Clinton awarded her the Medal of Freedom in 1998. She revolutionized the largest Indian-run health care system in the country. She doubled annual tribal revenue and tripled tribal enrollment. Under her leadership the Cherokee Nation became what her parents had set out for decades earlier—a modern world.

The voices of her peers depict the life of a woman who surmounted societal pressure to make her life a living example of achievement and dedication to others. The film successfully documents this challenging rise to power by honoring her in remembrance. Mankiller is impactful and soft-spoken, just like its namesake.

 

Mankiller will open the National Museum of the American Indian’s Native Cinema Showcase in Santa Fe, New Mexico, August 15. Director Valerie Red-Horse Mohl will be in attendance. To watch for other screenings, follow the film on Facebook or Twitter.

Sequoia CarrilloSequoia Carrillo (Navajo/Ute) is an intern in the Office of Public Affairs at the National Museum of the American Indian. In the fall, she will be a junior at the University of Virginia, where she is specializing in History and Media Studies. During the school year, Sequoia works for the American History podcast and public radio program BackStory.

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July 03, 2017

Do American Indians celebrate the 4th of July?

Every year or two, the museum updates this short essay, originally posted on July 3, 2013, with a few more people's descriptions of how they spend the 4th of July. How do you, your family, or your community observe the day? Share your comments here, or look for the discussion on the museum's Facebook page.  

Pawnee Homecoming 07-03-2013
The Pawnee Indian Veterans Homecoming Pow Wow recognizes returning military servicemen and women. Pawnee, Oklahoma. The 71st annual Pawnee homecoming took place this year from June 29 to July 2. Photo courtesy of Pius Spottedhorsechief, vice president of the Pawnee Indian Veterans.

How do Indians observe the 4th of July? Do we celebrate? To answer, let’s turn back the pages of time. A reasonable chapter to begin in is July 1776, when the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence and 13 colonies became the United States of America. With the emergence of a nation interested in expanding its territory came the issue of what to do with American Indians. History tells us that as the American non-Indian population increased, the indigenous population greatly decreased, along with their homelands and cultural freedoms.

From the beginning, U.S. government policy contributed to loss of culture and land. Keeping our focus on the 4th of July, however, let’s jump to the early 1880s, when Secretary of the Interior Henry Teller developed what has come to be called the Religious Crimes Code—regulations at the heart of the Department of Interior, Office of Indian Affairs, Code of Indian Offenses that prohibited American Indian ceremonial life.

Teller's general guidelines to all Indian agents were to end tribal dances and feasts. Enforced on reservations, the code banned Indian ceremonies, disrupted religious practices, and destroyed or confiscated sacred objects. Indian ceremonial activities were prohibited under threat of imprisonment and the withholding of treaty rations.

The Secretary of the Interior issued this Code of Regulations in 1884, 1894, and 1904 through Indian Affairs Commissioner's circulars and Indian agent directives. Indian superintendents and agents implemented the code until the mid-1930s. During this 50-year period, Indian spiritual ceremonies such as the Sun Dance and Ghost Dance were held in secret or ceased to exist. Some have since been revived or reintroduced by Indian tribes.

In response to this policy of cultural and religious suppression, some tribes saw in the 4th of July and the commemoration of American independence a chance to continue their own important ceremonies. Superintendents and agents justified allowing reservations to conduct ceremonies on the 4th of July as a way for Indians to learn patriotism to the United States and to celebrate its ideals.

Nimi'ipuu 4 July 1906
Nimi'ipuu (Nez Perce) men and women on horseback dressed for the 4th of July celebration, 1906. Idaho. Photo by Major Lee Moorhouse. P07685

That history is why a disproportionate number of American Indian tribal gatherings take place on or near the 4th of July and are often the social highlights of the year. Over time these cultural ceremonies became tribal homecomings. American Indian veterans in particular were welcomed home as modern-day warriors. The Navajo Tribe of Arizona and Pawnee of Oklahoma are two examples of tribes that use the 4th of July as an occasion to honor their tribal veterans. During these celebrations, tribal flag songs and veterans’ songs are sung. More than 12,000 American Indians served during World War I, and after the war, the American flag began to be given a prominent position at American Indian gatherings, especially those held on the 4th of July. This symbol of patriotism and national unity is carried into powwow and rodeo arenas today. It is extremely important to note that before the Reservation Era, when most Indians saw the American flag coming toward their villages and camps, it symbolized conflict, death, and destruction.

