War Against Native American Racism in the 20th Century


By Daniel Cobb, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Perhaps the best—or at least the most visible— example of defying Native American racism through political action took place in the context of the Society of American Indians or the SAI. The society held its first annual meeting in Columbus, Ohio, on 12 October 1911. That’s right, in Columbus, and on Columbus Day.

A Native American woman shaman with pikestaff
Native Americans fought racism against them toward acquiring equal rights. (Image: Bogdan Sonjachnyj/Shutterstock)

Society of American Indians

If you think about it, this was a powerful symbolic gesture, just as counter-demonstrations on Columbus Day are today. They were conveying that the discovery of America hadn’t led to the disappearance of Native Americans. They were saying, in effect, we are still here.

The men and women of the Society of American Indians were a diverse lot and included Native people from many walks of life, but the organization’s leadership primarily consisted of highly educated professionals, including academics, physicians, and lawyers. 

Often, they put their educations in off-reservation boarding schools and seminaries, colleges, universities, and medical schools for unexpected purposes. In the pages of their Quarterly Journal, they advocated for justice, democracy, the extension of full citizenship rights, and the reform—or even abolition—of the Indian Bureau—the federal apparatus that dominated American Indian lives. 

The Society of American Indians also insisted that Native people be taken seriously—as equals. They attacked racist imagery and derogatory depictions of Indians as monosyllabic, backward, somehow less than human. They argued for education reform that put into place a system that would train intellectuals, leaders, and highly skilled professionals.

This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North America. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

SAI: The First Modern Intertribal Organization

An image of a group of Native Americans standing together
Native Americans had recognized the need to come together in a new and modern form. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

And while the Society of American Indians members certainly advocated for treaty rights, they were divided over issues such as whether the sacramental use of peyote should be outlawed, or whether the popular Wild West shows were empowering to the Indians who worked in them, or if they reinforced negative stereotypes and the perception of Indian wildness and savagery.

With a central office in Washington, DC, and a membership that exceeded 600, the Society of American Indians came to represent what scholars have called the first modern intertribal political organization. And that’s true.

But the SAI was also the product of an evolving pan-Indian consciousness that had been in development for many, many years. The boarding schools founded in the late 19th century were among the forces that strengthened a shared identity predicated on shared experiences. And there were several attempts to form pan-Indian organizations before the SAI’s founding.

Learn more about the Indian New Deal.

Battle against Native American Racism Continues

Despite the Society of American Indians’ relatively brief history—it folded in 1923—several American Indian men and women associated with the society continued its mission. This included the Seneca archaeologist, folklorist, and museum curator Arthur C. Parker; the Chicago Medical College-trained Yavapai physician Carlos Montezuma; Yankton Sioux writer Zitkala-Sa; and Oneida educational reformer Laura Cornelius Kellogg.

But the Society of American Indians was not the only organization active during this period. The early 20th century also saw the founding of the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Alaska Native Sisterhood, both of which set their sights on attacking racism and securing civil rights for Alaska Natives.

In New York State, the Iroquois—led by Tuscarora chief Clinton Rickard—prepared the ground for the Indian Defense League of America, which would come into its own during the 1920s to promote unrestricted travel across what the Iroquois—considered to be the artificial border between the United States and Canada.

Learn more about how Native Americans resisted allotment and assimilation.

Defending Native Sovereignty in the Plains

Image of a dreamcatcher
Native Americans were determined that their traditions do not get forgotten. (Image: bsantana/Shutterstock)

Plains peoples, too, organized to defend tribal sovereignty. In January 1911, approximately 100 Lakotas, Dakotas, and Arapahos gathered on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota for the Black Hills Convention. They pushed to get the federal government to recognize that it had violated the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1868 when it seized the Black Hills in 1877. 

These activists demanded the return of the Black Hills and made it clear that they would settle for nothing less. Their effort to get the case before the U.S. Court of Claims—which was a chore unto itself—was supported by the Society of American Indians.

These kinds of political movements, of course, were taking place all over Indian Country. Indeed, tribal delegations were constantly visiting Washington, DC, where they advocated for treaty rights, defended tribal lands and resources, and demanded justice in Congress and the courts.

What all of this political activity had in common was the insistence that treaties, land and water rights, religious freedom, and traditional ceremonial practices were not things of the past. All of this political activism around Native rights might be unexpected, but it certainly wasn’t anomalous. One need only look to see it.

Common Questions about War Against Native American Racism in the 20th Century

Q: Why did the Society of American Indians hold their first meeting in Columbus, Ohio, on Columbus Day?

It was part of a symbolic gesture against Native American racism. It meant that Native Americans hadn’t gone anywhere since Columbus, and they wouldn’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

Q: What was the first modern intertribal organization?

The first modern intertribal organization was the Society of American Indians. Its mission was to battle Native American racism.

Q: What other Native American movements became prominent in America besides the SAI?

Other movements and organizations that sought to battle Native American racism included the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood organizations and the Indian Defense League of America.

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