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Tuesday, June 4, 2024

June 4, 2024: The Indian Citizenship Act: Joseph K. Dixon and Rodman Wanamaker

[100 years ago this week, President Calvin Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act. That landmark legislation was the product of work from a number of influential and inspiring individuals, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of them, leading up to a weekend tribute to 21st century figures continuing the fight!]

On two influential figures whose efforts exemplify the fraught but important role of white allies.

A decade ago, as part of a weeklong series on American collectors, I wrote about the 19th century artist and collector George Catlin, one of the century’s best-known and most influential “Friends of the Indian.” As that second hyperlinked article argues, and as I certainly sought to engage in my Catlin post, that category itself was a fraught one, reflecting genuine good intentions (and ones that importantly contrasted with many of the era’s blatant prejudices and the federal policies that resulted from them) but also entangled with both the paternalistic attitudes and the assimilationist goals that (to cite just one particularly telling effect) directly contributed to the creation of the hugely destructive boarding school system. Yet without minimizing any of those issues nor those all-too-often tragic histories, it’s fair to say that virtually no significant civil rights progress in American history would have been achieved—or perhaps even possible, given the nation’s power structures—without the contributions of white allies, and that’s unquestionably the case with the Indian Citizenship Act.

Across the couple decades of activism that led to that Act, two of the white allies who contributed most fully to the cause were the department store tycoon Rodman Wanamaker and the author, photographer, and ethnographer Joseph K. Dixon. First linked by a shared passion for the American West, the two men developed an idea for “expeditions” to Native American reservations through which Dixon could learn more about and photograph these communities and then share their realities with audiences around the country. After smaller 1908 and 1909 expeditions, it was the more sweeping 1913 American Indian Citizenship Expedition that produced the most significant results, not only in terms of Dixon’s photographs but also a book (1914’s The Vanishing Race: The Last Great Indian Council, co-authored by the two men but featuring a number of Native American voices and speeches) and plans for a National American Indian Memorial at Staten Island’s Fort Wadsworth (a project which was proposed but never completed). As the phrase “Vanishing Race” suggests, Dixon and Wanamaker did at times play into existing stereotypical views of Native Americans, but their 1913-14 projects nonetheless helped add a great deal to those conversations.

Moreover, the Citizenship Expedition was well-named, as it was indeed an important step along the way toward the 1924 Act. Both the expedition and the photographic exhibition Dixon created out of it received a great deal of public attention, helping connect more Americans to both Native American communities overall and the question of citizenship in particular. And over the next few years, Dixon linked that cause to the numerous stories of Native Americans serving with the U.S. Armed Forces in the Great War, writing, “The Indian, though a man without a country, the Indian who has suffered a thousand wrongs considered the white man's burden and from mountains, plains and divides, the Indian threw himself into the struggle to help throttle the unthinkable tyranny of the Hun. The Indian helped to free Belgium, helped to free all the small nations, helped to give victory to the Stars and Stripes. The Indian went to France to help avenge the ravages of autocracy. Now, shall we not redeem ourselves by redeeming all the tribes?” It would take another half-decade and the other contributions I’ll trace this week, but all of these efforts of Dixon’s (and Wanamaker’s) unquestionably contributed to the arc that culminated in the Citizenship Act.

Next influential individual tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

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