Today tribes hold ceremonies and celebrations on or near Independence Day for different reasons. The Lumbee of North Carolina and Mattaponi of Virginia use this time as a homecoming for tribal members to renew cultural and family ties. The Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma holds Gourd Clan ceremonies on the 4th of July because the holiday coincides with their Sun Dance, which once took place during the hottest part of the year. The Lakota of South Dakota and Cheyenne of Oklahoma continue to have some of their annual Sun Dances on the weekends closest to the 4th of July to coincide with the celebration of their New Year. Some American Indians do not celebrate the 4th of July because of the negative consequences to Indian people throughout history, while others simply get together with family and have cookouts, like many non-Native American citizens.

Jumping ahead to the present: To find out how individual American Indians across the country spend their 4th of July, we asked on Facebook. Here are some of the answers we received in the last few days: 

Norman, Oklahoma: Independence Day has a different meaning for us as Native people. We exercise our freedom carrying on the traditions of our people in whatever that form that may be. For me, it is in Carnegie, Oklahoma, in Kiowa country, at the Kiowa Tia-Piah (Gourd Clan) Society Celebration.

Tulsa, Oklahoma: I am headed to Quapaw Powwow, arguably the longest running annual powwow—145 years. Our family and tribal nation have always played host to friends and visitors from all over the world.

Laguna, New Mexico: As much turmoil the United States government has given our people in the past and present, my father has instilled in my family a sense of loyalty, liberty, and responsibility for our country. He is a Vietnam Veteran and could easily have forsaken this country due to the treatment he and other Vietnam veterans received upon their return. Instead, he chose to defend a country and the land of Indigenous Americans. He then raised his children and grandchildren to respect the country. So we will spend the day probably watching a parade in the morning and then have a BBQ with friends and family. We will honor and remember the veterans on this day.

Akwesasne Mohawk territory, Haudenosaunee territory: We don't celebrate the independence of our colonizer, especially considering that George Washington ordered the Sullivan–Clinton Campaign of burnings, displacement, and murder against the Haudenosaunee villages during their war for Independence. This while so many of our people were helping the Americans at Valley Forge, while decisive battles were won due to Iroquois allies.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin: We have a powwow in Oneida every 4th of July, because we fought with George Washington and the colonists to help them win their independence.

Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: In Canada First Nations people are faced with that dilemma this year more so than ever, because the federal government is promoting their 150th anniversary and reconciliation at the same time.

Cpl Mitchell Redcloud Jr Day Powwow
Poster for the 4th of July powwow honoring Cpl. Mitchell Redcloud Jr. Courtesy of the Andrew Blackhawk Memorial Powwow Grounds.

Tomah, Wisconsin: The 4th of July—my Ho-Chunk Nation made the day known as Cpl. Mitchell Redcloud Jr. Day, with a powwow at the Andrew Blackhawk Memorial Pow-Wow Grounds. My choka (grandfather) was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, killed in action during the Korean War. Mitchell Jr., was my maternal choka's first cousin and was also a choka to me, Ho-Chunk relationship. I will volunteer on the 4th, if my relatives, the Redcloud family, need my assistance.

Arizona and the Diné (Navajo) Nation: Greet and end the day by thanking Creator for another blessed day. We don’t celebrate but use the day for family activities.

Pawnee, Oklahoma: I celebrate my two grandmothers who were born on the 4th of July. My mother’s mother, Lillie Carson (Otoe), and my dad’s grandmother, Sally Kaulaity (Kiowa). They were both good grandmothers. I miss them.

Santa Fe, New Mexico: We chose to get married on the 4th of July. Having our anniversary on that day makes the day about love and the continuity of my Cherokee family and the families of all the cultures we've married with over the generations. It adds nuance to a day that could just be about patriotism and blowing things up. Plus we always have the day off and get to spend the day with family and friends who believe in the importance of journeying together in peace and equality. And yes, we get fireworks, too.

Waldorf, Maryland: Yes. We have our homecoming then. It never feels like a 4th of July celebration even though it is. It feels more like what we call it, Lumbee Homecoming. We have thousands of people packed in one little town for nine days celebrating our people, our food and culture, their talent, or their coming back home to visit relatives, spending time together, and making new memories, and of course enjoying eating grape ice cream.

Shawnee, Oklahoma: The flag of the United States is not exclusively the flag of the immigrants who came here and created a government, it is also the flag that our own warriors defended many times in the last century and currently today. Yes, it was once flown by our enemy, but it now represents those warriors who fought under it and all those who work toward fulfillment of tribal sovereignty and treaty rights and an inclusive country where immigrants and indigenous people live together equally protected under the Constitution. It is a symbol of the treaty agreements that we as indigenous people still have our inherent rights. Okay, that’s not a celebration but that’s what I think when I celebrate.

Oklahoma City: Do as our people always have: Help feed and care for those who need it!

