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BY WILLIAM E. UNRAU
Few Indians who rose to national prominence were born in a more unsettledpolitical and social environment than Charles Curtis, a mixed-bloodmember of the Kaw (or Kansa) tribe. Born on 25 January 1860, in Eugene(North Topeka), Kansas Territory, to Ellen Pappan Curtis, a quarter-bloodKaw and Oren A. Curtis, a non-Indian, Curtis was raised in a settingwhere outbursts of violence over slavery and the political future of what isnow Kansas prompted eastern journalists and politicians to call the territory"Bleeding Kansas." That tension, followed by a striking growth in theKansas economy during and after the Civil War and a burgeoning of theKansas Republican Party in the wake of statehood (29 January 1861),would have a dramatic influence on the development of Charles Curtis'ssocial, political, and economic values.
Since the mid-1830s, the area west of Missouri had been a focal point ofthe government's policy of tribal concentration, and after the passage ofthe Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, Kansas emerged as a region of brazenexploitation where white farmers, land speculators, railroad corporations,town promoters, and myriad squatters of diverse political persuasionscontested for control of the region in defiance of federal law. Suchlawlessness also loomed in the education and acculturation of the youngmixed-blood, whose family had been leading members of the Kaw tribefrom its earliest recorded contacts withwhite Americans.
Centuries before, when Europeans first arrived in the Western Hemisphere,Curtis's Kaw forebears resided in the lower Ohio Valley and werepart of a Hopewellian group ethnologists have termed the Dhegihan-Siouans.Also included in this group were relatives of the modern Omaha,Osage, Ponca, and Quapaw tribes. Sometime prior to 1673—the year PéreJacques Marquette recorded the Dhegian-Siouan presence west of theMississippi River—the Quapaws moved down the Mississippi while theother tribes journeyed to the mouth of the Missouri and then up that riverwhere further divisions took place between present St. Louis and KansasCity. The Omahas and the Poncas established their villages in southeasternNebraska; the Osages traveled up the Osage River to modern VernonCounty, Missouri.
The Kaws took the middle road to the mouth of the Kansas River (nearthe present site of Kansas City) and then west up the Kansas Valley untilthe Pawnees turned them back at the mouth of the Blue River. By the timethe United States had purchased the area from France in 1803, Curtis'sdistant relatives claimed roughly the northern three-fifths of future Kansasas their domain, a claim that was officially recognized by the UnitedStates in the Kansa (Kaw) Treaty of 1825.
That same treaty reduced the Kaw domain from twenty million acres toan area less than half that amount west of the future site of North Topeka.The treaty also included an article that granted 64o-acre sections in feesimple to each of the twenty-three half-bloods of the Kaw tribe—one ofwhom was Curtis's maternal grandmother, Julie Gonville Pappan. Thegovernment justified the provision on grounds that the owners of thesehalf-blood tracts would abandon gardening and hunting in favor of commercialagriculture and thus serve as models for their less acculturatedkinsmen. This proved not to be the case. In fact the agreement was divisivein the extreme. Most of the half-bloods were minors who in 1825 didnot reside on the tribal reservation west of North Topeka. In fact thesefertile and well-timbered tracts along the Kansas River became the objectsof intense speculation by white land-jobbers and provided the future vicepresident with good reason to question supposed harmonious relationsbetween Indians and non-Indians in Indian Country.
Curtis was aware that his own family reflected a blending of ethnic,tribal, and religious diversity common to the American frontier. Curtis'sgreat-great-grandfather, White Plume (Nompawarah), whom he later describedas "one of the ablest and most progressive Indians of his day,"was one of the leading chiefs who signed the Kansa Treaty. In about 1800White Plume married a daughter of Pawhuska, the celebrated Osagechief, and their union produced several children. One of White Plume'sdaughters, Wyhesse (Waisjasi), married Louis Gonville, a French-Canadianfur trader from St. Louis; their marriage was confirmed in a Catholicceremony in late 1817 or early 1818. Julie, a daughter born to this union,married Louis Pappan, a fur trader from St. Louis who with his brotherJoseph (who married Julie's sister Josette) established a ferry service onthe Kansas River at the site of future Topeka. There, in 1840, Charles Curtis'smother was born in a log cabin situated on "Kaw Mile Three," the allotmentthat the Treaty of 1825 granted her sister Josette.
Whether by her own decision or that of her parents, young Ellen wassent to a Catholic convent in St. Louis. But as she approached legal maturityher interest in the 640-acre tract granted to her mother in 1825prompted her to return to Kansas Territory, where in 1859 she marriedOren A. Curtis, an emigrant from Eugene, Indiana, who had secured employmentin her father's ferry business at North Topeka.
