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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


April 3, 2004 - Issue 110


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The Indian Priest
Father Philip B. Gordon
Chapter 15 - More Indian Problems

by Paula Delfeld
credits: submitted by Timm Severud (Ondamitag)

Father Gordon was not alone in his fight for the rights of the Indians. According to an article in the Minneapolis Journal, May 23, 1925, "Indians of Wisconsin have been swindled out of millions of dollars in land and timber, investigators of conditions on the Odanah Reservation declare, and a thorough investigation of the charges are now under way."

"Complete restoration of the value of the plundered property is demanded if the evidence reveals irregularities as charged, in a resolution passed by the legislature, which directed the governor and attorney general to begin legal action against the federal and state agencies as may be necessary to accomplish this result."

"Daniel W. Grady, attorney of Portage, has been retained by the state to begin the investigation and he has already started the work."

"Charges that the Indians have been swindled out of money as a result of timber cuttings were first brought to public attention by E.P. Wheeler of Aurora, Illinois. Mr. Wheeler's father was a missionary among the Indians on the Bad River Reservation in Ashland County…"

John Collier, U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs, said, "The tragic chapter was not ended, and will not end, save with annihilation, unless states like Wisconsin move promptly demanding reform in the federal administration and assuming directly, as states, their own share of responsibility."

"The anomaly of the Indian's situation has now been increased. Congress in June made all Indians citizens of the states. Thus the burden of educating them, of protecting health, and caring for the indigent and aged, is thrown mandatorily on the states. But the federal guardianship over the Indian's person is maintained intact; and the federal trusteeship over the still enormous Indian estate remains absolute and unregenerate."

"Already tens of thousands of Indians have become, in an inescapable physical sense, charges upon the states. Now they are made legal charges."

Father Gordon called this the saddest in the long and losing fight for the Indians for elemental human rights." But there was more to come.

He made another attempt to secure an Indian parish. In a lengthy letter to the Apostolic Delegate in Washington, D.C., he repeated the history of Reserve, told of the success of the mission and the degeneration of the Indians since he left.

"... The number of comments by way of letters addressed to the writer from the circle of friends both in the ranks of the clergy and from devoted lay people asking for information and sometimes even criticizing his 'desertion' of his Indians is surprising and disquieting and has a length led hi to compose this letter…"

"The fact that causes me the personal grief is that I am an Indian and am deprived of the opportunity to work for my own. Work in the Indian mission field is one of the great privations and bitter experiences because of the childish prejudices, the ignorance, the illiteracy, the primitive conditions obtaining among Indian people, the lack of financial support, and the general indifference and apathy of all concerned. I know all of this and have experienced it. Nevertheless, I feel so affected by the present conditions that I am quite willing to forsake all else in life to render succor to the Indians whose faith is indeed in peril…"

"We can say with pride that I have never questioned the judgment of my bishop, have never inquired into his motive of my transfer, have never criticized his action in the matter, even though I have often wondered at his secretive methods, his apparent lack of confidence, and his securing of information from people who are so openly notorious and so opposed to things Catholic."

"At any rate, I do not sincerely believe that all is right in this matter and it may develop that I am a criminal without knowing it, or it may be shown that the good judgment of the Bishop of Superior is indeed superior to the well-known wishes of the present Pontiff, Pius XI, 'a native clergy for the native people of every land.'"

As to the consequences of this letter, Father Gordon said, "We know of none attributed directly to this appeal for action and justice."

Although the Indian priest had mellowed with the passing years and his attitude was not a militant as in the early part of his priesthood, he could not be reconciled to many of the rules and regulations imposed by the government. One that irked him particularly in 1926 was the attempted restriction of Indian dances.

The Indians defied the order and Father Gordon continued to have the Indian dances at his annual parish picnics. He always brought his Indian friends from the reservation - Johnnie Frog, George James, Willie Debrot and others.

When plans were made for the third annual picnic, Senator Irvine L. Lenroot was to be principle guest speaker. The Chippewas familiarly knew him as A-ka-bi-ji-bik (The Root). Congressman Frear and Ray J. Nye, of Superior, Federal Prohibition Director, also accepted Father Gordon's invitation.

