WASHINGTON - He died in 1876. Beneath his cut-stone marker lies a bouquet
of blue plastic flowers. The carved legend is blunt: "Taza, son of Cochise,
chief of the Chiricahua Apaches."
The grave is thousands of miles from Apache country. Taza was headed for
the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, probably as a sideshow attraction,
when disaster struck. The famous warrior was felled by pneumonia and buried
in a silver-handled coffin barely a mile from the U.S. Capitol.
Dozens more American Indians, many of whom perished far from home and
family, are buried near him in the capital's Congressional Cemetery,
founded in 1807. The 32-acre tract, whose wooded expanse overlooks the
Anacostia River, borders a dour-looking D.C. jail on the eastern edge of
Capitol Hill. Scattered in a sea of 60,000 graves, the likes of John Philip
Sousa and J. Edgar Hoover rub shoulders with Apache, Cherokee, Chippewa and
They were celebrities of another age. Oscar Carey, a Pawnee, rode for
Buffalo Bill. William Shorey Coody, a friend of Daniel Webster, drafted the
Cherokee Constitution; his infant daughter Charlotte is buried at his side.
Kiowa Chief Yellow Wolf shook hands with President Abraham Lincoln, only to
be struck down by pneumonia a week later. He was buried with a peace medal
given his ancestors by Thomas Jefferson.
Their business was negotiation. Called "delegates" or "ambassadors" in
official circles, most Washington Indians were Industrial Age "lobbyists"
who walked a narrow line to hold the government to promises some would wait
a lifetime to see fulfilled.
Judging from local obituaries, residence in the capital should have merited
dangerous duty pay. Not only were Native people vulnerable to "children's
diseases" like measles and croup, but Washington was an unwholesome
environment, built on swampy ground with poor drainage and saddled with
stifling summer heat. When ill, Indian delegates were placed under the care
of physicians whose bills the government often paid with money from tribal
Other dangers laid in wait. Scarlet Crow, a Wahpeton Sioux U.S. Army scout,
was visiting the city to protest his tribe's removal when he was kidnapped
in 1867. Although a $100 reward was offered for his release, his body was
recovered two weeks later, the victim of an apparent lynching. His family
was given $500 of trade goods in compensation, and the scout was buried at
government expense - even if it did take Congress 50 years to buy the
Just getting to Washington could be an ordeal. A Santee Sioux delegation
was cut down by smallpox in 1838 before it could even start out. Other
groups, having to cross the land of traditional enemies on their way to
visit the "Great Father," required an Army escort en route.
When they did arrive, Native visitors hobnobbed with the very highest
circles. Pushmataha, a Choctaw chief and diplomat, fought under Andrew
Jackson at the battle of New Orleans. He had come to Washington to collect
debts owed his people by the government, only to be felled by croup on
Christmas Eve. His funeral procession, led by Jackson in 1824, was attended
by two companies of D.C. militia and 2,000 mourners; an official cannonade
honored the burial at Congressional Cemetery.
Fellow Choctaw Peter Paul Pitchlynn was a principal chief and personal
friend of Jackson and Henry Clay. Born in Mississippi of mixed-blood
parentage, he was called Hat-choo-tuck-nee (Snapping Turtle) and once sat
for a portrait by George Catlin. Elected to the Choctaw National Council in
the 1820s, he worked vigorously to suppress polygamy and the consumption of
alcohol among his tribe.
From the 1850s, Pitchlynn did an extended tour as an Indian delegate in the
capital. His main task was procuring payment of funds appropriated for
ceded Choctaw land in 1830, which proved no easy chore. By the time
Pitchlynn passed away, 50 years after the appropriation, the money was
still in federal limbo. The value of his estate was tied to the phantom
award and caused legal wrangling in the family for years.
Inducted into Masonry with Texas Gov. Sam Houston, Pitchlynn was once
described by Charles Dickens to be "as stately and complete a gentleman of
nature's making as I ever beheld." A man of stature in two worlds when he
died of pulmonary failure at age 74, Snapping Turtle, as he was known in
his first home, was buried with full honors in his adopted one in 1881.
Congressional Cemetery is named for the congressmen who died in office and
were interred on its grounds, a necessity given the difficulty of moving
human remains long distances in the 19th century. Visiting dignitaries,
Indian and non-Indian, who passed away in Washington were also buried in
the cemetery at government expense.
A striking Native addition came to the grounds last September when the
Lummi Nation of Washington state dedicated two cedar totem poles
commemorating those who died in the attack on the Pentagon on Sept. 11,
2001. The 15-foot "healing poles" and a 34-foot crosspiece complement other
poles the Lummi have made to honor 9/11 victims in New York and
Pennsylvania. In 2006 the poles are slated to be moved to a public D.C.
memorial on Kingman Island in the Anacostia River.
The cemetery site, owned by Christ Episcopal Church, is managed by the
Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery, a
nonprofit organization funded by private contributions and a modest
matching endowment from Congress. The association welcomes queries from
tribes and encourages research on its Native burials, which span from the
early 19th to the late 20th century.
The American Indian Society of Washington, a volunteer organization that
purchased Taza's headstone, decorates the Native graves every Memorial Day.
The enterprising visitor can find them with a map: White Fisher, Owner of
Many Horses, Prophet, Little Bee, Yellow Wolf, Pushmataha.
On a quiet patch of ground in the federal city, they rest, at last, in