On 25 January 1860, the future vice president of the United States wasborn in a crude cabin on his grandmother's allotment. The young Curtisreceived Catholic baptism at St. Mary's Immaculate Conception Churchon the nearby Potawatomi reservation. During the next three years Ellenraised Curtis and taught him English and French, since she had receivedtraining in the latter while in the convent in St. Louis. Evidence suggeststhat Curtis's parents intended to raise their son at their home near modernTopeka, well removed from the traditional culture of his blood relativeson the Kaw reservation some sixty miles to the west.
But in 1863 Charles's mother died, and his father faced the unexpectedtask of raising the young boy alone. Moreover, shortly following his wife'sdeath, Oren Curtis obtained an appointment in the Union Army in Kansas,and his duties as an officer required that he be absent from his home.Oren Curtis placed Charles with his parents, William and Permelia HubbardCurtis, who had followed their son from Indiana to Kansas. WilliamHubbard soon became involved in attempts to promote the developmentof a town on the Pappan family's allotment, while his wife—a stern homemakerwho believed that "being Methodist and a Republican [were] essentialfor anyone expected to go to heaven"—saw to it that young Charleswas diverted from "pagan Indian culture and the Catholic heresy" of hisdeceased mother in favor of Methodist doctrine and Republican Partyideals so fashionable in Kansas during and after the Civil War.
Three years later, in 1866, Charley (as he was now called) was sent tolive with his maternal grandmother on the Kaw reservation, near CouncilGrove. Talk of a Kaw removal treaty and final settlement of land claims inKansas offered the possibility of financial disbursements to individualtribal members living on the reservation. It is possible that Julie Pappanwas determined to have her grandson share in the bounty if in fact a treatywas negotiated. There is the possibility also that Julie was opposed to therigid social and religious values of Permelia Curtis and wanted Charley tolearn more about his Indian heritage. In any case, the young mixed-blood'senvironment at Council Grove was more relaxed and certainly indire contrast to the stern will and rigid Methodism of his white grandmotherin Topeka.
Life for young boys on the Kaw reservation was a mixture of leisure activitiessuch as fishing, foot-racing, and horseback riding, coupled withmore serious endeavors such as hunting with bow and arrow or with alance, and preparing for the vision-quest that would signify advancementfrom adolescence to manhood. Charley adjusted well to reservation lifeand quickly displayed unusual skill in horseback riding—a skill that hesoon put to practical purpose in the burgeoning horse-racing business offrontier Kansas. By all accounts, Charley enjoyed his life with his maternalgrandmother but his residency on the Kaw reservation was cut short byold tribal quarrels that originated long before Charlie had been born.
For more than half a century relations between the Kaws and theSouthern Cheyennes and Arapahos had deteriorated, mainly over thedwindling bison supply on the high plains of western Kansas. In thewinter of 1866 the Cheyennes stole forty-two horses from a Kaw huntingparty on the upper Arkansas, and following a murder of a Kaw herder at abuffalo camp near Fort Zarah a year later, the Kaws attacked a Cheyenneencampment, killing fourteen and losing only one of their own. The deathof sixty starving Kaw warriors in bitterly cold weather during the retreatback to Council Grove severely depleted the Kaw's military strength andled to a near panic in the Kaw villages, particularly when it was rumoredthat the Cheyennes were planning a counterattack on the reservation atCouncil Grove. The "attack" came on 3 June 1868, when approximatelyone hundred Southern Cheyennes fired a few scattered shots at the KawAgency Headquarters. No one was killed or injured; the entire affair lastedless than four hours. The Cheyennes gained some booty from outlyingwhite farms but had to pay for it out of annuities granted them in theMedicine Lodge Treaty of 1867.
Like other young boys on the reservation, Charley was unaware of theevents leading up to the attack. For him the minor attack was a harrowingexperience; in later years he never wearied of relating the trying circumstancesunder which he returned to the home of his paternal grandparentsin Topeka. There were many variations to his story, but the high pointswere that because he could speak good English, because he was an expertrunner, and because his people were besieged on their reservation (nohorses were available for the journey to Topeka), the chief of the Kaws entrustedhim with the responsibility of seeking help from the white mansome sixty miles to the east. But the facts are that, under orders from KawIndian agent E. S. Stover and tribal leaders, Charley made the journey toTopeka accompanied by Little Chief Joe Jim (Kyhegashinga), who servedas the government interpreter for the Kaws and who was a trusted friendof Charley's Indian grandmother.
