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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May 19, 2017

Meet Native Hawaiʻi: Catelin Kawahinekoa Aiwohi

To celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month at the museum, we interview Catelin Kawahinekoa Aiwohi, a Native Hawaiian who works in Washington, D.C. The museum frequently invites interesting and accomplished Native individuals to share a little about their lives and work. Their responses offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native people today.—Dennis Zotigh

Native Hawaiian Governance 'Aha 2016
Catelin Kawahinekoa Aiwohi (first row, wearing a black blazer and long necklace) participated in the Native Hawaiian Governance ʻAha (Conference) 2016. February 2016, Oʻahu, Hawai'i. 

Please introduce yourself and, if you can, give us your Hawaiian name and its English translation.

I'm Catelin Kawahinekoa Aiwohi. The name Kawahinekoa was given to me at birth by my tūtū, or grandmother. It means “the brave, fearless woman” or “the woman warrior.”

Where did you grow up, and where in Hawaiʻi do you call home?

I was born in Wailuku on the island of Maui, and that is where I call home.

Catelin Kawahinekoa Aiwohi
Catelin Kawahinekoa Aiwohi.

What Hawaiian community are you affiliated with?

In 1920 Congress made a commitment to house the increasingly landless and homeless Hawaiian community after they had been displaced from lands they’d occupied for generations. The Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920 was passed to help Native Hawaiians reconnect to the land and improve their economic situations by leasing homesteads on which they could live and farm. I grew up on the Paukukalo Hawaiian Homestead on Maui, part of the 200,000 acres of land that Congress appropriated then. 

You've also held a pageant title in Hawaiʻi.

In 2012 I won the Miss Maui Scholarship Pageant and became a goodwill ambassador for the island of Maui. During my year of service I was a spokesperson for the Children’s Miracle Network, raising funds for the Kapiʻolani Women’s and Children’s Hospital.

What is a significant point in history from your Native community that you would like to share?

Kahoʻolawe is the smallest of the eight main islands in the Hawaiian Archipelago. From 1941 to 1994, the island and its surrounding waters were under the control of the U.S. Navy. This area was used by the navy and United States’ allies as a live-fire training area. A decade-long struggle by the people of Hawai‘i succeeded in stopping the bombing of Kahoʻolawe and helped to spark the rebirth and spread of Native Hawaiian culture and values. In 1994 Congress conveyed the island back to the State of Hawaiʻi. The Hawaiʻi State Legislature had already established the Kahoʻolawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC) in 1993. Its mandate is to manage Kahoʻolawe, its surrounding waters, and its resources, in trust for the general public and for a future Native Hawaiian sovereign entity.

What issues are the Hawaiian people facing at this point in time?

Of the nation's three major indigenous groups—American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians—we are the only one that currently lacks a government-to-government relationship with the United States. The long history of Native Hawaiians to recover our lost lands, abundant resources, and moreover our ability to self-govern, as a legal sovereign, has been blocked by both political and public policy conscription for over 120 years. The disparity in the federal treatment of Native Hawaiians has caused questions about the legitimacy of Native Hawaiian programs, services, and preferences, resulting in lawsuits threatening our assets and our ability to use them as they were intended.

Catelin Kawahinekoa Aiwohi 2
Catelin Kawahinekoa Aiwohi.

Is your language still spoken on your homelands?

The incorporation of Hawaiʻi into the United States at the turn of the 20th century included the extension of a policy against indigenous languages used as the medium of education. What had earlier been a flourishing system of education through the Hawaiian language was closed, and legal barriers to using the Hawaiian language in education were only removed 90 years later, in 1986. By that time fewer than 50 children under the age of 18 were proficient in Hawaiian, and Native Hawaiian educational achievement had plummeted.