These are the answers we highlighted in earlier years:

Carnegie, Oklahoma: We celebrate every 4th Gourd Dancing, camping, and visiting my Kiowa people while we’re here, listening to the beautiful Kiowa songs. For three days we are just in Kiowa heaven. Been doing this for years. Now my parents have gone on, but we will continue to attend the Kiowa Gourd Dance Celebration.

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: Do American Indians celebrate the 4th of July? Answer: Yes, it represents freedom in the United States of America. Freedom to continue to worship Creator, freedom to dance my prayers, freedom to sweat, freedom to rise early and pray the day in and be up late to pray the day out. We, the Host People, celebrate the 4th of July every day!

Prewitt, New Mexico, and the Navajo Nation: No, I do not celebrate. Because I as a Diné will never relinquish my belief or understanding that we as a people and a nation have the right to be loyal to the Holy Ones before all others, including the United States of America, since we as a people existed long before there was ever a United States.

Taos, New Mexico: Taos is a very close-knit community, and even more so at Taos Pueblo nearby. Both have had many citizens serve in America's military in the heartfelt belief that they are protecting our nation. One of our honored tribal elders is Tony Reyna, 97, who survived the Bataan Death March in World War II. I have been told many times that, for us, the idea of protection goes deeper than for most Americans, because this land is where our people emerged, and that any threat to it is met from a place of deep, deep meaning. People here celebrate Independence Day pretty much as they do everywhere. It's a day off, and there are parades and fireworks displays. But for many we remember WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and the sacrifices our people made. I wish all people could remember that, especially those who allow blind bigotry and hate to cloud their judgment.

Parshall, North Dakota, and the Three Affiliated Tribes: The 4th is the celebration of independence, which Native people have practiced as sovereign nations for generations.

Shawnee, Oklahoma: No, I do not celebrate Independence Day, simply because the Declaration of Independence labels my people "our enemies, the merciless savages of our frontiers." You notice they were already calling the frontiers "ours" when the land was not theirs. Because I do not celebrate Independence Day does not mean I am not proud of our Native American veterans and soldiers. I am very proud of them and of the fact almost all Native American families have a family member who is a veteran and/or an active member in the Armed Forces.

Anadarko, Oklahoma: I am Kiowa/Delaware/Absentee Shawnee, my mom is a Kiowa/Comanche, my uncle is a vet, as many of my other relatives are, as well as my stepdad (Comanche/Caddo). My Delaware grandma always said, “This is not our holiday. Out of respect we will honor their day, because our people helped them.” She said, “I will mourn on this day.”  She would wear a black dress that day.

Laguna, New Mexico, and the Pueblos of Acoma and Laguna: I celebrate the 4th of July and I do so proudly. . . . When you have been lucky enough to travel and see life in other places, you come to appreciate the home and land you live on. Maybe I'm not as bitter as some of my other Indigenous brothers and sisters because my tribes were not relocated and have been lucky to remain on ancestral lands. Our Pueblo people . . . fought against the Spanish in the Pueblo Revolt, but also learned to harmonize with the Catholic Church. Many years—even centuries—of healing have taken place to get us to this point. And I think by celebrating the 4th of July, I feel I am honoring that healing my Pueblo ancestors have prayed for. . . .

Sawmill, Arizona, and the Navajo Nation: I recognize Independence Day as a day off, as time with family. I recognize that the United States declared its independence on that day, but Native people weren't a part of their envisioned emancipation. As Native people, we recognized our independence through our prayers and practicing our traditions. We didn't need a special day to mark our freedom, we just were. So on the 4th of July, I will practice my American heritage and celebrate this country's Independence Day. But my heart knows I don't need a day to recognize my autonomy.

Oklahoma City and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma: I think of the 4th of July as American Ideals Day. If only America would live up to its own stated ideals, none of what happened to American Indian people would have happened. Today, if those ideals were finally acted upon, American Indian sovereignty would be fully recognized and the treaties would be kept intact. The fireworks celebrate the great ideals that could be America, if only greed were not allowed to pervert them.

Norman, Oklahoma: My 13-year-old son (Comanche/Cherokee) is currently reading the U.S. Constitution (just because). When I asked him about the 4th the other day, he kind of shook his head and said that most people just don't get it. Reading the comment above on American Ideals Day made me think of how true it is—how little we know about America's ideals of the past and where we hold them now.

Wichita, Kansas: My people, Kiowas, have always held this time of the year as a gathering of all our bands. They would celebrate for a week, indulging in each society’s dances, renewing friendships, visiting relatives, and so on. As we progressed into this modern society we are a part of, we recognized the importance of this celebration even more so. To honor our freedoms and the men and women who sacrificed for us today is truly a reason to celebrate the 4th of July. Does it mean we are to forget our struggles and the plight of our people? NO, but it commemorates the beauty of our land and the resolve of this nation we call America.