Charley never returned to the Kaw reservation and, so far as is known,had few contacts with Indians until elected to Congress in 1892. Onceagain he took up residence with his white grandparents—this time in thehamlet of Eugene (soon to be renamed North Topeka), located on a parcelof Kaw half-blood land William Curtis had only recently purchased fromJulie Pappan. The town site was on the proposed route of the Union Pacific,Eastern Division Railroad, directly across the Kansas River fromTopeka proper, where William Curtis also built a hotel, saloon, livery stable,and racetrack. The track became a popular attraction, especially foryoung Charley, who with not a little experience riding Indian ponies onthe Council Grove reservation soon became an expert jockey. In fact, bythe early 1870s he was winning more than his share of races at county fairsin Kansas, Texas, and the Indian Territory, and seemed content to live outhis life near his paternal grandparents in Topeka.
In 1872 the Kaws relinquished their 250,000-acre reservation nearCouncil Grove in exchange for a 100,000-acre tract in Indian Territory,just south of the Kansas border. In the following year most of the Kawsfrom the Council Grove reservation moved to their new lands, whichwere located at the confluence of Beaver Creek and the Arkansas River.Charley's name remained on the tribal roll, and in 1874 members of theKaw tribe contacted him, asking him to also move to the new reservation.Charley refused. During the previous fall (1873) he had enrolled at TopekaHigh School. Moreover, he continued to ride in horse races at county fairson weekends, and he enjoyed both the races and the prize money that hewon.
Yet other factors also kept him in Kansas. In 1873 his grandfather, WilliamCurtis, died suddenly and Charley was forced to help support hisgrandmother. To augment her income he sold apples and peanuts at theNorth Topeka railroad station, and worked as a hack driver and bookkeeperin the evening and on weekends during the winter. During thesummer of 1874 he returned to the racetrack, mainly in eastern Kansas,Council Grove, and Wichita. Then came what Curtis termed a pivotalevent in his life, one that by his own admission loomed large in his developmentas an American and an Indian.
In the fall of 1874, accompanied by several other tribal members, Louisand Julie Pappan journeyed to Topeka to visit their grandson as well asother friends and relatives residing on the nearby Potawatomi reservation.Disheartened by his labors as a depot vender, hack driver, and bookkeeper,Charlie remembered his carefree days among the Kaws on the oldCouncil Grove reservation and listened longingly to descriptions of life onthe new lands in Indian Territory. In addition, Curtis later recalled that"the men folks of the tribe induced me to go to their reservation," remindinghim that "under an old treaty provision the government was issuingfree rations to all members of the tribe."
Envisioning a life free from some of the responsibilities that nowseemed to overwhelm him, the fourteen-year-old Curtis packed his fewbelonging in a flour sack, saddled his brown mare, and without even stoppingto consult with his grandmother he left home and rode to Six MileCreek, south of Topeka, where the Kaws were camped while visiting theirrelatives. But there his other grandmother intervened. As in most tribalsocieties, grandmothers are respected and revered for their wisdom. JuliePappan called Charley to her wagon and asked him why he wanted to rejointhe tribe. When Charley recounted that the Kaw men who were partof the visiting party had admonished him for remaining in Topeka, hisgrandmother: "told me what I might expect on the Indian Reservationand that I would likely become like most of the men on it; that I wouldhave no schooling, would put in my time riding racehorses or ponies, andbecome a reservation man with no future, and that if I ever expected tomake anything out of myself I should return to Topeka and start schoolagain." Curtis continues, "I took her advice.... No man or boy ever receivedbetter advice. It was the turning point in my life."
Consequently, although Curtis temporarily remained on the Kaw tribalroll, as he moved from adolescence to adulthood he moved more permanentlyinto the white world. He remained with his widowed grandmother,whose dedication to Republican conservatism had a profoundimpact on the young man. Permelia insisted that Charley complete hispublic school education, encouraged him to seek additional part-timejobs, and made sure that he understood that the Republican Party hadwon the Civil War, that the anti-black and anti-Indian sentiments of theDemocrats were proof of that party's demagogy, and that the MethodistChurch was the bastion of everything decent in Kansas and the nation.
