‘They came to be visible’
There are few vistas more iconically American than the Statue of Liberty standing in New York Harbor, a symbol of our immigrant roots welcoming the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” It’s hard to imagine, but the statue nearly had a companion in New York Harbor – one intended not to celebrate arriving immigrants, but the “vanishing” Native Americans of the early 20th century.
The 160-foot statue was to crown a new monument called the National American Indian Memorial. Supporting the warrior would be a seven story pedestal with a museum at its base. Soaring 900 feet above the water, the monument would be even taller than Lady Liberty herself.
Rodman Wanamaker, son of the founder of Philadelphia’s first department store, was the organizing force behind the monument. He had an active interest in American Indians, or at least in the idea of them. Like many of his time, he was convinced that Indians were going extinct– hence his proposal for a memorial. But in addition to being “erected in memory of the North American Indian” , the memorial was meant to stand for a new way of life, says Frederick Hoxie, a historian at the University of Illinois.
“The idea was to symbolize the free gift of a continent to the newcomers from Europe. And it was supposed to symbolize this transition from the old savage ways of life to the new modern America.”
In February of 1913, after Wanamaker had plans drawn up, and convinced Congress to set aside federal land for the memorial, he and other organizers held a grand dedication ceremony. It was attended dignitaries including not only President William Howard Taft, but also, paradoxically, chiefs of the very Indian tribes that the memorial represented the death of. According to Hoxie,
“They came to be visible. They came to be seen…and you know, the bar was pretty low for American Indians to have an impact on the American public at this time. This is a time when Americans believe that Indians were savage people who could not survive in the modern world. So first of all, just to be there, to be present, to be a part of the ceremony was something that was at least a symbol that they hadn’t gone away.”
The ceremony concluded with a flag-raising — and with all the native representatives signing a document called “Declaration of Allegiance to the United States.” Over the next few months, Wanamaker had that same document taken to sixty-six Indian reservations across the U.S., as a way for Indians to honor the country. But the document didn’t have quite the impact Wanamaker was looking for, often causing confusion on the reservations when tribal members assumed that signing the pledge meant they would finally be granted U.S. citizenship in reciprocity. It would take another eleven years for native born tribal members to be considered U.S. citizens.
As you’ll know if you’ve ever been to New York Harbor, Wanamaker’s grand vision never made it into reality. Ground was broken for the monument, but organizers weren’t able to raise the funds to actually build it. With the advent of First World War, public support for the project vanished, subsumed by more pressing concerns. But the “disappearing” people the monument was to honor became more and more visible. During the war, American Indians served in the Army and the Navy, even though they weren’t citizens, and they had won accolades for service. And they picked up something besides recognition: Woodrow Wilson’s rhetoric of self-determination for the nations of Europe. If Europeans could pick their own national leaders, why couldn’t it be so for supposedly sovereign Indian tribes? Says Hoxie:
”That language resonated with American Indian leaders of the time, some of whom had been at that ceremony, and others in their circles, who said, well, gee, captive nations. That sounds pretty familiar to us. Self determination, that’s a great idea. How about if we have a little of that here? And they began to advocate for citizenship, and as citizenship, not just to blend in with everyone else, but citizenship to give them the ability to fight publicly for their interest, to testify in court, to act in all the ways that a citizen should in a democracy.”
This story comes from our episode on depictions of Native Americans throughout U.S. history. Listen to the whole show, or read about how Indian athletes were depicted on the sports pages, and why kids “play Indian” at summer camp.