- IntroductionLocating the Society of American Indians
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Through a kindly interest in our race, manifested by Prof. F. A. McKenzie, of the Ohio State University, and as a result of a correspondence between him and a considerable number of the Indians carried on over a period of nearly two years, it became possible for a few Indians to meet in Columbus, Ohio, on the 3d and 4th of April past, for the purpose of organizing an Association of Indians, by Indians and for Indians.
“Origins and Plans of the American Indian Association”
Studies in American Indian Literatures and American Indian Quarterly, both published by University of Nebraska Press, have combined forces to produce this special issue devoted to locating the Society of American Indians historically, politically, and discursively, and to assessing the ongoing significance of its several legacies. Thus, on the one hand, the issue highlights the strategic nature of the sai’s original conception and, on the other, argues the need for new approaches to sai scholarship. The collected essays follow from the Society of American Indians Centennial Symposium, held over the 2011 Columbus Day weekend, October 7–9, at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, an event that marked the hundredth anniversary of the formation of the sai and the staging of its first national conference. As readers of sail and aiq will be aware, the sai (1911–1923) was the first American Indian rights organization conceived, developed, and run by Native people themselves, rather than by sympathetic non-Native reformers or other so-called Friends of the Indians, although it did welcome outside assistance and non-Native “associate” [End Page 3] members. For reasons I explain below, six of the Society’s early leaders held meetings in the city of Columbus and on the campus of Ohio State in April 1911. After a long summer of planning, these leaders returned to central Ohio in October, where they were joined by nearly fifty well-educated and highly accomplished American Indian women and men—the so-called Red Progressives, many of whom had attended Carlisle or other Indian boarding schools before going on to higher education, and many of whom had then worked for Carlisle, the Indian Service, or the Indian missions—to form the sai and to discuss the pressing issues of their day, but especially to debate Indians’ intolerable political status (i.e., wardship) and the potential for Indians to become US citizens (a status they would not achieve, as a group, until 1924).
Perhaps with an eye toward history, the early sai leaders timed their first five-day conference—formal speeches, open deliberations, and platform meetings held in the newly opened Ohio Union on the Ohio State campus; evening entertainments held in Memorial Hall in downtown Columbus; presentations to the congregations of churches located across the city; photo opportunities staged at iconic sites around the campus, the city, and the broader region of central Ohio, including ancient Indigenous earthworks—to begin precisely on October 12, Columbus Day. Although we now take its observance for granted as yet another colonial gesture of the dominant culture, and although at times it has become a focus for American Indian activism, in 1911 the holiday was relatively new. Christopher Columbus had become a viable symbol for US national belonging only in 1892 with the four-hundredth anniversary of the Columbian encounter.1 In choosing to begin their first national conference on Columbus Day, the sai ensured that an era of nationally focused Indian debate, driven by Native intellectual leadership, would begin not only with a keen sense of Indigenous performance but also with a sophisticated sense of Indigenous irony. The holiday provided a way of looking forward while looking back, a way of asserting Native presence while acknowledging the European other. One hundred years later, for all its contradictions, the example of the sai’s ironic Indigenous performance, during a time of political ambiguity and social crisis for American Indians, continues to sustain and inspire.
With the help of local colleagues, staff, students, and administrators at Ohio State, where I am professor of English and coordinator for the interdisciplinary program in...