First Conference of the Society of American Indians

The Society of American Indians, although short-lived, served notice that the future of the indigenous population of the United States was no longer solely in the hands of white Americans.

Summary of Event

Historically, American Indians have reacted to the European penetration of North America with traditional tribal responses and by attempting to establish a larger Indian cultural identity. Initially, American Indians employed traditional tribal responses in confronting and negotiating with the conquering Europeans. Over the years, many Native American societies were decimated by disease, alcohol abuse, and war. Survivors were relegated to culturally alien reservations. Native Americans;organizations
Society of American Indians
[kw]First Conference of the Society of American Indians (Oct. 12, 1912)
[kw]Conference of the Society of American Indians, First (Oct. 12, 1912)
[kw]Society of American Indians, First Conference of the (Oct. 12, 1912)
[kw]American Indians, First Conference of the Society of (Oct. 12, 1912)
[kw]Indians, First Conference of the Society of American (Oct. 12, 1912)
Native Americans;organizations
Society of American Indians
[g]United States;Oct. 12, 1912: First Conference of the Society of American Indians[03190]
[c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;Oct. 12, 1912: First Conference of the Society of American Indians[03190]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Oct. 12, 1912: First Conference of the Society of American Indians[03190]
Eastman, Charles
Parker, Arthur Caswell
Montezuma, Carlos

During the Progressive Era of the early 1900’s, a number of nationally organized indigenous movements appeared in North America. Led by an emerging educated Indian middle class, these organizations stressed the need for a common Indian identity and the inclusion of Indian culture in the larger society. By participating in these new associations, group members hoped not only to forge a sharper sense of identity for themselves but also to address basic problems facing Native Americans. Perhaps the most noteworthy of these new organizations was the Society of American Indians, which grew out of the American Indian Association, founded in 1911. That organization’s ideological mission was to call to the attention of white Americans the viewpoint that the Indian race is a vital part of a progressive and democratic society.

The American Indian Association was organized in large part by Arthur Caswell Parker, a Seneca Indian who was an anthropologist, author, and lecturer; Dr. Charles Eastman, a respected biographer of Indian life; and Dr. Carlos Montezuma, an Apache physician and radical leader for Indian recognition. Founded as a forum for intellectuals to pursue an exploration of varying viewpoints within a pan-Indian Pan-Indianism[Panindianism] framework, the organization quickly outgrew its original intent. In order to create a more distinct Indian character, the group reorganized in 1912 as a more pronounced Indian movement. Renamed the Society of American Indians (SAI), it quickly went about setting itself apart from other “progressive” white-run reform organizations. To secure access to political recognition, the leaders chose Washington, D.C., as the location of SAI headquarters. The nation’s capital became the center of activity for the society’s executive committee, which was charged with the responsibility of writing a provisional constitution. The document produced included the following organizational objectives: promoting the advancement of Indian freedom through enlightenment, providing an open forum for discussion of the welfare of the Indian race, promoting citizenship and obtaining the rights thereof, opposing any movement opposed to the Indian race, and respecting the honor of the Indian race for the good of the United States.

The organizational structure of the SAI included three categories of membership: active, Indian associate, and associate. The first two categories were open to members of indigenous cultures only. Actives were members of Indian populations within the geographic boundaries of the United States, and Indian associates included all indigenous natives living in Canada and Latin America. Both active and Indian associate members could hold office and vote in the organization, but the latter could vote only on tribal matters pertaining to their own tribes. The third category, associate member, consisted of all non-Indian-blood individuals who had an interest in Indian affairs.

With Washington, D.C., as its base and with an organizational structure that allowed for Indian as well as non-Indian support, the SAI appeared ready to engage in activities benefiting the much-maligned and previously intellectually ignored indigenous population. Parker, editor of the society’s Quarterly Journal
Quarterly Journal (Society of American Indians) (1913-1915; later the American Indian Magazine, 1915-1920), took on the task of forging a national Indian identity. Using pan-Indianism as the central theme in all issues, the journal soon found an audience in both white and Indian intellectual and political circles. In addition to publishing conference proceedings and the society’s political views, the journal addressed key issues currently affecting reservation politics. In this way, the journal helped to secure entrance for these issues into intellectual circles that were previously unreachable. The journal also served to set the stage for future conference agendas, addressing immediate as well as traditional concerns of the indigenous culture. It became an important source for conference debates and added a degree of intellectual integrity to the cause of the Indian.

The choice of Columbus Day, October 12, 1912, for the opening of the first SAI conference (in Columbus, Ohio) was purposeful. It was as if the experiences of Native Americans during the previous centuries of European rule were to be vindicated. From that point forward, according to the conference’s stated goals, red and white people would interact on a plane appropriate to ensuring the growth of all society from the vantage point of each group’s best qualities. Attempting to present American Indians as intelligent and possessing “civilized” political, economic, and social capacities on a par with white Americans, the conference agenda encouraged discussion aimed at eliciting support for current indigenous industrial, educational, legal, and political undertakings.

Identifying these concerns from a viewpoint that Indians were as capable as agriculturalists, mechanics, homemakers, and educators as were white people, the conference not only attempted to serve the needs of the indigenous population but also attempted to articulate an Indian self-consciousness in the process. Calling attention to low standards of education found on the reservations and the denial to Indians of political and legal access and redress in the entire cultural process helped to rally support for the SAI. Conference memoranda continued to incorporate an identification of a lack of specific governmental programs as a central cause for the low standard of living for many indigenous Americans living on reservations. To this extent, much of the conference was directed toward confronting current Indian social problems that were the result, at least in part, of the creation and perpetuation of pejorative stereotyping of Indians by whites. To correct any misrepresentation of the Indian race, the conference adopted a two-point program calling for the integration of American Indians into mainstream society but without the removal of Indian individuality.

