Manataka® American Indian Council
By Lauren Monsen
Quanah Parker Comanche
Hollow Horn Bear
Six great chiefs rode in Theodore Roosevelt’s 1905 inaugural parade
Washington — When Theodore Roosevelt, as 26th president of the United States, invited six legendary Indian chiefs to participate in his 1905 inaugural parade, the idea was to “give the people a good show,” as he put it.
All six chiefs — Geronimo (Chiricahua Apache), Quanah Parker (Comanche), Buckskin Charlie (Ute), American Horse (Oglala Sioux), Little Plume (Piegan Blackfeet) and Hollow Horn Bear (Brule Sioux) — accepted Roosevelt’s invitation and came to Washington. Their appearance at the inaugural parade, their subsequent meetings with Roosevelt and their overall legacy are the focus of a photographic exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI).
Titled A Century Ago: They Came as Sovereign Leaders, the exhibition outlines the chiefs’ roles as advocates for their people at a time when Native American culture was under siege and tribal rights were largely unrecognized. According to José Barreiro, assistant director for research at NMAI, “the American Indian was thought of as ‘the vanishing American’ during the early 20th century.” It was, he said, “probably the worst moment in history for Indian people.”
Although Roosevelt’s inaugural committee expected the six chiefs to add “a picturesque touch of color” to the festivities, the chiefs had an entirely different agenda, Barreiro said. They regarded the president’s invitation as an opportunity to advance the interests of their people, who were being pushed off tribal lands to accommodate white settlers.
Each chief had a compelling personal history that
burnished his leadership credentials. Geronimo, the eldest, was a legendary
warrior who had fought the U.S. government for years. He hoped that his audience
with Roosevelt would convince the president to allow the Apache people to return
to their ancestral homelands in the American southwest.
Quanah Parker, a so-called “half-breed” whose mother was a white woman, campaigned skillfully against federal land-allotment policies that sought to break up tribal lands. He invited Roosevelt “to go wolf hunting in the Big Pasture area, an adventure Roosevelt could not resist,” the exhibition states. During his visit with the Comanche leader, Roosevelt said, he recognized that Parker was “now painfully teaching his people to travel the white man’s stony road.” Parker eventually became the catalyst of the Native American Church, which fused certain tribal practices with traditional elements of Christianity, Barreiro said.
Hollow Horn Bear was a respected peacekeeper who encouraged unity among Sioux leaders, while Little Plume was considered a great warrior and counselor. Buckskin Charlie, revered as a political and spiritual leader, championed tribal values and helped guide his people through the difficulties of adjusting to an agrarian lifestyle. American Horse was a proponent of Native self-governance and educational opportunity.
Setting the Stage for Future Gains
Before the six chiefs could press their claims with the U.S. government, they knew they had to “reach the American public, essentially going above the heads of lawmakers,” Barreiro said. “They were very conscious of the importance of public relations.”
Roosevelt’s inaugural parade would boost the chiefs’ visibility and possibly enhance their bargaining position. On horseback, wearing full regalia, the chiefs created a sensation as they entered the parade route; Roosevelt and his entourage, enjoying the parade from the presidential box, rose to their feet as the six men came into view. The chiefs turned in their saddles to acknowledge Roosevelt.
Although he was sympathetic to the Indians’ predicament, Roosevelt refused to halt the dispersal of tribal lands, for fear that more conflict with settlers would result. Geronimo’s appeals to Roosevelt did not succeed, but the Apache chief would later publish his life story and dedicate the book to Roosevelt, and the president read the memoir from cover to cover.
Quanah Parker’s lobbying efforts were more fruitful; he persuaded Roosevelt to modify land-allotment legislation to include the rights of Native children and to provide a $500,000 fund promised by the government in earlier treaty negotiations. Despite the setbacks they experienced, the six chiefs were tremendously influential in sowing the seeds of the Indian-rights movement that would emerge long after their deaths, Barreiro said. “It was the strength of that transitional leadership that built the cultural and political resiliency” of American Indians, he added.
“It’s only been in the last 35 years or so that people have recognized the value of Native cultures,” but “the issues that the six chiefs dealt with were similar to those of today,” Barreiro said. “Their legacy is carried on by their descendants, who have preserved a lot of the tribes’ oral history.” Also, in the face of misguided federal policies that wreaked havoc on Native societies, “the American public has always had a strong current of sympathy for Indian causes,” Barreiro observed. “In part, that comes from the leadership of the six chiefs who came forth to advocate for their people.”
Not incidentally, “the formative period of American history created a sense of solidarity with rebels and underdogs,” said Barreiro. Probably no one understood that better than the canny, resourceful men who stole the spotlight at Roosevelt’s 1905 inaugural parade, electrifying onlookers as they rode their horses — six abreast — in ceremonial splendor.
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