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Charles Lummis: Indian Rights Crusader in Santa Fe

In the 1880s virtually everyone agreed that the only way to educate Indian children was to take them away from
their homes and cut them off from their families for at least four years. At first, Charles Lummis was a
believer in that approach, exemplified by the famous Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. He wrote
approvingly of the Carlisle School’s “kill the Indian, save the child” theory of Indian education when he
toured two Indian schools during his tramp across the continent in 1884. But within a year of his move to the
pueblo of Isleta, New Mexico, in late 1888, Lummis had changed his mind. Surrounded by grief-stricken parents
whose children were being held against their will at the Albuquerque Indian School, cut off from their families,
prevented from returning home even during summer vacations, Lummis came to regard the U.S. government’s Indian
education policies as an abomination.

Lummis Liberates ‘Captives’ from Albuquerque Indian School
The first newspaper article that Lummis wrote about Indian education policy ran in the Los Angeles Times in
April 1890. It was entitled “Poor Pedro, the Fate of the Indian Who Was Educated,” and it began with an anecdote
written in the style of a folk tale about an Isleta boy who had gone off to a government school for years and
had returned to lead a tragic life as an outcast among his own people. The damage inflicted on the students was
just part of the problem with the government Indian schools, Lummis asserted. “Of course the fundamental
objection is the very same one that we or any other decent people would have if a superior race (self-asserted)
were to come from Mars, overrun the land and force us to send our children away from home to be rid of our silly
superstitions, religion and customs, and instructed in the better ways of the people of Mars,” he wrote. “When
I have the time and brains to do justice to so difficult a subject as this really is, you may hear from me about it.”

Over the next two years, Lummis got steadily more entangled in the issue. In the summer of 1891, when the pueblo
council in Isleta approached Lummis for help in getting their children back, he leapt enthusiastically into their
fight. The next summer, he hired a lawyer to file a writ of habeas corpus demanding the release of the Isleta
children. At the same time, he helped lead a campaign in the press against the cruel policy of cutting children
off from their parents.

Moments before the case was set to go to court, the superintendent of the Albuquerque Indian School capitulated
and agreed to release the Isleta children. A year later, Congress repealed the policy that permitted government
officials to remove Indian children from their reservations and send them to far-away boarding schools against
the wishes of their parents. It was the first big victory for Charles Lummis in a crusade for Indian rights that
he would carry on for the rest of his life.

Lummis’s Friend in the White House
In 1901, several months after his old Harvard acquaintance Theodore Roosevelt became president, Lummis formed the
Sequoya League, an organization dedicated to promoting policies that “make better Indians by treating them better.”
Lummis convinced many of the leading experts on Indians and the West to join the league’s board of directors and
advisory board, and he regularly obtained timely assistance from Roosevelt to advance his objectives.

In one major initiative under league auspices, Lummis in 1902-1903 served as chairman of the Warners Ranch Commission.
The three-man panel was appointed by the Department of the Interior, with some prodding from the president, to find
a new home for an Indian tribe evicted from their village by a rancher. After an exhausting journey by wagon train
through the arid back country of Southern California, the commission found a new homeland for the tribe that was
better than their old village in the desert — though the bitter Indians never believed it.

The next year, Lummis and his league spearheaded an attack on a policy that called on U.S. government agents on each
reservation to cut the long hair off all of the Indian men under their jurisdiction. The league focused its scrutiny
on Charles Burton, the government agent at the Navajo-Hopi Agency in Keams Canyon, Arizona, accusing him of imposing
a “reign of terror” on the Hopi pueblo of Oraibi in his implementation of the haircut order and other policies.
Ultimately, Lummis was accused of overstating his case against Burton, and was rebuked for it by President Roosevelt
himself. But while Burton may not have been quite as tyrannical as the league alleged, he had tolerated sadistic
behavior by teachers under his supervision. The league’s fierce fight against Burton contributed to the demise
of the ludicrous haircut order.

In the final years of his life in the 1920s, Lummis plunged once again into the Indian policy war, this time playing
a supporting role for a younger, more vigorous Indian rights activist named John Collier. One of the big battles in
the 1920s concerned an attempt by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to put a stop to Indian dancing. Collier, with help
from Lummis, proved to be an effective advocate for the religious rights of Indians. Four years after Lummis’s
death in 1928, Collier became commissioner of Indian affairs.

Courtesy of http://www.charleslummis.com/indianrights.htm

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