A small group of Hawaiian educators began a plan to revitalize the language by focusing their efforts on the best chances the language had for survival: the keiki (children) of Hawaiʻi. The educators decided to create Pūnana Leo (language nest) preschools—Hawaiian-language immersion schools that would rely heavily on involvement from parents and community members to stay afloat. The first Pūnana Leo was established at Kekaha, Kauaʻi, in August 1984, with subsequent schools opening in Hilo, Hawaiʻi, and Honolulu, Oʻahu, the following year.

This started a revitalization movement that has been extremely successful, serving as a model to other indigenous communities in similar straits. According to the 2011 census, the number of fluent speakers of Hawaiian had risen to a reported 24,000, including 2,000 native speakers. The ʻAha Pūnana Leo has been one of the leading organizations in the Hawaiian language revitalization movement, and there are now a number of immersion schools and programs throughout the state. In the University of Hawaiʻi system, Hawaiian language classes are offered at all 10 campuses, and the number of second-language speakers continues to grow.

What cultural activities or events did you participate in Hawaiʻi?

I have danced hula since the age of 6. My kumu (teachers) were very influential in my upbringing and early development. They instilled in me a set of beliefs based upon our familial and cultural experiences, ultimately solidifying my identity as a Native Hawaiian woman. This identity has motivated me to travel through life confident in the key elements of what it means to be a wahine (woman) as part of a vibrant and flourishing culture. There could have been many other outlets and ways for a six-year-old's energy, emotions, and dreams, to take concrete form, but it was hula that allowed my creative dreaming to happen and those ceremonies and rituals that helped center my thoughts and behaviors.

It was also hula that taught me the history of our female gods, including Haumea, goddess of childbirth, war, and politics. I truly believe that this early understanding—an understanding that came from these powerful female ancestors—largely contributed to my spiritual and mental health and overall well-being.

What are some ways you stay in contact with your culture while living in Washington, D.C.?

I strive to cultivate and embody the values of the Hawaiian community in my everyday life:

Kuleana, to view your responsibilities as a privilege and honor, to accept responsibility as a duty, not in pursuit of reward, but because it is the right thing to do.

Haʻahaʻa, to be unpretentious and to exude a sense of humility. The word can also be used to describe a degrading and lowly state, but this is not an expression of the value. As a value, ha‘aha‘a is a sign of strength through humility.

Hoʻomau, to having perseverance and endurance. To be unceasing and committed to achieving a goal or completing a difficult task.

What message would you like to share with the Hawaiian youth who may be interested in coming to Washington to live?

Our aliʻi (monarchy) and appointed representatives conducted numerous diplomatic missions to Washington. Princess Kaʻiulani (1873–99) was only 17 years old when she left school in England to travel here to meet with federal officials to prevent the passage of the Annexation Treaty. Prior to her departure, the princess outlined her purpose: to plead for my throne, my nation, and my flag. After meeting with Kaʻiulani, President Grover Cleveland removed the treaty from consideration, although it was ultimately adopted by his successor.

Much has changed since then, but the importance of our presence here remains. As laws are being crafted and implemented every day, we cannot assume that our leaders, even those in the highest positions of authority, have had the opportunity to learn and understand the unique history of Native Hawaiians. It is important that we are here to ensure that the contributions of Native Hawaiians, as well as our unique challenges, are kept at the forefront.

Thank you.

Thank you.


Photos courtesy of Catelin Kawahinekoa Aiwohi.

To read interviews in the museum's series about Native elected leaders, click on the banner below. Meet-native-america
From left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All photos used with permission.

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April 03, 2017

Marking the 400th Anniversary of Pocahontas’ 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.

__________________________________________

[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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March 23, 2017

The Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854

On March 23, 2017, the Treaty of Medicine Creek (1854) was installed in the exhibition Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. The treaty, on loan from the National Archives and Records Administration, will remain on display through August 2017. Here, museum historian Mark Hirsch recounts the origins of the treaty and highlights a key provision that secured the fishing rights of the nine Puget Sound Indian nations and bands that signed the agreement. 

