"They Made Us Many Promises": The American Indian Experience, 1524 To the Present

By Philip Weeks | Go to book overview

Chapter 8
Reformers' Images of the
American Indians:
The Late Nineteenth Century

William T. Hagan

Forty years after the founding of the Indian Rights Association, Herbert Welsh, a founder of the association and its guiding force during its first twenty years, characterized its members. “They are,” stated Welsh proudly, “the elite of New England, New York, and Philadelphia, sober old society.” The same could have been said of most of the members of the other organizations of reformers, or “friends of the Indians,” as they liked to describe themselves. As a group they shared another quality: they were devout Christians, members of the Protestant denominations and the Friends (Quaker) societies. (Until very late in the nineteenth century, Roman Catholics, although quite active in Indian work, labored almost exclusively through the church's Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, which was not a part of the coalition of reformers.)

The reformers discussed in this chapter belonged to the many organizations that sprang up in the twenty years following the Civil War. With one exception, the Board of Indian Commissioners, they were private organizations with no official status. In contrast, Congress authorized the Board of Indian Commissioners in 1869. However, its members were private citizens of a philanthropic bent who served without pay and shared their concern for, and views of, Indians and Indian policy.

The Indian Rights Association was merely the most prominent of the reformers' organizations that proliferated in the late 1870s and early 1880s— “proliferated” because the list is long, although most of the organizations on it had only an ephemeral existence. Besides the Indian Rights Association and the Board of Indian Commissioners, at least three other entities deserve mention. Two of them, the Women's National Indian Association and the Boston Indian Citizenship Committee, had their origins in 1879, the former in Philadelphia. The fifth group, the one least inclined to cooperate with the others, was the National Indian Defense Association. Although the NIDA did not appear until 1885, its founder, Dr. T. A. Bland, had been associated with A. B. Meacham who, in 1878, founded a monthly, The Council Fire, to publicize his views of the Indian cause.

While there were differences of opinion among the various groups of reformers, the degree to which they all agreed on the potential of the Indian to

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