He arranged a meeting for the Indians so they could present a petition to Senator Lenroot against the attempted suppression of the Indian recreative dances, principally the war dance. He also spoke of this suppression at an anniversary celebration, which is quoted in the St. Paul Daily News on August 22, 1926:
"'The American Indian will not abandon the tribal dances, at least not without stubborn resistance.' This is the opinion of Reverend Philip Gordon, himself a full-blooded Chippewa, who will conduct service today, final day of the 19th anniversary in Hazel Park of the Church of the Blessed Sacrament at White Bear. "

"Featuring the afternoon program will be several Indian dances about 50 braves and 80 squaws from the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation in Sawyer County, Wisconsin. Included among these dances will be some, which certain officials of the Federal Indian Bureau are seeking to prohibit on the grounds that their continuance only retards the complete civilization of the original Americans."

"'There is really no good ground for such a contention,' declared Father Gordon Saturday night, 'not any more than dancing the waltz or the Charleston among their white brethren. The different tribal dances constitute about all there is left to the pleasant day Indians to connect them with their savage ancestors who roamed the prairies and the woods of America before the continent was discovered. The dances are a tradition with them, and are consequently dear to the heart of every Indian. Some of the dances are ceremonial in nature; others are indulged in merely for recreation and entertainment, just as white folks do. The federal government officials are in for a difficult job if any serious attempt is made to deprive the Indians of this traditional custom…"

Father Gordon believed dancing, when properly conducted, was healthy recreation. He objected to 'late hours, décolleté, escorting, moonshine, etc.,' and said some of the dances revolting to every feeling of decency and propriety, but he believed the Indian dances were no more objectionable than dancing the waltz or Charleston.

The question of Indian affairs arose again when President Calvin Coolidge chose the Brule River as the spot for his 1928 summer vacation. Numerous requests came to Father Gordon to use his influence to have the president meet with delegations of Indians. Some wished the delegations to be dressed in full Indian regalia. Others thought only educated Indians, professional and university men, or men or women who had established themselves in community life should compose such a delegation.

The president received the group dressed in Indian costumes, but no provision was made to meet with educated Indians.

There was considerable correspondence covering the matter and Father Gordon was allowed an interview with Everett Sanders, Secretary to the President. He was accompanied to the executive offices in Superior by Father James Fagan of that city, but it seems the secretary did not want the President to bother himself with Indian affairs while on vacation and the Indian priest did not get an audience with the President.

Conditions were the same over the entire United States. The Anaconda (Montana) Standard carried an article about the same time, June 22, 1928, stating in part:
"The fact that the Republican party's candidate for vice president has Indian blood in his veins may help to draw public attention to the present pitiable conditions of many, if not most, of the 350,000 Indians now in the United States. The recent report made by the Institute for Government Research and given out by the Department of the Interior, under which it functions, revealed some shocking facts. Tuberculosis, trachoma, and other diseases, particularly those of infancy, are prevalent among the Indians, the report states. Their death rate is high and living conditions poor. They are badly housed and do not have proper food. They are poverty-stricken and have not become adjusted to the economic and social life, which surrounds them. The Indians do not have proper medical attention. Hospitals are too few and not well equipped or conducted. The staff of the Indian Bureau is inadequate and underpaid and, in many instances, improperly trained. Schools are insufficient and poorly administered. The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs has taken cognizance of the report and will conduct an inquiry during the summer with the view of making specific recommendations to the end that Congress may act intelligently and justly…"

The great problem of getting back the lost lands of the Indians was not touched upon. Many Indians thought the same predatory interests - lumbering principally - were the chief influences in preventing disclosure, investigation after investigation failed to bring results.

In 1929 a bill was introduced in the Wisconsin Legislature, which would have provided the Attorney General of Wisconsin would be empowered to appoint special attorneys to prosecute the claims of the Indians in the United States Court of Claims. It was passed by an almost unanimous vote only to be vetoed by Governor Kohler.

The Congressman wrote Father Gordon urging him to get in touch with every Indian friend and acquaintance throughout Wisconsin and have them write to the Assemblyman and State Senator urging them to pass the bill over the governor's veto.

During the same controversy, lasting two years, was going on with reference to the action of the representatives of the Wisconsin State Conservation Commission on entering the U.S. Indian warehouse and seizing certain hides, including some belonging to George James. Of course, an investigation was made.

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