NAA Walla Wall 08602800
Gustav Sohon (1825–1903), Coming for the Walla Walla Council, May 18, 1855. Colored pencil, watercolor, and ink on laminated mat. Image 20.3 x 20.3 cm. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution. NAA INV 08602800

 

The words “broken” and “treaty” figure prominently in contemporary discussions on American Indian history. For good reason. Today, most historians agree that the United States violated many, if not all, of the roughly 371 treaties with Native nations ratified from 1778 to 1871. Yet the story of Indian treaties is more than a chronicle of coercion and bad faith. As the historian Alexandra Harmon reminds us, the narrative arc of treaty history makes “ironic twists and turns” and produces unexpected outcomes that have bolstered Native rights and tribal sovereignty.

The Treaty of Medicine Creek, with the Nisqually, Puyallup, Squaxin Island, and other tribes and bands of southern Puget Sound, was the first of four agreements the U.S. made with the Native peoples of Western Washington during a 37-day period in 1854–55. Although 63 tribal leaders signed the treaty, they and their people soon came to regret it. For in doing so they relinquished 2.5 million acres of tribal land to the U.S. in exchange for three 1,280-acre reservations, $32,500 paid over 13 years, and other considerations that aimed to assimilate Indians into European–American culture.

Flash forward to 1974. The descendants of the Medicine Creek Treaty signers embrace the old agreement. They consider it a source of Indian rights, a font of tribal traditions, and a recognition of sovereign nationhood.

What a difference 120 years make!

The shift in Native perceptions of the Medicine Creek Treaty turns on language found in Section 3, which states that, “The right of taking fish, at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations, is further secured to said Indians in common with all citizens of the Territory.” 

Isaac Stevens LOC
Isaac Ingalls Stevens, ca. 1860. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. LC-BH82- 5175 A

We tend to think that foresighted and hard-bargaining tribal leaders pressured American treaty commissioners to include such language in their treaty. After all, the Nisqually, Puyallup, Squaxin Island, and other southern Puget Sound tribes and bands depended on salmon fishing for survival. Yet the evidence suggests that the impetus for recognizing tribal fishing rights at Medicine Creek came from Isaac Ingalls Stevens (1818–62), the lead U.S. treaty negotiator.

An ambitious graduate of West Point, the 36-year-old Stevens was the governor of Washington Territory—a vast and sprawling area that included northern Idaho and western Montana—as well as its superintendent of Indian Affairs. To him fell responsibility for negotiating land cession treaties with the Indians of the territory.

Acquiring legal title had become a matter of urgency in 1850, when the U.S. authorized white settlers to claim Native lands under a new homesteading act. Land cessions were needed to “extinguish” Indian claims to their homelands.

When he arrived at Medicine Creek, Stevens brought already-drafted treaty language that would be read to the approximately 600 to 700 tribal delegates who converged on the treaty ground on Christmas Eve 1854. The draft reflected a recent trend in U.S. Indian policy: Rather than removing tribes to far-flung lands, U.S. officials hoped to make treaties that consolidated Indians on small parcels, or reservations, within their original homelands.

Stevens’s treaty also reflected some understanding of the cultures of the Puget Sound Indians. He knew that salmon fishing was central to their lives, that tribal leaders would never countenance a treaty that removed them from their homelands’ streams, rivers, and saltwater bays. He also knew that U.S. Indian officials were stingy and that allowing Indians to fish on their former lands would reduce the government’s responsibility for feeding them. Last, Stevens knew that incoming white settlers would need access to Indian labor. For these reasons, Stevens’s treaty recognized Indian rights to leave their newly created reservations to work, hunt, and especially fish for salmon at their “usual and accustomed grounds and stations.”

The tribal delegates who attended the Medicine Creek Treaty expected to discuss and negotiate the terms of the agreement. But Stevens was not of a mind to negotiate. Ultimately the treaty was signed as written and forwarded to Washington, where it was ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1855.

