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  • Americanization on Native Terms:The Society of American Indians, Citizenship Debates, and Tropes of "Racial Difference"
  • Cristina Stanciu (bio)


IN OCTOBER 1911 local newspapers in Columbus, Ohio, reported on an unprecedented gathering of Native Americans. The Society of American Indians (SAI) met strategically in Columbus on Columbus Day, an irony the local newspapers failed to notice; but they did report on meetings with local and national dignitaries, as well as an evening of entertainment consisting of "Indian songs and dances and the portrayal of scenes from Indian life."1 The SAI was also greeted by local chapters of patriotic organizations such as the Ohio Daughters of Pocahontas and the Improved Order of Red Men, which presented the attendees with small American flags as souvenirs. This effervescence of American patriotism reached its peak when the SAI members were reported singing the song "America" on top of a mound, followed by "an impromptu war dance on the same elevation."2 As the SAI grew in the following years, it went on to stage its own Native pageants, a growing national attraction, as US nativism was also on the rise.3 But why would a group of professional, articulate Native men and women, wearing citizens' clothing, intone "My Country, 'Tis of Thee," a song so antithetical to the scope of the SAI—"the revival of the natural pride of origin, the pride of the race"—as penned by its first president, Reverend Sherman Coolidge?4

For students of Native history, it is hard, although not impossible, to imagine a few Native men doing a war dance on top of a sacred mound during the SAI's first meeting in Columbus, Ohio. But the Native men and women gathered on the campus of Ohio State University in 1911 had different wars to wage with white America, and their decision to sing a patriotic song before dancing a traditional dance was perhaps indicative of their strategic use of public spaces and their performance on multiple local and national scenes. Contemporary Native critics like Osage literary critic Robert Warrior find this image troublesome, and rightly so; in a special issue dedicated to the SAI's one hundredth anniversary, Warrior argued that, "[a]propos their [End Page 111] widely shared belief in the passing by the wayside of older forms of Indianness, we could caption this photo, ironically, 'The End of History.'" Granted that such concerns are warranted, especially when raised by contemporary Native intellectual historians working through the legacy of an older Native organization for contemporary Native communities, not all the Native people present at the first meeting of the SAI shared the belief in the passing of "older forms of Indianness." Oneida SAI founding member Laura Cornelius Kellogg claimed unambiguously, "I'm not the new Indian; I'm the old Indian adjusted to new conditions" in an attempt to bridge the Old with the New.5

If we think about this episode in the larger context of the early twentieth-century ideological pressures of the Americanization movement, we may also read the irony of this performance and strategic use of Americanness in less apocalyptic terms than Robert Warrior. Yes, the patriotic local societies welcomed the Native intellectual elite to Columbus by presenting them with American flags. However, if we consider the growing numbers of national patriotic societies and nationalist pageants in the first decades of the twentieth century, flag exercises, and other public displays of patriotism triggered by the so-called immigrant invasion and an exacerbated nativism, we could construe this episode as a necessary simultaneous reaffirmation of American nationalism and emergent Native nationalism in the SAI members' performance of both American and Native allegiances—a form of what historian Jeffrey Mirel calls "patriotic pluralism," which I interpret to mean competing nationalisms in a Native context: on the one hand, a deep commitment and allegiance to Native nations; on the other, a strategic commitment to the settler nation.6

As I show throughout this article, the Red Progressives used the immigrant analogy as a common strategy to argue for Indian citizenship: The immigrant can easily become a citizen; why not the Indian? The most politically active and savvy members of the SAI argued for...


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