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Woodrow Wilson: ‘The Great White Father Now Calls You His Brothers’

Shortly after taking office, President Woodrow Wilson delivered an address signaling a change in the relationship between the government and tribes.

Editor’s note: Voters this year will elect the 45th president of the United States. This is the 28th in a series of 44 stories exploring past presidents’ attitudes toward Native Americans, challenges and triumphs regarding tribes, and the federal laws and Indian policies enacted during their terms in office.

Shortly after taking office in 1913, President Thomas Woodrow Wilson delivered a phonograph address signaling a change in the relationship between the federal government and Indian tribes.

This “message to all the Indians,” played on a phonograph donated by Thomas Edison, was part of a traveling expedition to each of the nation’s 169 recognized Indian reservations. Wilson’s voice echoed from the phonograph during ceremonies held beneath the American flag.

In his speech, Wilson quoted Thomas Jefferson’s words from a century earlier, predicting that a day would come when the red men would “become truly one people with us.” One hundred years later, America was “nearer these great things than hoped for, much nearer than we were then,” Wilson said as he boasted about the successes of assimilation policies like land allotments, agricultural training and the more than 30,000 Indian children enrolled in government, state and mission schools.

“The Great White Father now calls you his brothers, not his children,” Wilson said. “You have shown in your education and in your settled ways of life staunch, manly, worthy qualities of sound character.”

Wilson acknowledged “some dark pages in the history of the white man’s dealings with the Indians,” but he claimed the “remarkable progress” of the Indians was proof of the government’s good intentions.

“Many parts of the record are stained with the greed and avarice of those who have thought only of their own profit,” he said. “But it is also true that purposes and motives of this great government and of our nation as a whole toward the red man have been wise, just and beneficent.”

The message, part of an “Expedition of Citizenship to the North American Indian” organized by Philadelphia department store magnate Rodman Wanamaker, was played on every Indian reservation. Joseph Dixon, education director at the Wanamaker department store, led the six-month, cross-country expedition, which left Philadelphia in June 1913.

Dixon sought to “obtain a pledge of allegiance to the government from all the North American Indian tribes,” the New York Times reported at the conclusion of the journey, in December 1913. Dixon had traveled 25,000 miles and visited 189 tribes in an expedition he said “had planted new ideals in the lives of the Indians, and would give great impetus to education, industry and Christianity among them.”

The expedition came amid promises of a national American Indian memorial to be built on Staten Island, overlooking the main entrance into New York Harbor. The memorial was Wanamaker’s brainchild, and designs called for a statue of an Indian standing atop a pyramid, along with a complex of museums, galleries and libraries below.

“Wanamaker and others of his time were interested in preserving the memory of the Indians,” said Andrew Phillips, curator for the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum in Staunton, Virginia. “He viewed them as this soon-to-be-lost race.”

Congress set aside federal land for the memorial and President William Taft broke ground less than two weeks before leaving office, in a massive ceremony attended by at least 30 Indian chiefs. Ten months later, Dixon returned from his expedition and promised the memorial would be built “to perpetuate for future generations a record of the history and superstitions of that great race, their mentality and strength of character.”

But Wanamaker failed to fund the project and it never came to fruition, Phillips said. Wilson, meanwhile, was occupied with World War I and didn’t follow through with the memorial.

“He was focused on the war in Europe, the economy, domestic issues,” Phillips said of Wilson. “Civil rights for anyone was not high on his list.”

Born in 1856 in Staunton, Virginia, Wilson practiced law for a short stint, but ultimately pursued a career as an author and professor of political science. He served as president of Princeton University and governor of New Jersey before being elected as the 28th president of the United States in 1912. He served two terms, from 1913 to 1921.

As president, Wilson continued to open “unallotted, unreserved” or “undisposed” Indian land to white settlers—authority given to him under the Dawes Act of 1887. Like his predecessors, he also used his executive authority to create new Indian reservations or modify boundaries of existing ones.

In April 1917, just one month after beginning his second term, Wilson declared war on Germany, leading the United States into World War I. Although they were exempt from being drafted, an estimated 10,000 American Indians—or about 25 percent of the total Native population—enlisted in the military and served during the war.

World War I officially ended in June 1919 with the Treaty of Versailles. Shortly afterward, Wilson embarked on a public speaking tour to promote the treaty (which Congress never ratified) and U.S. participation in the new League of Nations—efforts that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize.

Near the end of his tour, in September 1919, Wilson suffered a massive stroke, leaving him ill and paralyzed for his final 17 months in office. Two months later, in November 1919, Congress rewarded Indian veterans with U.S. citizenship.

The law, known as An Act Granting Citizenship to Certain Indians, extended “full citizenship” to Indians who served during the war, granted they received honorable discharges and could produce proper identification. Wilson, then an invalid, did not sign the act, but it became law without his approval.

Wilson left office in 1921 and was succeeded by Warren Harding. He died in 1924 at age 67.