Medicine Creek 1-2
"Treaty between the United States and the Nisqualli, Puyallup and Other Indians at Medicine Creek, Washington." 1854. First page, recto and verso. National Archives, Washington, D.C.

There is little doubt that the tribal leaders were confused by the proceedings. An interpreter read the terms of the treaty to them using the Chinook trade jargon, a 500-word pidgin language that had no words for Western concepts of land ownership, fishing rights, and other principles invoked in the treaty.

Leschi WA Hist Soc
Portrait of Nisqually Chief Leschi, painted by an unknown artist in 1894. Watercolor on paperboard. Washington State Historical Society, cat. 200.

An X appears next to the name of the Nisqually tribal leader Leschi (1808–58), but there is reason to believe his mark may have been forged. Certainly Leschi was angered by the treaty’s plan to relocate the Nisqually to a small reservation atop a wooded bluff, away from the river where they traditionally harvested salmon. Leschi also visited neighboring tribes who were preparing to negotiate treaties with the U.S., urging them to place no faith in Stevens. As tribal resentment spread through the region, so, too, did white fears of Indian unrest. In 1855 the growing atmosphere of tension, distrust, and cultural misunderstanding led to violence and war. For eight months tribal warriors and volunteer militiamen engaged in skirmishes that cost lives on both sides.

In November 1856 territorial authorities captured Leschi, who was put on trial for allegedly killing an American soldier. Leschi’s attorneys not only proclaimed his innocence, but argued that an act committed during wartime could not be punished in civilian courts. The trial ended in a hung jury.

But Leschi’s troubles were not over. After a one-day retrial, a jury of non-Indians in a different venue found him guilty. Although his lawyers presented new, exculpatory evidence, the Territorial Supreme Court upheld the conviction. On February 19, 1858, 300 people gathered around an outdoor gallows near Fort Steilacoom, south of present day Tacoma, to witness his execution.

Leschi proclaimed his innocence to the end, and many people, including his hangman, believed him. “I felt then I was hanging an innocent man,” Charles Grainger recalled years later, “and I believe it yet.”

QuileuteHookWas
Quileute salmon-fishing hooks, ca. 1890. Washington. Iron, wood, cordage, split plant fiber. 20 x 7.5 cm, cord 120 cm; 20 x 8.4 cm. 5/7591 | NMAI Photo Services, Smithsonian

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the Native peoples of the Puget Sound region continued to remember Leschi as a great tribal leader and a wrongly convicted man. Today a neighborhood in Seattle, a city park, a marina, and a school on the Puyallup Indian Reservation bear his name. In 2004, 146 years after his execution, Leschi was exonerated at a historical retrial presided over by the chief justice of the Washington State Supreme Court.

In the 20th century, the Native peoples of Puget Sound also remembered and continued to invoke fishing rights guaranteed under the Medicine Creek Treaty. Exercising those rights, however, was now challenged by increasingly stringent state regulations that prohibited Indians from harvesting salmon out of season and without state fishing licenses. For state officials, U.S. treaties that guaranteed Indians the right to fish in their “usual and accustomed stations” were vestiges of a bygone era, ancient promises that held no purchase in modern America.

Puget Sound Indians never waivered in the belief that their treaty-recognized fishing rights were inviolate. “We have this treaty right, the supreme law of the land under their Constitution,” the Indian fishing rights advocate Valerie Bridges (Nisqually, 1950–70) declared. “It’s a treaty we’re fighting for.”

It was this fundamental belief in the sanctity and power of the Medicine Creek Treaty that helped inspire the great fish-in protests on the salmon rivers of Western Washington in the 1960s and ’70s. Those acts of resistance fixed national attention on Indian treaty rights and laid the groundwork for the emergence of the modern tribal sovereignty movement that continues to define life in Indian Country today.

