Today, many states recognize this say as American Indian Day or Native American Day. It is the efforts of many American Indians at the beginning of the 20th century that laid the groundwork for such recognition of the native peoples. Within the midst of a number of these significant figures of Indian heritage, on man stands out as one who sought to build bridges rather than burn them. He worked in a substantial way to build bridges between his people and the people of the white, dominant society in which the Indians lived. This man was Dr. Arthur C. Parker, a Seneca Indian who was born in 1881 on the Cattaraugus Reservation of the Seneca Nation in western New York State.
Arthur Parker was born to Frederick Ely Parker and Geneva Griswold who had been a teacher on the reservation. His father was an Indian who had a white mother as well, and his mother was an American of Scottish-English ancestry. His grandfather, Nicholson Henry Parker was a Seneca leader, and took Arthur when he was young to raise him on the elder’s farm. The younger brother of the grandfather had become famous during the American Civil War and was a life chief among the Seneca. Ely S. Parker became a brigadier general in the Union Army during the war and eventually served as Secretary to Ulysses S. Grant. He went on to be appointed as the first Indian Commissioner of Indian Affairs.
Although his grandfather had advised him to study to become a Christian minister, Arthur Parker left the Dickinson Seminary in Pennsylvania after three years and tried his hand at being a reporter for a short time for the New York Sun newspaper in 1903. It was in that year, that Parker was adopted into the Seneca tribe (his mother had not been a member of the tribe – and the Iroquois Nation was a matrilineal culture). He did not go back to the Seminary, but during the time he was a seminarian, he had spent a considerable amount of time at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City working as an assistant archaeologist. Frederick Putnam, a professor of anthropology at Harvard University, befriended the young Indian, and encouraged him to study anthropology.
Parker began work as an apprentice archaeologist at dig sites around the state of New York and continued to volunteer at the Museum of Natural History in New York City as time permitted. As a Seneca, he brought an Indian perspective to the efforts of archaeological understanding of the indigenous peoples in New York, and went on to become the director of the Museum of Arts and Science in Rochester, N.Y. In the early 1900s he became more and more an authority of the American Indian culture and subsequently, became more and more involved in Indian affairs, and in 1911 Parker founded the Society of American Indians and edited their publication, American Indian Magazine. He also became an advisor to the Boy Scouts of America.
It was actually Dr. Parker who was one of the first to publicly call for an American Indian holiday. In an article published in the New York Sun (the newspaper he used to work for as a reporter) on November 15, 1912, he expressed the opinion that 90 million people, those he referred to as “imported Americans,” as well as 265,683 American Indians “ought to see the opportunity” in having an Indian holiday. The year before on Columbus Day, Dr. Parker helped to found The Society of American Indians (SAI) with sociologist Fayette Avery McKenzie and several prominent American Indian professionals. SAI became the first modern lobby for American Indians. Hi uncle Ely may have been real proud of his nephew.
Dr. Parker went on to associate with like-minded American Indian leaders like those that worked together to establish SAI, including Reverend Sherman Coolidge (Arapaho), an Episcopal priest; Charles Eastman (Santee Sioux) and Carlos Montezuma (Yavapai Apache), both physicians; Laura Kellogg (Oneida), an educator; Thomas Sloan (Omaha), an attorney; and Gertrude Bonnin (Yankton Sioux), an author. Such leaders represented many assimilated American Indians and helped to spark change within the Indian community attempting to establish a more hopeful future for their people. In that time, SAI members represented some of the best and brightest of native peoples.
At the turn of the century, these respected and key American Indian leaders truly believed that there should be a concerted effort to look to the future and create a better pathway to living in harmony. American Indian leaders undertook efforts to bridge the gap of anger, distrust, hatred, and resentment that had persisted between the two cultures for decades. Instead of looking back in grief upon the ashes of the pain-filled past, during this time, a number of genuine efforts were initiated by American Indians to extend the proverbial olive branch to white America. Some efforts were small and insignificant, yet Dr. Parker stands out as one who planted the seeds of change that eventually came to fruition in a variety of ways.