At the first conference’s conclusion, a certain degree of unity prevailed among the society’s members, but the same cannot be said for the conferences that followed. Political factionalism emerged as the organization evolved. This was largely a result of the inability of leaders to find common ground from which the SAI could spread the idea that Indian culture and tradition are integral to the white historical experience in North America and that the Indian contribution to American development was more than a sideshow hawking wares, war dances, and ancient ceremonies. Fueled by internal disagreements over goals and aspirations and confronted by outside political antagonists who saw government policy as a way of continuing the differences between Indians and whites in civil authority, the organization declined into a factionalism that blurred its original unity of purpose. By the time of the 1923 conference, held in Chicago, the organizational leadership was badly divided over a variety of issues. Tourism and the desire to cash in on curiosity about American Indians had replaced previous goals. By the end of that conference, most of the basis for unity among members had crumbled. The organization could not withstand the encroaching power of anti-Indian white political groups.

In retrospect, it appears that from the very beginning the SAI had within itself the seeds of its own destruction. As time went on, an ever-increasing emphasis on addressing age-old tribal grievances encouraged a separatism that subverted the group’s original inclusive pan-Indian vision. The SAI leaders were themselves a reflection of this pattern. Within the national leadership, factionalism mirrored traditional tribal animosities, defeating in the end the quest for a pan-Indian ideal. The organization’s dissolution into a spectacle signaled the reality of its formal demise.


The SAI disbanded soon after the 1923 conference without fully achieving any of its goals for improving the immediate condition of Native Americans. The stated goals of the Indian progressives, although noble, were unwisely planned and rarely realized. Nevertheless, certain noteworthy consequences did result from the efforts of the short-lived organization. The elevation of reservation problems to the national political arena is a case in point. The organization made progress toward providing services to a constituency that had been prevented from gaining any access to the national political agenda. Initially, at least, low-cost legal assistance, education, and medical services were provided to many of the tribes represented in the organizational leadership structure. In some areas, then, the SAI showed a commitment to the progressive social reform ideals of the period.

These accomplishments paled in comparison to the factionalism that helped to defeat the original purpose of the organization. In many instances, petty infighting among tribal bureaucrats impaired the effectiveness of the SAI, leading to the society’s downfall. The leadership was divided over such mainstream political issues as the abolition of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the condemnation by whites of the continuance of ceremonial practices such as the use of peyote in religious rituals. The role of non-Indians in the reform efforts of the group also contributed to the SAI’s demise. Bothered by internal divisiveness and frustrated by external realities such as the denial of citizenship to indigenous Americans (which, ironically, was granted in 1924), many associate members lost the willingness to act in consort with other members as a united political pressure group. Individual interests soon challenged the group’s weakly constructed political unity. The idea of community easily collapsed in the process.

Even so, the rise of the Society of American Indians helped to signal an end to an era when white reformers discussed Indians’ future in isolation. To be sure, there would continue to be those who thought they knew what was best for Native American groups, but the efforts of the SAI led to future generations of indigenous Americans who supported the ideals of pan-Indianism and worked to ensure that Native Americans had a greater voice in their own future. Native Americans;organizations
Society of American Indians

Further Reading

  • Deloria, Philip J., and Neal Salisbury, eds. A Companion to American Indian History. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002. Collection of essays by both Native American and non-Native scholars on a variety of topics concerning the history of American Indians. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Hagan, William T. American Indians. 3d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. General history provides an excellent overview of the relationship between whites and American Indians from colonial times to the New Deal and beyond. Includes chronology, bibliography, and index.
  • Hertzberg, Hazel W. The Search for an American Indian Identity: Modern Pan-Indian Movements. 1971. Reprint. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1982. Explores the relationship of Native Americans to the rest of U.S. society by identifying, analyzing, and comparing the basic varieties of pan-Indianism and tracing their historical development. Focuses on the period between 1900 and 1930 (the formative years of the pan-Indian movement in the United States), outlining the forces that produced this movement and its responses to the encroachment of white society. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Hoxie, Frederick, ed. Indians in American History: An Introduction. 2d ed. Arlington Heights, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, 1998. Collection of chronologically arranged essays by authors who speak from a variety of disciplines and perspectives provides an introduction to the Indian side of U.S. history. Draws attention to the depth and complexity of the American Indian experience. Includes list of suggestions for further reading following each chapter, illustrations, and index.
  • Iverson, Peter, ed. The Plains Indians of the Twentieth Century. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985. Collection of essays addresses issues as diverse as water rights and religious heritage and emphasizes Indians’ ability to adapt to penetration from the outside while maintaining their identity. An initial capsule history by the editor provides historical context for these discussions. Includes index.
  • Kelly, Lawrence C. The Assault on Assimilation: John Collier and the Origins of Indian Policy Reform. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1983. Biography of one of the major reformers of Indian policy in twentieth century America. Collier fought the white power establishment that believed it knew what was best for the indigenous population and supported the maintenance of traditional Indian culture through a somewhat complex program of economic development and legal protection. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Wilson, Raymond. Ohiyesa: Charles Eastman, Santee Sioux. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982. Biography presents essential details of the life of a key individual involved in the Society of American Indians. Includes bibliography and index.

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