Pawnee, Oklahoma: [It's a day] to celebrate all our Native men and women who served in the Armed Forces of the United States of America, our Native men [the Codetalkers] without whose tribal language, [World War II] might have been lost. To honor our fallen ones, who sacrified their lives for us, and the veterans who are buried in our tribal cemeteries . . . and overseas. To honor my daughter . . . in the U.S. Army, a proud Native American woman who is serving our country. 

Waikoloa, Hawai'i, via the Red Cloud Indian School, Pine Ridge, South Dakota: It is a sad time, . . . thinking of all the treaties never honored. I try to hold my children and grandcubs near and invite others who are alone or ill or elderly to eat lots of food that I cook until I am very tired and thank the Creator for another wonderful day.


As Americans everywhere celebrate the 4th of July, I think about how many American Indians are taking their yearly vacations back to their reservations and home communities. All across Indian Country, tribes hold modern celebrations— including powwows, rodeos, and homecomings—that coincide with the United States’ Independence Day celebrations.

As for me, I’ll be with my two daughters, and we'll watch a huge fireworks display! 

—Dennis Zotigh, NMAI

Dennis Zotigh (Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota Indian) is a writer and cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

How do you, your family, or your community observe the 4th of July? Share your comments here, or look for the discussion on the museum's Facebook page.

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June 09, 2017

Thinking about the Indian Removal Act, at the National Archives Museum and National Museum of the American Indian


"Our cause is your own. It is the cause of liberty and justice."

Principal Chief John Ross (Cherokee, 1790–1866), appearing before the U.S. Senate in 1836 to argue on behalf of the Cherokee Council against ratification of the Treaty of New Echota, ceding Cherokee lands to the United States

Removal Act at the US National Archives
Visitors to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., viewing the Removal Act of 1830. Photo for the National Archives by Jessica Deibert

This spring, I visited the National Archives Museum in Washington, D.C., to see the Indian Removal Act, on display in the Archives' Landmark Document Case. Signed by President Andrew Jackson on May 28, 1830, the Removal Act, gave the president the legal authority to remove Native people by force from their homelands east of the Mississippi to lands west of the Mississippi. It became for American Indians one of the most detrimental pieces of legislation in U.S. history. Under the Removal Act, the military forcibly relocated approximately 50,000 American Indians to Indian Territory, within the boundaries of the present-day state of Oklahoma.

At the National Museum of the American Indian, we address the importance of the Removal Act in two major exhibitions—Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations, which opened in September 2014 and will be on view through 2021, and Americans, opening October 26 of this year and on view through fall 2027.

"Many of these helpless people did not have blankets and many of them had been driven from home barefooted. . . . And I have known as many as twenty-two of them to die in one night of pneumonia due to ill treatment, cold, and exposure." 

Private John G. Burnett (1810–unknown), Captain Abraham McClellan’s Company, 2nd Regiment, 2nd Brigade, Mounted Volunteer Militia, account of the removal of the Cherokee, from a letter to his children written in 1890

Removal Act of 1830 p 1 Removal Act of 1830 p 2

The Indian Removal Act, May 28, 1830. General Records of the United States Government, National Archives. Photos courtesy of the National Archives


Many Americans, and many people beyond the United States, know the story of removal—or part of the story. In the late 1830s, more than 20,000 Cherokee men, women, and children were removed from their homelands. Approximately one-fourth of these people died along the Trail of Tears—bayoneted, frozen to death, starved, or pushed beyond exhaustion. Less well known, perhaps, is that hundreds of other tribes shed tears as well as they were forced to leave their homes to make room for non-Indian settlement and ownership of their land. Through American expansion, every tribe lost land its people originally called home.
 

"They were not allowed to take any of their household stuff, but were compelled to leave as they were, with only the clothes which they had on." 

—Wahnenauhi (Lucy Lowrey Hoyt Keys, Cherokee, 1831–1912), account of the Cherokee removal written in 1889, published by the Smithsonian Bureau of American Ethnology in Bulletin 196, Anthropological Papers, No. 77

The museum’s exhibitions look at the Removal Act from the broader perspective of events at the time it was enacted and during the nearly two centuries since. In the companion book to Nation to Nation, Robert N. Clinton, Foundation Professor of Law at the Sandra Day O’Connor School of Law at Arizona State University, describes the growing sense of national strength that allowed the federal government to move away from conducting negotiations with Indian nations as a sort of diplomacy—based on transnational law, mutual interests, and tribal sovereignty—and toward the direct pursuit of its one-sided goals:

The War of 1812 eliminated the possibility of Indian alliances with Britain, which had posed a threat to the stability and security of the United States. Thereafter . . . the bargaining power in treaty discussions shifted greatly to the United States, and policy was increasingly dictated by the federal government. . . . After a decade of treaty negotiations on the subject, the southeastern states provoked a controversy over the continued presence of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Muskogee (Creek), Choctaw, and Seminole nations on lands within state borders. Congress decided to chart the policy unilaterally by adopting the Removal Act of 1830.

