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Contrasting the times: Coolidge in the Black Hills in 1927


When President George W. Bush gave a speech in the Black Hills of South Dakota recently, boosting the Congressional campaign of his old friend Gov. William Janklow, he had scarcely a word to say about Indian issues. In marked contrast, another Republican president came to the Black Hills, sacred land of the Sioux and Cheyenne, exactly 75 years earlier and had a great deal to say about "the Indian problem." This was Calvin Coolidge, who spent most of the summer of 1927. Coolidge visited a number of BIA facilities and on one famous occasion received a magnificent war bonnet and the title Wanblee Tokaha (Leading Eagle) from Lakota leaders Henry Standing Bear, Brule, and Chauncey Yellow Robe, Brule/Hunkpawpa. On Aug. 17, 1927, he gave a formal address at Pine Ridge reservation, which even though it reflected the assimilationist policy and European prejudice of the time, showed a remarkably nuanced understanding of Indian country. Here are excerpts, as reported in The Black Hills Engineer, quarterly publication of the South Dakota School of Mines, in November 1927:

The Indian problem, which has been a fruitful subject of controversy for many years, began with the first meetings of the Caucasian and Red races. The obvious result of this conflict was armed hostilities between the races which began in the early days of the settlement of this country and ended within a short distance of this post, for the battle of Wounded Knee, which occurred on this reservation in 1890, was the last event of enough importance to be listed by the War Department as an Indian campaign. Peace and understanding cooperation [sic] now reign everywhere. The Indian problem on its face appears to be one simply of effective social service, practical philanthropy and education. As a matter of fact, it is a many-sided question, complicated by puzzling complexities. There are over 200 tribes and bands in the United States, each with its own name, tongue, history, traditions, code of ethics and customs, which have the effect of law with Indian tribes. It is a curious fact that most people in this country seem to believe that the Indians are a homogenous people and can be dealt with as a unified race or nation. The exact contrary is the outstanding fact, which has made the Indian problem a most difficult one.

Today we find that the Indian people, recently primitive, not so very far from the hunter stage, are surrounded by 20th-century conditions which are alien to their racial characteristics, their tribal ways and states of mind. While thousands of them have succeeded in adjusting themselves to the new order of things, a great portion of them, mostly the older ones, still cling to the old ways, stoically refusing to go further along the modern road. They wish to live and die according to the old traditional ways of the Indians, and they should be permitted to do so.

Many Indians are still in a primitive state, although strongly influenced by white contacts, and thousands are as civilized as their neighbors. On the one hand, we find a considerable proportion are so little advanced that they can speak but few English words, while on the other hand we find tens of thousands who speak, read and write the English language, and a large percentage of this class have had a grammar school education and many are graduates of high schools, colleges and universities. A substantial number of Indians have attained high places in business, the learned professions, in the arts and sciences and in politics.

Within recent years, agriculture and stock raising have been gaining ground in the economic progress of the Indian people; but many of them are still unable at this time to take their places in the world as self-supporting farmers, mechanics, manufacturers and skilled laborers ?

? These few citations should be sufficient to indicate the manifold complexities of the Nation's Indian problem and to convey the suggestion that its practical solution cannot be effected by appeals to sentimentality, by loose talk, by ill-considered legislation, by hysterical campaigns, or by the insistence of those in charge of Indian affairs that their policies and methods are always the only right ones.