In 1912, Dr. Parker successfully persuaded the Boy Scouts to designate one day a year to honor the “First Americans.” The Boy Scouts did so in the years from 1912 to 1915. One of those Boy Scouts, Red Fox James, reportedly a member of the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana, took Parker’s admonition a step further, or 4,000 miles further, as he reportedly made at least two trips across the United States on horseback from somewhere out in the West to Washington, D.C. in order to gather states proclamations to create an American Indian Day and bring them to the president. He collected the endorsements from 24 state governments, and personally delivered them to the White House on December 14, 1915.
The newspapers of the day mentioned his rides and the stories generated some publicity. Sadly, even though some newspapers picked up on the novelty of the story, some journalists were skeptical of the idea of an American Indian Day. A New York Times editorial dated October 1, 1915 stated, “There is something pathetically respectable about this attempt to create a national feeling among members of the only race which has full title to the name American, even though they have gone about it in the wrong way. We have holidays enough and too many…” Nevertheless, at the end of his first ride, on December 17, 1914, James did get to meet with President Woodrow Wilson.
Unfortunately, there is no record of Woodrow Wilson, or the federal government, responding to the earnest endeavor of Red Fox James. Despite his sincere intentions, it may have been obvious to the Indian leaders that it would take much more than a young man on a pony or one newspaper article to change the attitudes of the “imported Americans” regarding their respect or remembrance of the native peoples. Nevertheless, it may have been a case of an idea whose time had arrived. By the early 1900s, a number of genuine efforts advanced the concept of remembering the American Indians and the recognition of valuable contributions by the “First Americans” during the establishment and development of the United States.
Yet, Dr. Parker shows up in numerous ways to promote the idea of an American Indian Day. He was also involved in a significant aspect of such an effort in his capacity as he served as the National Secretary of the Congress of the American Indian Association. While serving in this capacity, on September 28, 1915, three months before Red Fox James’ delivery of his endorsements, the Congress of the American Indian Association made a bold proclamation recommending that American Indians become officially recognized as U.S. citizens. The Congress also called upon “every person of American Indian ancestry” and all Americans to observe every second Saturday in May as a national “American Indian Day.”
The appeal that the Indian leaders made through the proclamation to the nationwide population of American Indians noted that their forefathers had fought against domination “for home, for family, for country, and the preservation of native freedom…” acknowledging the noble efforts at preserving their culture, but the delegates recognized that they needed to turn their attention to the future of their people so that they could “live in greater fullness” and “to move forward and acquire those things that make races and nations more efficient and more noble…” Careful consideration of such intent of the American Indians was to not just create a special day of remembrance, but to forgive an enemy, put the past in its place and move on with their lives.
Ultimately, the efforts of these American Indian leaders yielded fruit in May of 1916. The State of New York, Dr. Parker’s home state, was the first U.S. state to formally establish an American Indian Day in that year. Many other states eventually followed New York’s example. By 1919, Illinois, offered their version of the proclamation. Finally in 1924, Congress got motivated and passed the Indian Citizenship Act that extended citizenship to all U.S.-born American Indians who were not already covered by treaty or other federal agreements. In reality, an act that already should have been accomplished by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. However, this long process made it a mutual effort to come to terms with a new reality.
During this historically significant period, the proverbial “hatchet was buried.” For the Indian people, this demanded incredible humility, and the capacity of heart to forgive in the attempt to heal the bitterness, resentment, and deep wounds as a result of the pattern of abuse and mistreatment at the hands of the whites and the U.S. government. It is a bit reminiscent of the early Christians who could willingly forgive their Roman persecutors. Now in this day, from 1990, Americans dedicate the entire month of November each year as “National American Indian Heritage Month.” This may seem a token gesture, but it is a foundation for hope for a brighter future in the things that “make nations more efficient and more noble.”