Speaking for the First Americans: Nipo strongheart and the campaign for American Indian citizenship

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Date: Winter 2013
From: Oregon Historical Quarterly(Vol. 114, Issue 4)
Publisher: Oregon Historical Society
Document Type: Essay
Length: 4,080 words
Lexile Measure: 1510L

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The following essay is a record of Andrew H. Fisher's August 14,2013, talk that explored the topic of national belonging through the story of Nipo Strongheart, a showman of mixed Yakama and white ancestry. Fisher is engaged in ongoing research about Strongheart.

ON THE EVENING of January 6, 1920, Nipo Strongheart hurriedly donned his tribal regalia in the chilly back room of a Baptist church in Hyde Park, Massachusetts. He had no props for this performance of "From Peace Pipe to War Trail," his standard lecture on American Indian history and lore, which usually began with him "seated, Indian fashion, in front of a typical Indian tepee." Nevertheless, he proceeded to captivate the audience for nearly two hours with a "dramatic portrayal of the spirit and ways of his people." Afterwards, he answered "a thousand & one questions" from the packed house. Most of the comments were friendly, if sometimes ill-informed, but one woman "of supposed intellect because she came to a lecture" challenged his sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans. (1) She said:

I know better, the Indians are bad people, they are savages, I read a great deal, I ought to know. I asked her whether she ever lived near the Indians. She said No! I would not degrade myself. She said, the Indians are low, they eat dead animals. I asked her whether she eats them alive. Oh boy, there was some laugh. She had to leave the room. Many hand shakes and made many friends. (2)

Strongheart's schedule did not allow much time for friendship, though, and by midnight he had boarded the train back to Boston.

Three nights later, he was again riding the rails, heading for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to check in at the head office of the Coit-Neilson Lyceum Bureau. Strongheart rarely wore his regalia while traveling, yet his long, dark hair often drew stares from other passengers. On this trip, he attracted the attention of a little red-headed girl, whom he spent hours entertaining with Indian legends and modeling clay. Before going to bed, she told him, " 'Now Mr. Indian, please don't get off the train before I wake up in the morning.' I promised that I would not." True to his word, he talked with her the next day until he had to change trains for Ludlow, Pennsylvania. "All the children of the town were at the station on my arrival," he recorded in his diary, and another crowd of 400 children turned out for his January 16 appearance in Blairsville. "Happy kiddies to see an Indian in feathers," he wrote that evening. "One little tot kissed me, she said 'I love the Indians,' isn't that worth my many trials?" Life on the road could be hard, but it would pay off in the end if audiences formed a better opinion of Native peoples and supported their struggles for justice--especially for the right of citizenship. (3)

Citizenship remains a hot topic today, as it has been throughout most of U.S. history. The...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A372095378