Red Fox James
A 3,000 Mile Ride for American Indian Day
I have to admit I've been a proponent of replacing Columbus Day with American Indian Day for years. That's probably why the story of Red Fox James intrigued me when I stumbled onto it via a social media post by the White House Historical Association a few months back.
Before getting into the James story, I need to set the table first with a few background facts. The seed for Columbus Day was planted in 1892 when President Benjamin Harrison, as a result of a joint resolution of both houses of Congress, proclaimed a one-time national holiday to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage. This one-off event was used to promote Chicago's Columbian Exhibition, held the following year. Fast-forward 45 years later to 1937, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day a national holiday, mostly due to intense lobbying by the Knights of Columbus and several Italian-American organizations.
Sandwiched between these two Columbus Day milestones is the story of Red Fox James, a Blackfoot Indian who arrived at the White House on December 17, 1914, after a journey of over 3,000 miles on a white pony named Montana Tombstone. Fox came from the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana to present a petition to President Woodrow Wilson to proclaim October 12th “Indian Day” in honor of American Indians—23 years before Roosevelt made Columbus Day an official holiday.
James had slowly made his way across the United States by following the Lincoln Highway (U.S. Route 30), America's first transcontinental road for automobiles. Along the way, he stopped to give speeches and celebrate his culture with equestrian demonstrations. Newspapers reported his whereabouts as he made his way across the country. Here in Ohio, James passed through Bucyrus where the Bucyrus Evening Telegraph fawned over the “civilized” Indian in their Saturday, September 26, 1914 issue:
"Red Fox James is a big man, over six feet tall, of stalwart frame and wears citizen's clothes and a big sombrero. He is very much civilized, a graduate in forestry from the University of Montana, assistant secretary of the Y.M.C.A. at his home and is an excellent citizen."
James hung around the Bucyrus area for about two weeks, using it as a staging area for side trips to Columbus to meet with Ohio Governor James Cox and to Cleveland to pitch his idea for a nationwide Indian Day. He left his pony at the Dewey Goodwin farm just outside of town while he rubbed elbows with the politicians. He must have made a great impression. When he left Bucyrus, the newspaper carried the story under the headline: "Red Fox James Will Leave Monday."
"Red Fox has made many friends here and judging from his behavior, he is a thoroughly good Indian. His Bucyrus friends will wish him a safe journey to his goal and success in his mission."
After leaving Bucyrus on October 12th, James made it to Washington in mid-December. After a journey that began in March, he visited the White House, where Senator Thomas J. Walsh of Montana introduced him to President Woodrow Wilson. James gave Wilson a petition, endorsed by 24 state governors and city mayors he had met along his cross-country trip, to proclaim October 12th “Indian Day” in honor of American Indians. “The American Indian deserves the national consideration of the people of the United States,” James declared during the presentation to the president.
You might wonder what made James believe Wilson would be interested in his Indian Day proposal. Shortly after taking office in 1913, Wilson delivered a phonograph address as part of a traveling expedition to each of the nation’s 169 recognized Indian reservations, signaling a change in the relationship between the federal government and Indian tribes. The recording included Wilson proclaiming:
"The Great White Father now calls you his brothers, not his children. You have shown in your education and in your settled ways of life staunch, manly, worthy qualities of sound character.”
Wilson acknowledged “some dark pages in the history of the white man’s dealings with the Indians,” still he claimed the “remarkable progress” of the Indians was proof of the government’s good intentions.
“Many parts of the record are stained with the greed and avarice of those who have thought only of their own profit,” he said. “But it is also true that purposes and motives of this great government and of our nation as a whole toward the red man have been wise, just and beneficent.”
So how did Wilson, or the "Great White Father," handle James' proposal? There's no record that the president, or his staff, took any action as a result of the meeting. Nonetheless, a few states subsequently created their own versions of American Indian day. The first was New York, which began officially celebrating American Indian Day in 1916. Illinois became the next state to officially sanction the recognition of American Indians in 1919.
And what became of Red Fox James? Shortly after his 1914 trip to Washington, he organized the first Indian Boy Scout troop in America at the United States Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He made a second trip to Washington in 1915, this time to ask Wilson for citizenship for American Indians. A few years later, as World War I took the world's center stage, he organized a fund-raising campaign for the American Red Cross, collecting over $15,000—a major sum back in the day. After the war, his story gets rather sketchy. Most of the detailed biographical information about him comes from James himself, through the pages of the American Indian Tepee, the journal of the Tepee Order, which was a youth organization he founded in 1914. By 1920, the Order had evolved into a secret, freemasonic-style adult fraternal organization, shrouded in mysticism and sadly, racism too.
James' American Indian roots came from his mother's side. His father was Welsh. Although his mother was probably Blackfoot, James claimed Native American heritage only as an adult. He changed his name by adding “Red” and later “Skiuhushu” to Francis Fox James. He went on to be known by many names, including Reverend St. James, Francis Fox James, Rev. Barnabas Skiuhushu, and the Rev. Dr. Barnabas, Ph.D., Arch-Herio Monk. Oh, the fortunes of fame!
No matter what conclusion you come to regarding James, his ambiguous Indian identity, or his involvement in the Tepee Order, the story of his headline seeking ride across the country to ask for an American Indian Day is important. Not just because of how well he pulled it off, but because of how his plea was ignored. Today, several states have designated Columbus Day as Native American Day, but it continues to be a day we observe without any recognition as a national legal holiday. My hope is that someday the USA will honor and recognize Native Americans with a holiday that recognizes them as the first people of this nation and celebrates both their cultural heritage and integral importance to our past, our present, and our future.