—Mark Hirsch


Mark Hirsch is a historian at the National Museum of the American Indian. His research interests include 19th- and 20th-century social and cultural history, U.S. Indian policy, Native–European contact, and the making of the modern world


Source for the observation that treaty history makes “ironic twists and turns”: Alexandra Harmon, “Indian Treaty History: A Subject for Agile Minds,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 106:3 (Fall, 2005): 358.

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November 23, 2016

Do American Indians Celebrate Thanksgiving?

ThanksgivingCircleSlashCrop2
Five years ago, Dennis Zotigh wrote a short essay for the museum on the Thanksgiving story and how he observes the holiday. Since then, Dennis has asked Native friends to talk about how their families spend Thanksgiving Day. Here are some of the responses people gave him this year. Dennis's essay, including people's earlier answers to his question, appears below: 

Wellington, Kansas: Thanksgiving was a blending of two different cultures, one culture helping another to survive. The historical knowledge we have now of what was actually taking place may not be the same as what was being experienced in those days. Our assessment now may not be fair because of all that the Native people have endured. 

Exeter, California: Being the only Native American classroom teacher at a public school, raised mostly in an urban setting steeped heavy in traditional American holidays, and around many other native people on weekends while traveling to dance, this has always been a challenging question for me that I cannot claim to know the answer for. I see many other teachers I work with who are not native struggle with knowing how to address the issue comfortably. I have to say, I have fear that if we avoid the issue altogether, Native people will be forgotten about. I have seen some teachers decide to stop teaching about Native Americans for fear of offending. I personally get sad when I see that happen. I know Thanksgiving is a controversial subject, and there are so many viewpoints. I share the modern theme of Thanksgiving, which I think has good intentions—family and community. I have also chosen to teach about Native American culture, even more heavily in November because of Thanksgiving, even though it is no longer a part of the curriculum. I have found ways to integrate it while teaching something that I think is important. I do an assembly for the students in which we dance, and I emphasize how it is not possible to teach everything there is to know about Native Americans in just one assembly. I emphasize the diversity among native people. 

San Antonio, Texas: Except for the last four years, the twenty years before that I spent almost all of my Thanksgivings at the table of my brother-in-law. Our gatherings were about giving thanks for what we had. As for Native American history being left out of teaching, it is an outrage. Educate our fellow educators on how to teach it. It would be a great way to help others teach courses and show how to respect the culture.

Edmonton, Alberta: We have family members with addiction issues. The kids get to eat, which my mom loves. And we are thankful not only to survive colonization, but also grateful to feed family.

Norman, Oklahoma: We celebrate and give thanks for our loved ones' being able to be together again. But when my daughter was young and the realization hit, as it does all young American Indians, she said to me , "Do you think we should have helped them?" There will be extra prayers for Standing Rock at our table. 

Do American Indians Celebrate Thanksgiving?

Wampanoag Nation Singers and Dancers
The Wampanoag Nation Singers and Dancers, 2011. Salt Pond, Cape Cod National Seashore. Courtesy of the Wampanoag Nation Singers and Dancers. 

In thinking about my earliest memories of elementary school, I remember being asked to bring a brown paper sack to class so that it could be decorated and worn as part of the Indian costume used to celebrate Thanksgiving. I was also instructed to make a less-than-authentic headband with Indian designs and feathers to complete this outfit. Looking back, I now know this was wrong.

The Thanksgiving Indian costume that all the other children and I made in my elementary classroom trivialized and degraded the descendants of the proud Wampanoags, whose ancestors attended the first Thanksgiving popularized in American culture. The costumes we wore bore no resemblance to Wampanoag clothing of that time period. Among the Wampanoag, and other American Indians, the wearing of feathers has significance. The feathers we wore were simply mockery, an educator’s interpretation of what an American Indian is supposed to look like.

