Before the month of December ends, and simultaneously the year of 2013, it is appropriate near the end of this holiday season to recall the efforts of a single American Indian to make a positive difference in the way the Native Americans would be remembered in the history United States. Red Fox James is on record as having made two separate trips on horseback across the U.S. from the West to Washington, D.C. in order to make a personal effort to advocate the creation of an American Indian holiday.
Red Fox James was reportedly a member of the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana. In addition, James was a member of the Boy Scouts of America, an organization that Dr. Arthur Parker, a Seneca Indian and one of the key representatives of the American Indian leaders in the early 1900s, had successfully persuaded to designate one day a year to honor the “First Americans.” The Boy Scouts did so in the years from 1912 to 1915.
James took Parker’s admonition a step further, or 4,000 miles further, as he reportedly made at least one of the trips on horseback from somewhere out in the West to Washington, D.C. in order to personally deliver to President Woodrow Wilson official endorsements from governors of various states for the creation of an American Indian Day. He collected the endorsements from 24 state governments, and reportedly delivered them to the White House on December 14, 1915.
As a Seneca Indian, Dr. Arthur Parker was one of the key leaders of the American Indian community who seriously sought to build bridges between his people and that of the white culture and society in which he was immersed. He was not only a founding member of the Society of American Indians, he also served as the National Secretary of the Congress of the American Indian Association.
On September 28, 1915, three months before James’ delivery of his endorsements, the Congress of the American Indian Association made a proclamation representing the American Indian community recommending that American Indians become officially recognized as U.S. citizens and called upon "every person of American Indian ancestry" and all Americans to observe every second Saturday in May as a national "American Indian Day" to honor the memory of the native peoples.
Unfortunately, there is no record of Woodrow Wilson, or the federal government, responding to the earnest endeavor of Red Fox James, despite his earnest intentions. However, it may have been a case of an idea whose time had arrived. By the early 1900s, a number of genuine efforts advanced the concept of a specific day dedicated to the recognition of significant contributions by the First Americans during the establishment and development of the United States.
Finally, the foundation established by these American Indian leaders yielded fruit in May of 1916. The State of New York, Dr. Parker’s home state, was the first U.S. state to formally establish an American Indian Day in that year. Many other states eventually followed New York’s example. By 1919, Illinois, offered their version of the proclamation. In 1924, Congress got involved and passed the Indian Citizenship Act that extended citizenship to all U.S.-born American Indians who were not already covered by treaty or other federal agreements.
Ultimately in 1976, Jerry Elliott, also known as High Eagle from the Cherokee/Osage Tribe, authored congressional legislation that declared the week of October 10-16 as “Native American Awareness Week.” President Gerald Ford signed the bill. The culmination of Dr. Parker’s vision came about in 1990 when President George H.W. Bush signed Congressional legislation that expanded the week of recognition to an entire month, and now the month of November is celebrated as "National American Indian Heritage Month."
This process of establishing American Indian Heritage Month may seem like a mere token gesture in comparison to the long history of violent conflict between the U.S. government and the American Indian peoples; however the sincere efforts made by honorable people to reverse the effects of anger, bigotry, and hatred is a significant historical achievement. In looking at the sincere effort of a young man like Red Fox James, one can see a genuine desire to participate in action that would impact the nation in a creative, constructive manner.
Red Fox James, was young and enthusiastic (likely in his twenties - born around 1890-95), and the effort was perhaps a naïve attempt to move the mighty machinery of the U.S. government to adopt the notion that American Indians should be honored. He rode into Washington, D.C. on a cold December day and delivered the endorsements from the state governments to the White House. At the end of this first ride, on December 17, 1914, it is understood that James did get to meet with President Woodrow Wilson.
The newspapers of the day did pick up on his rides, and the stories generated some publicity. Sadly, though some newspapers could connect with the novelty of the story, and despite James garnering publicity, some journalists expressed skepticism about an American Indian Day. A New York Times editorial dated October 1, 1915 stated, “There is something pathetically respectable about this attempt to create a national feeling among members of the only race which has full title to the name American, even though they have gone about it in the wrong way. We have holidays enough and too many…”
In reality, the establishment of a day which called for a remembrance and respect for American Indians would take more than a young Indian man riding 4,000 miles or meeting the president to drive home the value. Like a dutiful politician, President Wilson simply promised the young Indian that he would consider the state endorsements. But, like many promises from powerful politicians, nothing practical came from it.
At the time, Red Fox James’ earnest endeavor may have seemed naïve; it may have seemed pathetic. But, his actions represented one person’s act of faith to make a positive difference in a past filled with so many negatives. However it may have appeared to journalists, whether naïve or pathetic, it demonstrated the faith and courage of a young man, a sincere Boy Scout and footsoldier for the Society of American Indians.
James’ efforts of taking the issue to the states showed a willingness to trust the structure of the government and the prevalent political system in the U.S., which required a great amount of fortitude. It was only one person’s effort, but it was creative and constructive. It yielded a meeting with President Wilson, and gained some positive press for the Indian cause. Indeed, the memory of American Indians was perhaps aided by this individual effort. One person’s effort helped at this turning point in the history between the American Indians and the dominant culture.