Nation to Nation also explores the place of the Removal Act in U.S. legal history. The exhibition shows how advocates and Native and non-Native opponents of removal battled in Congress and the courts—all the way to the Supreme Court—at the same time tribal leaders were working to ensure the survival of their people.

Americans, which will explore Indians and the development of America's national consciousness through four iconic events—Thanksgiving, the life of Pocahontas, the Trail of Tears, and the Battle of Little Bighorn—widens the museum’s perspective on the Removal Act even more. In developing the themes of the new exhibition, lead curator Paul Chaat Smith (Comanche) and co-curator Cécile R. Ganteaume wrote:

Democracy at the Crossroads—the section of Americans about the Trail of Tears—explores the contemporary relevance of removal and why it is still embedded in 21st-century American life. We focus on crucial elements of the history that usually do not receive the attention they deserve: A vigorous national debate over removal consumed the United States before passage of the Indian Removal Act. With the eyes of the Western world upon them, members of Congress cloaked the Removal Act in humanitarian language. The actual removal of Native nations from the South across the Mississippi was a massive national project that required the full force of the federal bureaucracy to accomplish. Finally, it is due to efforts of young Cherokees in the early 20th century that the expression “trail of tears” has come to be known throughout the country, if not the world, to represent a gross miscarriage of justice.

In the central space that links the four iconic events in Americans, visitors will find themselves surrounded by photographs and commercial art. The idea is to show how images of Indians—and Native names and words from Native languages—are and have always been everywhere around us in the United States. Once we look, we can see them as national symbols on monuments, coins, and stamps; in the marketing of just about anything you can think of; in the Defense Department's naming conventions for weapons; and as part of pop culture. The reality of images and references to Indians everywhere is illustrated, for the time being, by the 1948 Indian Chief motorcycle on view in the museum’s atrium.

I confess that as I stood before the original Removal Act at the National Archives, it was hard for me to reconcile the events it set in motion with the motorcycle’s very American celebration of freedom. The curators of Americans hope, however, that the new exhibition will encourage visitors to be part of a new conversation among Natives and non-Natives about the place Indians continue to hold in our understanding of America. It’s an important conversation, and I’m committed to being part of it.

—Dennis W. Zotigh

Dennis W. Zotigh (Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota Indian) is a member of the Kiowa Gourd Clan and San Juan Pueblo Winter Clan and a descendant of Sitting Bear and No Retreat, both principal war chiefs of the Kiowas. Dennis works as a writer and cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 is on view at the National Archives Museum through June 14.

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May 26, 2017

The exhibition "Americans," opening in October, previews with a 1948 Indian Chief motorcycle

Motorcycle in atrium blog
A 1948 Indian Chief motorcycle, a loan from the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum in Birmingham, Alabama, is on view in the atrium of the museum. When Americans opens in the fall, the motorcycle will be moved to the exhibition gallery

The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., recently installed an iconic 1948 Indian Chief motorcycle in its majestic Potomac Atrium. On loan from the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum, this classic American motorcycle, with its Indian head fender ornament, will be featured in the museum’s exhibition Americans, opening in October. This exhibition explores Americans’ and American Indians’ deeply entangled history, made manifest by the imagery of American Indians all around us in our everyday lives.

Motorcycle fender ornament
The ornamental fender light representing an Indian wearing a Plains-style feather headdress became one of the icons of the brand. The Chief’s unmistakable large skirted fenders were designed in the 1940s.

Produced from 1922 until 1953, the Indian Chief was built as a large and powerful motorcycle by the Indian Motorcycle Company, once the largest motorcycle maker in the world. Founded in 1901—the first motorcycle manufacturer in the United States—Indian produced motorcycles for the U.S. military during World War I, survived the Great Depression with the help of two Du Pont brothers, and went on to build motorcycles for the Allies during World War II.

Indian tank
In 1928 the Hendee Manufacturing changed its name to the Indian Motocycle Manufacturing Company ("motocycle" without an R), now the Indian Motorcycle Company. "No more popular or wealth-producing name could have been chosen," the company's first advertising executive observed. The elegant script logo appears in chrome on the Chief's fuel tank.

Manufactured in a range of radiant colors, vintage Indian motorcycles are highly coveted by collectors enthralled by their early technical advancements and styling enhancements. To give an example, in season 2, episode 6 of the TV series Billions, hedge-fund manager Bobby “Axe” Axelrod takes a private moment to sit upon his newly acquired vintage Indian Four as a new monarch sits upon his rightful throne.