The Thanksgiving myth has done so much damage and harm to the cultural self-esteem of generations of Indian people, including myself, by perpetuating negative and harmful images to both young Indian and non-Indian minds. There are so many things wrong with the happy celebration that takes place in elementary schools and its association to American Indian culture; compromised integrity, stereotyping, and cultural misappropriation are three examples. 

Thanksgiving-Ferris
Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930), The First Thanksgiving 1621. Color halftone of an oil painting from the series The Pageant of a Nation. Library of Congress. (LC-USZC4-4961

When children are young, they are often exposed to antiquated images of American Indians through cartoons, books, and movies. But Thanksgiving re-enactments may be their most active personal encounter with Indian America, however poorly imagined, and many American children associate Thanksgiving actions and images with Indian culture for the rest of their lives. These cultural misunderstandings and stereotypical images perpetuate historical inaccuracy.

Tolerance of mockery by teachers is a great concern to Native parents. Much harm has been done to generations of Indian people by perpetuating negative and harmful images in young minds. Presenting Thanksgiving to children as primarily a happy time trivializes our shared history and teaches a half-truth. And while I agree that elementary-school children who celebrate the first Thanksgiving in their classrooms are too young to hear the truth, educators need to share Thanksgiving facts in all American schools sometime before high school graduation.

Thanksgiving-Brownscombe
Jennie A. Brownscombe (1850–1936), The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth (1914). Oil paint on canvas. Courtesy of Pilgrim Hall Museum.

Let’s begin with Squanto (aka Tisquantum), a Patuxet, one of more than 50 tribes who formed the Wampanoag Confederacy. Around 1614, when he was perhaps 30, Squanto was kidnapped along with others of his people and taken across the Atlantic Ocean to Malaga, Spain, where they were sold into slavery. Monks in Spain bought Squanto, shared their faith with him, and made it possible for him to find his way to England in 1615. In England he worked for shipbuilder John Slany and became proficient in English. In 1619 Squanto returned to his homeland by joining an exploring expedition along the New England coast. When he arrived at the village where he has been raised, all his family and the rest of his tribe had been exterminated by a devastating plague.

What about the Pilgrims? Separatists who fled from England to Holland seeking to escape religious persecution by English authorities, and who later booked passage to North America, are now called "Pilgrims," though Americans did not widely use the term until the 1870s. In November, 1620, the Mayflower dropped anchor in present-day Provincetown Harbor. After exploring the coast for a few weeks, the Pilgrims landed and began building a permanent settlement on the ruins of Squanto’s Patuxet village, now renamed New Plymouth. Within the first year, half of the 102 Pilgrims who set out from Europe on the Mayflower had perished. In desperation the Pilgrims initially survived by eating corn from abandoned fields, raiding villages for stored food and seed, and robbing graves at Corn Hill.

Squanto was introduced to the Pilgrims in the spring of 1621, became friends with them, and taught them how to hunt and fish in order to survive in New England. He taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn by using fish as fertilizer and how to plant gourds around the corn so that the vines could climb the cornstalks. Due to his knowledge of English, the Pilgrims made Squanto an interpreter and emissary between the English and Wampanoag Confederacy.

What really happened at the first Thanksgiving in 1621? The Pilgrims did not introduce the concept of thanksgiving; the New England tribes already had autumn harvest feasts of thanksgiving. To the original people of this continent, each day is a day of thanksgiving to the Creator.  In the fall of 1621, William Bradford, the governor of the Plymouth Colony, decided to have a Plymouth harvest feast of thanksgiving and invited Massasoit, the Grand Sachem of the Wampanoag Federation, to join the Pilgrims. Massasoit came with approximately 90 warriors and brought food to add to the feast, including venison, lobster, fish, wild fowl, clams, oysters, eel, corn, squash and maple syrup. Massasoit and the ninety warriors stayed in Plymouth for three days. These original Thanksgiving foods are far different from the meals prepared in modern Thanksgiving celebrations.

