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A Prescription for Freedom: Carlos Montezuma, Wassaja, and the Society of American Indians

From: The American Indian Quarterly
Volume 37, Number 3, Summer 2013
pp. 139-158 | 10.1353/aiq.2013.0031

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The presence of Yavapai doctor Carlos Montezuma at the Society of American Indians’ initial April 1911 organizational meeting indicates his early optimism about the sai’s capacity to serve as a positive force toward achieving assimilation and emancipation, what he called “freedom,” for Native people. At the April meeting several Native luminaries came together in Columbus, Ohio, including Montezuma, Charles Eastman, Laura M. Cornelius, and Henry Standing Bear. As The Proceedings of the First Annual Conference explains, the Society was founded with an agreed-upon aim to serve as a voice for Native people across tribes, since at present the Indian “is allowed no voice in his destiny, for it is the paternal hand of ‘the Great White Father’ that assumes the right to guide him” (sai, Report 2). As an organization whose membership would be composed of Native leaders, with non-Natives allowed to participate only as “associates,” the Society began its existence with what seemed a stridently freedom-oriented, pro-Indian agenda and declared that it would use this “race organization . . . as the means by which many . . . vexing problems” would be solved (3).1 While Montezuma’s attitude concerning the productivity and focus of the Society would shift significantly over the subsequent decade, in early 1911 he endorsed the sai’s founding precepts. By October, however, when the first conference occurred, Montezuma’s ambivalence had grown to such a degree that he did not return to Columbus to attend the organization’s first large event.

In examining the founding tenets of the Society, as codified in April 1911, we can see precisely upon which issues Montezuma’s growing aggravation with the Society would hinge in the coming years, particularly between 1916 and 1919 (in 1919, the Society shifted in a presumably Montezuma-endorsed direction under President Charles Eastman, elected in September 1918). Aspects of the “purposes and policies” foretell the points of alignment and disunity between Montezuma and the Society that would develop between 1911 and 1922. His correspondence with Society leadership (particularly Arthur C. Parker) reveals his contributing efforts, whereas his own newsletter, Wassaja (published from 1916, after a half-decade of involvement with the sai, to 1922), captures his points of sharp disagreement with the sai. One founding policy of note declares that the Society itself would “exercise the right to oppose any movement which appears detrimental to the race” and would encourage “broad and free discussion of all subjects bearing on the welfare of the race” at all “conferences and meeting[s]” (Report 7). In Montezuma’s assessment, the sai came to figure as an organization that could only “meet and discuss.”2 As Wassaja’s issues of 1916–1919 show, Montezuma saw the sai’s inaction impeding, rather than facilitating, his multifaceted goal of Indian emancipation.

I begin this study by examining Montezuma’s correspondence with and ideological differences from Arthur C. Parker, the sai’s secretary-treasurer and editor of the Society’s journal (later “magazine”). Montezuma’s profession as a medical doctor informed his disagreements with Parker: he preferred surgically precise action over “discussion.” Montezuma’s medically informed approach to problem solving, which was based on treatment and cure, marked his relationship with Parker and his broader experience of the sai as an organization. Other life experiences also created the strong differences in vision between Montezuma and Parker. Montezuma was both an urban Indian (a long-time resident of Chicago) and a person with personal and experiential ties to reservations across the country. As a physician, he served at Ft. Stevenson (South Dakota), at the Western Shoshone agency (Nevada), and at the Colville agency (Washington) between 1889 and 1893. His approach to Native rights issues was also deeply and complexly influenced by his lasting connections to his home Apache communities in San Carlos and Ft. McDowell, Arizona.

Despite his disagreements, though, Montezuma did believe in the sai as a collective; he felt that all strong “races” needed organizations that could generate power and political agency. Yet, by 1916, when he saw that freedoms for Native people had not expanded despite the sai’s existence and annual meetings of mostly urban and educated Native people, Montezuma’s frustrations drove him to devise his...

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