The Du Pont yellow Indian Chief Motorcycle now on view at the museum is one of four specially highlighted objects that will function as anchors in the Indians Everywhere section of the Americans exhibition. As the exhibition's introductory gallery, Indians Everywhere will confront visitors with the ubiquity of American Indian imagery in American popular culture. This bold, immersive display of more than 300 photographs and other images is designed to arrest our attention. But much more than that, it is intended to focus our thoughts on what, unknowingly, Americans have created and accepted as the white noise of our lives. No other country in the world is as fixated on one segment of its society as the United States is on American Indians. Why is this? Why are images of American Indians—some real, most imaginary—everywhere we look in American life, from boardroom to stadium, farm to inner city, fashion runway to tattoo parlor, Hollywood studio to military base, factory to highway?

Moving beyond now-commonplace discussions reflecting the politicization of visual culture in the United States, Americans delves deeply into the historic reasons behind this phenomenon. Whether taken-in sweepingly or considered in detail, Indians Everywhere reveals not only the time span of this imagery—its use began with Paul Revere and the revolutionary generation and has continued unabated to the present day—but also the myriad unexpected, sometimes paradoxical contexts in which it appears. American Indian imagery has been used by the federal government to distinguish the United States from other nations and to define the nation for its citizens, by U.S. armed forces to express military might, by American corporations to signify integrity, and by designers, such those who created the 1948 Indian Chief, to add luster and cachet to commercial products.

Motorcycle + admirers
An unexpected and fun thing to see at the museum, the Indian Chief also carries a message that will be explored further when Americans opens in October: Indians are everywhere in American national and pop culture, and have been for centuries. Why is that? 

Within Americans, Indians Everywhere—the backdrop of American life—provides a starting point for exploring four foundational events in U.S. history: Pocahontas, Thanksgiving, the Trail of Tears, and the Battle of Little Bighorn. The heart of Americans lies in thinking about how each of these events has affected and shaped America’s national consciousness and Americans' lives. In Americans these four events illuminate political realities when and after they occurred and, ultimately, our changing understanding of what it means to be an American.

The title of the exhibition is a play on words. In the Oxford English Dictionary, the first historical definition provided for “American” is: “An indigenous inhabitant of (any part of) the Americas; an American Indian.” This usage was common until the early 19th century. As visitors move through Americans, from the imagery of Indians Everywhere to the four events, the museum hopes to spark a greater awareness of the history American Indians and non-Indians share. We hope people will leave the museum newly attuned to the pervasive presence of American Indian imagery in everyday life. And when people begin see Indians everywhere, as they will—even on the front fender of a motorcycle widely believed to represent perfection in functionality and design—we hope they will see it for what it is: A phenomenon that exists in no other country of the world, one that ultimately speaks to the fact that the United States was carved out of the indigenous lands of American Indians, and that its history is inextricably and profoundly intertwined with American Indians.

—Cécile R. Ganteaume


Where do you see Indian imagery? Tell us, using #NDNsEverywhere. 

CRG-small-2017Cécile R. Ganteaume is an associate curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., and formerly at the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, in New York. A recipient of a Secretary of the Smithsonian’s Excellence in Research Award, she curates and writes on American Indian art, culture, and history. With lead curator Paul Chaat Smith, she is co-curator of Americans, scheduled to open on October 26, 2017. Her new book, Officially Indian: Symbols That Define the United States, will be published this fall to coincide with the opening of Americans.

Motorcycle photos by Matailong Du for the National Museum of the American Indian. Author photo by R.A. Whiteside.

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April 03, 2017

Marking the 400th Anniversary of Pocahontas's Death

March 21, 2017, was the 400th anniversary of Pocahontas’s death. She was about 22 years old when she died, and both her life and death are being commemorated in London.[1] One key event—a three-day conference titled Pocahontas and after: Historical culture and transatlantic encounters, 1617–2017—was organized by the University of London School of Advanced Studies’ Institute for Historical Research and the British Library, and took place March 16 through 18. Pocahontas spent the last nine months of her life in London and was known there as Lady Rebecca.

Pocahontas & Elizabeth
The famous engraving of Pocahontas (left) made by Simon van de Passe (1595–1647) mirrors the Renold Elstrack (1570–1625 or after) engraving of Queen Elizabeth I (right)—and the other 31 engravings of British sovereigns—published in Bazilioologia: A Booke of Kings (1618), a collection of portraits that was republished with slightly varying titles.[2] The van de Passe engraving of Pocahontas and engravings of other prominent notables were added to a later edition. Few of any editions survive, and all that do appear to vary in content. An “Expanded Bazilioologia” held in the Bodleian Library in Oxford includes the Pocahontas engraved portrait.[3] Left photo: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Right photo: National Portrait Gallery, London.