Squanto died in 1622, but Massasoit outlived the era of relative peace in colonial New England. On May 26, 1637, near the present-day Mystic River in Connecticut, while their warriors were away, an estimated 400 to 700 Pequot women, children, and old men were massacred and burned by combined forces of the Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, and Saybrook (Connecticut) colonies and Narragansett and Mohegan allies. Colonial authorities found justification to kill most of the Pequot men and enslave the captured women and their children. Pequot slaves were sent to Bermuda and the West Indies. In 1975 the official number of Pequot people living in Connecticut was 21. Similar declines in Native population took place throughout New England as an estimated three hundred thousand Indians died by violence, and even more were displaced, in New England over the next few decades.

Looking at this history raises a question: Why should Native peoples celebrate Thanksgiving? Many Natives particularly in the New England area remember this attempted genocide as a factual part of their history and are reminded each year during the modern Thanksgiving. The United American Indians of New England meet each year at Plymouth Rock on Cole's Hill for a Day of Mourning. They gather at the feet of a statue of Grand Sachem Massasoit of the Wampanoag to remember and reflect in the hope that America will never forget.

I turn to friends on the Internet to find out what Native people think of Thanksgiving. A few of the responses I have received over the years:

Hydro, Oklahoma: Could we just start over and go forward? We can't change the past, but we can work for peace and unity in the future. History needs to be taught correctly in our schools—that is what needs to happen. My daughter had to write a paper about Big Tree, Satank, and Satanta. She interviewed Satanta's great-grandson, who was in his 90s, and told the story as he told it to her, including their transport from Fort Sill and how the feather was turned into a knife as they passed the giant tree, causing the soldiers to shoot and kill Satank. She got an AAA+ from her teacher.

Ecuador via Bozeman, Montana: It's important to share the whole, true story of the first Thanksgiving. Many of us were told a fairytale lie that led us to believe the same old story: Colonization was good for everyone and colonization was relatively peaceful (the violence was necessary, the ends justify the means). Now, a lot of us are learning more, and that comes from educating ourselves with the help from those who do know. I will say this, the generic idea of thanksgiving, or taking the time to be with family and friends and give thanks for all the blessings in our lives, the big and small, is a great practice and should happen more often. I wonder how we can turn a negative into a positive? Can we have an honest Thanksgiving? Can we move forward and, if so, where do we begin?

Santa Fe, New Mexico: My family and I celebrate Thanksgiving, not so much in the way that the "Pilgrims" may have done with the Indians. We give pause, and acknowledge all of the blessings that we received in the past year. We think of family and friends; of the homeless; of those away from family in hospitals, elders in nursing homes, those incarcerated, the soldier men and women overseas, around the world, standing watch and guarding our freedom. We think of those in mourning, whose family have gone ahead of them. We also think of those in school, no matter what age. And, finally, we pray for traveling mercies said for folks traveling home. We are thankful each day for Creator's gifts but on Thanksgiving, it seems we focus and are concentrated in our thoughts about these blessings.

Fairfax, Oklahoma: Our folks and ancestors left a good road to follow and prayed for gifts or successes for us that they may not have achieved. We have opportunities even more than them in these days and days to come. Long time ago we sat down in thanksgiving and had a great day. That's what Thanksgiving is to me, to enjoy and continue to achieve for yourself and them. They are smiling when we achieve. Aho.

Sevierville, Tennessee: Yes, I celebrate Thanksgiving. I have a thankful heart and feel blessed, so I give thanks.

Lawton, Oklahoma, with gentle humor: Do we have to feed the Pilgrims? Again?

And here are a few people's thoughts in 2013: 

Aylett, Virginia: It is good to celebrate the concept of gratitude and thankfulness. When the holiday story is based on a lie that covers up the national moral atrocity of genocide, the statement about the people who celebrate is not good. Shining light on the truth will always bring about healing. 

Montville, Connecticut: Thanksgiving was celebrated for murder and slavery rather than friendship and harvest. 

