5 Things You Thought You Knew About American Indians, But Not Really

Alex Jacobs

Encyclopedia of the American Indian in the Twentieth Century by Alexander Ewen and Jeffrey Wollock (University of New Mexico Press, 2015), “gathers together biographies and concise analyses of major events, organizations, and important general topics to provide an overview of the history of American Indians in the 20th century,” the introduction to this hefty, 536-page volume promises. And it delivers. This unique collection gives us personal narratives of Indian personalities, movers, shakers, heroes and professionals. Even more important, it details how movements and organizations developed to deal with the changing times from reservations to the modern age to our present-day realities. The Native trivia that follows might surprise you.

Who was the first American Indian millionaire?

That would be Jackson Barnett of the Creek Tribe of Oklahoma, and it happened when oil was discovered in the Cushing oil pool in Oklahoma mere years after it ceased being Indian Territory and became the 46th state. Barnett was a member of the traditionalist Snake faction and was against Allotment and so had never visited his assigned parcel. He could neither read nor write but signed a lease and royalty agreement and soon was receiving $60,000 a month, in 1915. Because he was illiterate he was declared incompetent, and absolutely everyone continued to fight over the control of his millions for years. Barnett didn’t care and bought a mansion on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. His story was the “good story” in contrast to the “Osage Reign of Terror” that occurred simultaneously, when Indian titleholders were murdered for oil money.

Jackson Barnett and wife Anna

What is up with the Indian love affair with cars?

One hundred years ago, when some Natives got flush with money, they bought cars, brand new cars, starting in 1915. There were no pickup trucks and one-eyed Fords yet. Crow Indians who bred horses sold their ponies to the British during the Boer War, then later sold more ponies to the British, French and Italian governments. Most Crow owned 10 to 12 horses, so they soon owned more cars per capita than residents in many American cities. In 1921 the oil-rich Osage, with an average per capita of more than $10,000, bought cars, expensive cars, and many owned four or five. But cars also aided in the allotment debacle, as Indians would sell their allotments to buy cars.

1915 Ford Model T

What were the Dance Orders, and why were Indian dances and ceremonies banned?

The Indian Office (pre–Bureau of Indian Affairs) issued notorious Dance Orders in an attempt to calm U.S. citizens’ fears and continue to “civilize” the Indians in the 1920s. The era after WWI was unsettling for Americans, who had just entered world affairs and were shocked by cultural and political shifts, immigration and the brutality of modern war. This paranoia caused the Indian Office to be pressured by the President, Christian groups, and Women’s and Temperance groups to come down hard on Indian dances, ceremonies and traditions, which were viewed as heathen and pornograhic, among other charges. All that did was make the Indians fight back politically, and in the end they found an ally who would become the new BIA commissioner, John Collier. The Pueblo Indians helped lead this fight to protect their ceremonies and push back against the Bursum Bill, which severely limited their rights. The 1920s set the stage for allotment, assimilation and termination policies, but it organized Natives and their allies to fight back in the courts and public opinion.

Ghost Dance of the Sioux Indians in North America. (Photo: The Illustrated London News, Jan 03,189/Library Of Congress)

What is the love-hate relationship between American Indians and the movie industry?

We have been part of the modern film industry since its inception as subjects, directors, actors and participants. Over the years we have been reduced to role players, background and stereotypes, yet we still strive to fight for an accepted place within the industry. All the original actors and players are covered in this book to remind society that we were there at that beginning of cinema history: James Young Deer, Lillian St. Cyr, Molly Spotted Elk, the Fox brothers, Sylvester Long Lance, Chief Yowlachie, Rodd Redwing, Jay Silverheels and the modern actors we know today. How do we advance as individuals and as a people within an industry that used us to create their own existence yet continue to keep us as relics and props?

Lillian St. Cyr in the poster for The Squaw Man (1914)

What is the relationship between the New Age movement and American Indians?

Natives today think it’s all just a big distraction, if not a big joke, but the New Age movement continues to this day to beguile, befuddle or just anger many people. The primary irritant is the assumption that lumps us all together into a single “Native” culture, movement or entity. And the appropriation goes downhill from there. From Madame Blavatsky to Sun Bear to Carlos Castaneda to Brooke Medicine Eagle to Dhyani Ywahoo, to fake shamans and medicine people for hire, these practices have continued for 50 years, if not longer under different names. Today we don’t even think about New Age music or message, or corporate retreats that feature sweat lodges. The Encyclopedia of the American Indian in the 20th Century covers all these issues in a cross-indexed and cross-referenced methodology that allows it to be relevant in the 21st century, when we all assume the worldwide internet answers all questions.

This is how New Agers think of Native Americans.

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shotwell77's picture
Submitted by shotwell77 on
"Rich" Joe Vann (Cherokee, 1798–1844) was a millionaire long before oil was found in Indian Territory. He was not a lovely or kind human being, but extremely, extremely wealthy.

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
Anyone ever see "Rocky Horror Picture Show?" Remember one of the end songs, "I'm a wild and untamed thing?" Remember Susan Sarandon's line, "God Bless Lilly Saint Cyr?" I knew she was a movie star, but I never knew she had starred in a cultural appropriation flick.