Following high school Curtis read law with A. H. Case, a prominentTopeka attorney, and in 1881—the year that the Kansas prohibitionamendment went into effect—he was admitted to the Kansas Bar. He alsobecame active in state and local politics and gave notice of his ambitionfor public office and his commitment to the Republican Party. WilliamAllen White concluded that the Kaw mixed-blood was a regular Republican"by inheritance," and quite an attractive politician at that: "He washandsome, slight, with the jockey's litheness, with affectionate, black, caressingeyes that were hard to forget; with a fine olive skin, and a haymowof black hair and a curling mustache. Add to that a gentle, ingratiatingvoice, an easy flow of innocuous conversation unimpeded by pestiferousideas, and you have a creature God-sent into politics." Thus in 1884 hewas elected Shawnee County Attorney, one of the youngest men to holdsuch an office in the Jayhawk State. In the meantime, from Julie Pappan heinherited a parcel of land in North Topeka that was exempt from the Kansasprohibition law because of federal trustee regulations dating back tothe Kansa Treaty of 1825. He sold several large lots to a distillery and abrewer who then produced the very commodities needed by bootleggersto contend with the Kansas prohibition law. But to the surprise of mostRepublicans and certainly all "resubmissionist" Democrats, within a fewweeks after taking office Curtis closed the door of virtually every illicit barin Shawnee County even though he personally did not favor prohibition.
The consequence was dramatic. Here was a person of humble originswho could support a law contrary to his personal beliefs, and more important,a dedicated politician who had demonstrated that personal sacrificeand individual performance were not beyond the grasp of an Indianwhose ancestors had been dispossessed by the very society the Topekamixed-blood now was taking by political storm.
Not surprisingly, then, "Our Charley" Curtis became the darling of theRepublican Party, and given what William Allen White insisted were hisemotional but simplistic political tactics that included a "bloody shirt"speech on the Civil War accompanied by a plea to "vote the way youshot"; a mindless, indeed incomprehensible appeal for higher tariffs; "anda very carefully poised straddle on the currency question," which Curtis"knew little about and cared absolutely nothing for," he was easilyelected to Congress in 1892. During the next four decades, accompaniedby what his detractors called his inherent talent to manipulate the politicalsystem from behind the scenes, his rise to the most distinguished positionin the U.S. Senate and then to the second highest office in the landwas short of phenomenal.
Curtis's initial election to Congress was a testament to his hand-shakingenergy and skill in getting to know his constituents at a personal, human,level. He carried a book with the names, occupations, and personalrelations of virtually every family in every township in the Kansas FourthDistrict, and his dramatic victory over the Populist candidate John G. Otisin the same year that Kansas supported Populist James B. Weaver for thepresidency, attracted national attention. Some attributed his success tothe fact that he was French, Indian, and American at a time when censusdata indicated that the Native American population was rapidly nearingits nadir or, in more literary terms, when the "Vanishing American" epithetappeared to be reaching demographic fulfillment.
Still others viewed Curtis's political success in terms of his tribal ancestryand the prowess they felt was a characteristic of Native Americans.Following his dramatic 1892 victory, the Kaw mixed-blood easily wonconsecutive terms to the House until the Kansas legislature elevated himto the Senate in 1907. While his success obviously was the result of hisability to campaign effectively and to respond to his constituents' concerns—farmissues, veterans pensions, monetary matters, and the concernsof railroad corporations and the petroleum industry in the Jayhawkstate—one commentator nevertheless concluded: "Although slightly lessthan one-quarter Indian, Curtis might from his features and swarthy skin,be taken for a full-blood. `The Indian' he has been called, sometimes inhate, sometimes in admiration, throughout his political career. `Beat theIndian' was the battle cry in many a hard-fought campaign. But it was notenough to beat the Indian who has just reached a dominating place inKansas politics. Curtis has the wily persistence and dogged determinationin a fight that marks him a true son
Excerpted from The New Warriors by . Copyright © 2001 by University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Introduction : twentieth-century warriors||1|
|Charles Curtis / Kaw||17|
|Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (Zitkala-Sa) / Dakota||35|
|Robert Yellowtail / Crow||55|
|Vine V. Deloria, Sr. / Dakota||79|
|D'Arcy McNickle / Metis-Flathead||97|
|LaDonna Harris / Comanche||123|
|Russell Means / Lakota||147|
|Howard Tommie / Seminole||171|
|Phillip Martin / Mississippi Choctaw||195|
|Wilma Mankiller / Cherokee||211|
|Ada Deer / Menominee||239|
|Ben Nighthorse Campbell / Northern Cheyenne||263|
|Janine Pease Pretty-On-Top / Crow||281|
|Walter Echo-Hawk / Pawnee||299|
|List of contributors||323|