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Friday, June 7, 2024

June 7, 2024: The Indian Citizenship Act: Society of American Indians Leaders

[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!]

Brief details from the amazing lives of five of the many figures who helped lead a groundbreaking and influential organization.

1)      Dr. Charles Eastman (Ohiyesa): One of the first Native Americans to graduate from an American medical school, receiving his MD from Boston University in 1890, Eastman immediately went to work on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, where he tended to the countless victims of the Wounded Knee Massacre in that same year. That was just one of numerous ways Eastman advocated for Native Americans, from medicine to writing to political roles, including his early idea for the organization that would become the Society (and for which he then served as its first president).

2)      Laura Cornelius Kellogg (Wynnogene): If Kellogg had only achieved her countless victories (won alongside her husband, the lawyer Orrin J. Kellogg) on behalf of land claims and rights for Six Nations people, she would be an impressive and influential activist. But her efforts went far beyond that issue and those communities, including her groundbreaking book Our Democracy and the American Indian (1920) and her “Lolomi Plan” to shift power away from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and to indigenous communities. Kellogg brought all that and more to her role as a co-founder of the Society.

3)      Dr. Carlos Montezuma (Wassaja): When he was around five years old, the Yavapai Apache boy named Wassaja was kidnapped by raiders and sold to an Italian American photographer named Carlo Gentile for thirty silver dollars (Gentile renamed him Carlos Montezuma); by the end of his life half a century later, he had become the first Native American student at the University of Illinois and Northwestern University, the first Native American man to receive an MD, and the founder of his own magazine, Wassaja, through which he critiqued the BIA and advocated for Native American rights. In that stunning life arc, helping found the Society was perhaps just a minor moment, but another reflection of Montezuma’s influence.

4)      Zitkala-┼ťa (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin): I said a great deal of what I’d want to say about one of my favorite Americans in that hyperlinked post, and in this one, and many other places. But Simmons Bonnin (as I believe she was known outside of her writing and artistic creations) was also the National Secretary of the Society beginning in 1916, and a decade later founded (along with her husband, the reformer and WWI veteran Raymond Bonnin, the National Council of American Indians (NCAI) to extend and amplify that ongoing work. No area of Native American culture in the early 20th century went uninfluenced by Simmons Bonnin, including these organizations.

5)      Ruth Muskrat Bronson: Cherokee poet and educator Ruth Muskrat was only 25 when she delivered to President Calvin Coolidge a 1923 appeal on behalf of the “Committee of One Hundred,” a gathering of influential Native American leaders; Coolidge was so moved that he invited Muskrat to lunch with him and his wife Grace. Although Muskrat too young to have been part of the fouding of the Society, this moment and community explicitly extended its work, connected it more fully to the federal government, and helped pave the way for the passage and signing of the Indian Citizenship Act the following year.

Tribute post this weekend,


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