Throughout much of recent U.S. history American Indians have sometimes organized themselves into more complex political and social units that crossed tribal lines, often described by non-Indians as "pan-Indian movements." In many instances Oklahoma Indians have made important contributions to these efforts. Peyotism appeared first to ease the Dawes Act's assault on tribalism in the late nineteenth century and spread from the southern plains. By the end of the early decades of the twentieth century numerous groups sought legislation to prohibit Indian use of peyote. Opposition to peyote led to the incorporation of the Native American Church (NAC) in Oklahoma in 1918 to gain the protection of First Amendment rights.
Powwows, particularly on the plains, spread in the early twentieth century to celebrate "Indianness." Crossing intertribal lines, powwows advanced pan-Indianism through song, dance, costumes, honoring ceremonies, giveaways, and prayers and speeches in native languages and English. Powwows initially gained the largest support among the tribes in Oklahoma. Today powwows, including the annual Red Earth gathering held in Oklahoma City, continue to draw large numbers of participants in Oklahoma and elsewhere.
By 1911 the first national Indian political organization became a reality with the formation of the Society of American Indians (SAI). Headquartered in Washington, D.C., the organization pursued a general platform that called for better Indian educational programs, improved living conditions, and often Indian assimilation. Many of SAI's delegates came from Oklahoma, and in 1917 the organization held a conference in Oklahoma City. Despite SAI's successful beginning, factionalism crippled and ultimately destroyed the organization by 1923.
In 1924 Indian organizers created the Society of Oklahoma Indians to protect the "civil, social, educational and financial rights" of Oklahoma Indians. Annual meetings beginning in 1924 in Tulsa and Pawhuska, alternately, attracted hundreds from within Oklahoma and well-known Indian leaders from outside the state. The organization's earliest members included such diverse individuals as Lone Wolf, Joseph Bruner, and its first president, Sylvester J. Soldani, all Oklahomans. Surprisingly, the society was short lived and accomplished little, and by 1928 internal problems destroyed it.
Following passage of the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act, Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (Zitkala Sa) in 1926 organized the National Council of American Indians to protect and advance Indian civil rights and to politically empower them through voting blocs. During the congressional elections of 1926 the council targeted Oklahoma and South Dakota but met with limited success in organizing voters. In the end, Bonnin's council never attracted widespread Indian support and lasted only until the mid-1930s.
During the 1930s and 1940s several American Indian leaders attacked John Collier's Indian New Deal, which advocated an alternate outlook, cultural pluralism. Crossing tribal lines, Joseph Bruner, a wealthy Oklahoma Creek, and his American Indian Federation (AIF), sought to repeal Collier's programs, and his supporters urged legislative adjudication of Indian claims through a final cash settlement and an end to the BIA. Established in 1934, the Oklahoma-based AIF charged Collier with retarding Indian assimilation and condemning Native peoples to poverty and dependence. Dissension within the AIF's rank and file destroyed the organization, and it became little more than the personal instrument of Bruner and his Oklahoma followers until the group's end in the mid-1940s.
At nearly the same time as the demise of the AIF, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) emerged in 1944 as the first successful pan-Indian national political organization controlled by Indians. Not surprisingly, in the end many of NCAI's founders had ties to Oklahoma. In fact, many claimed either Oklahoma Cherokee or Oklahoma Choctaw descent, and nearly all worked for Collier and the BIA. The Oklahoma delegation to the constitutional convention was so large that the participants reserved an entire railroad coach. Some of the important early Oklahoma leaders of the NCAI included Erma Hicks (Walz), Lois Harlan, Ruth Bronson, Napoleon B. Johnson, Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice William W. Keeler, Cherokee Chief W. W. Short, Ben Dwight, Peru Farver, and Oklahoma legislator Dan Madrano. The NCAI remains an important Indian voice today.
Beginning in the 1960s new Indian activist groups, such as the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the National Indian Youth Council (NYIC), used the NCAI's energy as a springboard to forge new political movements. Led by Oklahoma Ponca Clyde Warrior, the NYIC became particularly involved in the 1960s in efforts to secure Northwestern tribes' treaty-based hunting and fishing rights, and the group later aligned itself with the African-American Civil Rights movement. Carter Camp, an Oklahoma Ponca, also helped lead AIM's protest movements of the period. More recently, well-known Oklahoma Comanche activist Ladonna Harris helped found Oklahomans for Indian Opportunity, Inc., and Americans for Indian Opportunity, Inc. Both of these non-profit organizations foster creative approaches to solving complex socio-economic problems throughout Indian Country. Clearly, in the future Oklahoma Indians will continue to play important roles in both the continuance and creation of pan-Indian efforts.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: JoAllyn Archambault, "Pan Indian Organizations," in Encyclopedia of North American Indians, ed. Frederick E. Hoxie (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996). Stephen E. Cornell, The Return of the Native: American Indian Political Resurgence (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988). Hazel Hertzberg, The Search for an American Indian Identity: Modern Pan-Indian Movements (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1971).
Thomas W. Cowger
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