Born Amonute, Pocahontas was the daughter of the leader of the powerful Powhatan Confederacy.[4] The confederacy dominated the coastal mid-Atlantic region when, in 1607, English colonists established James Fort, a for-profit colony, along the Chesapeake Bay. Pocahontas, a child at the time, often accompanied her father’s men to the fort, signaling that their mission was peaceful. Amazingly or not, the English arrived poorly equipped, lacked provisions, and were almost entirely dependent on the Powhatan for food. Over the years, Pocahontas was among those who brought food to the fort.

Relations between the English and Powhatan, however, were always fraught. And in 1613 Pocahontas, then about 18 years old, was abducted by the English and held hostage for more than a year. The Christian theologian Alexander Whitaker eagerly began to instruct Pocahontas, already learning to speak English, in the tenets of Anglicanism. While captive, Pocahontas met the colonist John Rolfe, who—according to various English accounts, including his own—fell in love with her. Pocahontas agreed to marry Rolfe and, shortly before her marriage, received a Christian baptism. It was Rolfe who developed the strain of tobacco that would make the colony prosperous, enrich its investors and Britain, and eventually lead to the collapse of the Powhatan Confederacy.

In 1616 Pocahontas traveled to London with Rolfe and their infant son, Thomas. Her trip was sponsored by the James Fort investors. Famously, Pocahontas, accompanied by an entourage of high-standing Powhatan, was feted throughout London. She was twice received in the Court of King James I—to be presented to the king and to attend a Twelfth Night masque. Pocahontas never returned home. She died at outset of her return voyage and was buried in Gravesend, an ancient town on the banks of the Thames Estuary.

Pocahontas statue near St George's Church
Pocahontas was buried in the chancel (near the altar) of the original St. George’s Church in Gravesend. That church was destroyed by fire in 1727 and Pocahontas is now buried at an unknown location on the grounds surrounding the current St. George’s Church. The bronze Pocahontas sculpture outside St. George’s, a copy of the 1923 statue at James Fort, was presented to the church by the people of Virginia on the 350th anniversary of Pocahontas’s death. Photo by Cher Obediah, 2017.

Although the broad strokes of Pocahontas’s biography are well known—unusual for a 17th-century indigenous woman—her life has long been shrouded by misunderstandings and misinformation, and by the seemingly inexhaustible output of kitsch representations of her supposed likeness. Within a few years after her death, the Theodore De Bry family’s 13-volume publication, America, translated into several languages, provided the book-reading public beyond London with what they considered to be their first real and comprehensive glimpse of the New World’s indigenous peoples, including Pocahontas.[5] Four hundred years later, her name has become familiar to children worldwide through Walt Disney Picture’s 1995 animated film Pocahontas, strong on memorable melodies, although weak on historical and cultural accuracy.

It is known that, while she was in London, Pocahontas met Captain John Smith, at one time president of the council for the James Fort colony, and expressed her displeasure with him and those of his countrymen who “lie much.”[6] Those familiar with the facts of Pocahontas’s life, however, are only too aware that her thoughts surrounding the events that dramatically impacted her and her people are largely unrecorded by history. The Pocahontas and after conference brought together approximately 50 international scholars—including several Native scholars—from a variety of disciplines to reflect upon what is actually known of Pocahontas’s life and times, on both sides of the Atlantic, and on the ways in which her life has been construed and misconstrued over the last four centuries.

To give but a suggestion of their scope, conference papers ranged in topic from American Indian marriage practices for establishing and maintaining political alliances, to the lives of two English boys allowed to live among the Powhatan in order to learn Algonquian, the biblical significance of the name Rebecca, the startling number of American Indians who voyaged to London in the early 17th century, the James Fort investors’ motivations for bringing Pocahontas to London, and the political meanings embedded in the three representations of Pocahontas on view in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.

Among those taking part was Chief Robert Gray of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe. The Pamunkey people descend from the Powhatan. On the last day of the conference, Chief Gray spoke at the British Library on the history of the Pamunkey. His paper was titled “Pamunkey Civil Rights and the Legacy of Pocahontas.” In the Q&A that followed his presentation, and as a surprise to some, he further addressed the issue of why many Pamunkey people have ambivalent feelings towards Pocahontas. He spoke candidly about Pamunkeys’ general displeasure with Pocahontas’s story having been appropriated by non-tribal members. He shared his people's priority and overriding desire to make known the history of such Pamunkey as Chief George Major Cook (1860–1930), who fought to defend Pamunkey rights during the Jim Crow era, when racial segregation was written into the law, and the period surrounding the 1924 Racial Integrity Act, when the state of Virginia forced all citizens to have their race, “colored” or “white,” registered at birth and forbade interracial marriage. These laws essentially sought to legislate Pamunkeys and other Virginian Indian tribes out of existence. Gray was frank in explaining how Pamunkeys long invoked the name Pocahontas to assert their sovereignty, to no avail, while politically influential Virginians successfully invoked their descent from Pocahontas to have an exemption written into the Racial Integrity Act that classified them as “white.”

