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  • More than a Dead American Hero:Washington, the Improved Order of Red Men, and the Limits of Civil Religion
  • Elaine A. Peña (bio)

1. Synopsis of Scenery

On 22 February 1898, the city of Laredo, Texas commemorated George Washington’s birthday.1 Organized and financed by members of the Improved Order of Red Men Yaqui Tribe #59 fraternity, the two-day festival on the US–Mexico border featured a parade, a raucous night of entertainment, a reenactment of the Boston Tea Party, and a pyrotechnic show advertised as “the greatest display ever seen in the State of Texas” (“Washington’s”). Those events attracted thousands of spectators from both sides of the US–Mexico border, some from as far away as San Antonio, Texas and Monterrey, Nuevo León (Mexico). The reenactment of the Boston Tea Party was a real crowd pleaser. Onlookers were enthralled when Yaqui Tribe #59 brothers “violently” overtook a “full rigged ship 100 feet long, with masts, sails, lookout station, windlass, and cannon” docked in front of City Hall. Costumed in genuine buckskin outfits and smeared in war paint, they crawled up on deck and engaged local military personnel and municipal employees in “a fierce and realistic hand to hand struggle.” Absolutely committed to their roles, both groups took turns having the upper hand. But they stayed close to the script; the Indians [End Page 61] triumphed—Red Men fraternity members successfully captured the last sailor, pretended to scalp him, and cast his body into the crowd. Those closest to the ship were pleasantly surprised when the victors also threw boxes of candy labelled “tea” overboard (a brilliant homage to piñata logic). Thousands waved American flags, a choir sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and a fireworks display capped off the celebration. The final image of the lightshow featured Washington’s likeness adorned with a halo and the words “GOOD NIGHT.”2 Perhaps not his first apotheosis on the US–Mexico border, but definitely one of the most sensational.3

The Improved Order of Red Men (IORM), a brotherhood whose ideologies draw from the Sons of Liberty and the Tammany Society, nurtured that ostentatious performance.4 Officially founded in Baltimore, Maryland in 1834, IORM members sought to differentiate themselves from their immediate progenitors, the Society of Red Men (1813–1834), by amending the debilitating “convivial nature” of Society proceedings (Davis 158). They also made several logistical changes to eliminate old-world militaristic organizing principles. A lieutenant became a sachem; assembly meetings were known strictly as tribal council fires, lodges as wigwams, and the month of February became snow moon. A simple change, but that modification helped coalesce a Native mindset among thousands of Red Men who would travel and establish “hunting grounds” across the US, Panama, and the Philippines.5

Like their predecessors and other fraternal societies, the IORM appropriated Native American customs to cultivate veritable American character—a way of being in the world that relied less on cultural ties to Britain and more on the New World sensibilities of indigenous peoples. Philip Deloria (Playing Indian [1998]), Richard Slotkin, Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600–1860 [1973]), and Kariann Yokota (Unbecoming British: How Revolutionary America Became a Postcolonial Nation [2011]), among others, offer insightful and provocative explorations of those impulses. They examine how “playing Indian”—enacting Native American rituals, taking on the characteristics of the noble savage through various literary texts and/or exporting Native American goods—helped the nation transition away from its colonial past to create its own political and cultural identity.

This essay builds on those conversations by foregrounding the didactic qualities of playing Indian on the US–Mexico border. Enacting Native American–inspired traditions helped IORM Yaqui Tribe #59 members face the particular challenge of residing in an either/or geographic area. They lived in the US but Mexican customs dominated their way of life. And they felt that imbalance every day. Indeed, when IORM members inaugurated the tradition of [End Page 62] commemorating Washington’s birthday in 1898, a mere 50 years after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo established a fixed international boundary, they tasked themselves with generating and teaching American character to border residents. On...


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