Greenbelt, Maryland: I don't necessarily look at the holiday as pilgrims-meet-Indians-and-chow-down. I celebrate it as the time the cycle of alcoholism was broken in our family, and we have a feast to celebrate that. 

Norman, Oklahoma: It's pretty much a family reunion for me, and there is eating, visiting, being thankful, and having a good time. Because of that, there is no reason to worry about the history. Similar to the idea that our dances fall on the 4th of July and instead of celebrating independence, it is more like a homecoming to our Kiowa people. 

California: When I went to school there was two Indians in our class—me and a Hopi girl. Neither one of us had to endure any of this because her mother and my mother both raised hell with the principal. No fake headbands or feathers for us. 

Pala, California: When my kids were in pre-school is when I decided I needed to represent our people at this time of year more than any other. I would be damned if my kids were gonna wear paper bags like the other students. I wasn't having that. I learned to get the story across at their age level and show them the beauty and generosity of our people. I remember growing up and my mom getn upset with me because on Thanksgiving day I would come to the dinner table in my PJs and hair unbrushed, knowing the day was not a celebration. But now that I'm a mother of 3 and a grandmother of 1, I understand as Native people we give thanks to the Creator every day. On Thanksgiving Day I'm just grateful our people are still here and still stand strong. 

Salt Lake City, Utah: Thanksgiving, to me, is to be grateful for all the good blessings that came my way. Good health. Gift of family. Regardless of history, there are still many Natives in the land, and that shows how resilient we are. To honor those who went before us, let us share our culture and stories, teach the youth to learn from the past and to make our lives so our ancestors are proud of us. Example is a great educator. 

Alberta, Canada: It is an opportunity for those who do take note . . . . There will be those who roll their eyes, and others who may gain deeper appreciation, to honor (maybe even emulate) a more giving nature . . . , that of their Creator. 

Crow Agency, Montana: My Dad used to say, "We give thanks everyday, so if they want to give us a holiday to give thanks, I'll take it." 

Unfortunately, I didn't include where people were writing from in the essay when it first appeared in 2011:

I was infuriated when my daughter’s school had a mock feast complete with paper mache headdresses and Pilgrim hats!

When they did that to my kids in elementary, I TORE those items up and signed my kids out of school for that day.

For Thanksgiving I was the Indian. Umm Go figure . . . .

Someone took a picture of me in front of the class, and to this day . . . it bothers me. Don't get the whole making a fest in school.   

Tonight I have to lead a children's Bible class, and they want me to theme it around Thanksgiving. I will, but it's not going to be about the happy pilgrims and all that stuff. Thankfulness to God is one thing, but elevating pilgrims to hero status is out of the question.  

When my daughter Victoria was in grade school she had a teacher give them the assignment to write a report on Thanksgiving dinner, and Victoria wrote hers as to why our family doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving. Victoria got an F on the paper, and I threatened to go to the school board if the principal didn't get it changed. Victoria got an A, and the class got a lesson on Native American heritage. 

Ignorance and not near enough education in the school systems! It is very sad that a majority of what is taught is very superficial and the dark aspects of our history are neatly tucked away.Very sad!

Considered a day of mourning in our house.

For skins [American Indians], Thanksgiving should be the Last Supper. 


The United American Indians of New England meet each year at Plymouth Rock on Cole's Hill for a Day of Mourning. They gather at the feet of a statue of Grand Sachem Massasoit of the Wampanoag to remember and reflect in the hope that America will never forget.

Do I celebrate Thanksgiving? No, I don’t celebrate. But I do take advantage of the holiday and get together with family and friends to share a large meal without once thinking of the Thanksgiving in 1621. I think it is the same in many Native households. It is ironic that Thanksgiving takes place during American Indian and Alaskan Native Heritage Month. An even greater irony is that more Americans today identify the day after Thanksgiving as Black Friday than as National American Indian Heritage Day.  

—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 original version of this essay was published on November 23, 2011.

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