Pocahontas continues to hold a singular and singularly contested place in history. The Pocahontas and after conference achieved in conveying to all present that the shroud covering Pocahontas’s life needs to be lifted. For the anniversary week of Pocahontas’s death, and to commemorate her life, the rector of St. George’s Church displayed the church registry that dates back to 1597 and records her burial. In keeping with the Christian and English tradition of acknowledging the death of a person of high social standing, Pocahontas was buried in St. George’s chancel. The registry is poignant evidence of the life of a young Powhatan woman who lived and died in the maelstrom of the British–Powhatan encounter in the early 17th century.

Registry for Rebecca Wrolfe

Registry entry for Rebecca Wrolfe
St. George’s Church registry dating to 1547, open to the entry for Pocahontas's burial, toward the bottom of the right-hand page. Detail: In the list of March events over the year 1617, Pocahontas's entry reads, "21 Rebecca Wrolfe, wyffe of Thomas Wrolf gent, A Virginian Lady borne, was buried in the Channcell." Photos by Cécile R. Ganteaume, NMAI.

It seems likely that we will never fully know what Pocahontas thought of her abduction, instruction in the tenets of Anglicanism, marriage to John Rolfe, and experiences in London. But an understanding can be built around her life based, not on fabrications, but on Pamunkey knowledge and scholarly research that cuts through 400 years of appropriations, misinformation, and romanticism. There emerged at the conference a sense that a picture of early 17th century life in the mid-Atlantic region can be brought to light that gives greater insight into the clash of empires that occurred in the heart of the Powhatan Confederacy and that illuminates the historic processes and legacies of European colonization, and Native strategies for confronting them.

Cécile R. Ganteaume

Cecile GanteaumeCécile R. Ganteaume is an associate curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., and formerly at the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, in New York. A recipient of a Secretary of the Smithsonian’s Excellence in Research Award, she has written and curated on American Indian art, culture, and history. She is currently collaborating with lead curator Paul Chaat Smith on the upcoming exhibition Americans. Scheduled to open October 2017, one of Americans' galleries will explore Pocahontas’s unique place in American national consciousness.

The exhibition Americans opens at the museum in Washington on October 26, 2017.

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[1] Based on English sources, Pocahontas’s birth date is estimated to be 1595.

[2] For a history of the various editions of Bazilioologia: A Booke of Kings, see H. C. Levis’s discussion of them in The Grolier Club’s 1913 reproduction of the 1618 edition of Bazilioologia: A Booke of Kings, Notes on a Rare Series of Engraved Royal Portraits From William the Conqueror to James I. It is available online.

[3] The text in the oval frame encircling Pocahontas reads, "MATOAKA AĽS REBECCA FILIA POTENTISS: PRINC: POWHATANI IMP: VIRGINIÆ"."MATOAKA AĽS REBECCA FILIA POTENTISS: PRINC: POWHATANI IMP: VIRGINIÆ". The text below her portrait reads: "Matoaks als Rebecka daughter to the mighty Prince Powhâtan Emperour of Attanoughkomouck als virginia converted and baptized in the Christian faith, and wife to the wor.ff Mr. Joh Rolfe ."

[4] Pocahontas was a nickname given to her by her father. Matoaka was Pocahontas’ private name, which she herself revealed to the English colonists. Rebecca was the Christian name she received when she was baptized. Lady is an English title accorded noblewomen. Pocahontas was recognized as the daughter of an emperor of Virginia. 

[5] Pocahontas entered European history books before she even sailed to London. In 1614, two years before her transatlantic voyage, Ralph Hamor, one of the original James Fort colonists, published A True Discourse of the Present State of Virginia. In it he described her abduction. In 1619, the Theodore de Bry family published volume 10 of America and not only recounted the abduction story, but illustrated it with an engraving. In 1624, Jamestown colonist John Smith published his, The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England & the Summer Isles, and it he included, for the first time, his dramatic account of his capture and imminent death at the hands of Powhatan and his men. He described how his life—and by extension, the colony—was saved by Pocahontas. The Simon van de Passe Pocahontas portrait was published in Smith’s The Generall Historie of Virginia, as well as in certain editions of Bazilioologia: A Booke of Kings.

[6] See Camilla Townsend, Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma (2004), pages 154-156.

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