By Pepper Heredia
Red Fox James stands, holding his horse’s reins, on a cold December day in Washington, D.C. He’s just ridden 4,000 miles, the newspapers say, from either Sheridan, Wyoming or the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana.
Now, he waits, bundled against the cold, to see President Woodrow Wilson. It’s 1915 and this is James’ second trip in two years to D.C. on horseback. His mission: to lobby for American Indian citizenship and for an American Indian Day. Both are goals of the Society of American Indians and James is a member. The Society, formed in 1911, is the first national American Indian rights organization. Its members are “Red Progressives.”
November is Native American Month. Powwows and celebrations will honor Native American culture. But few participants will have heard of Red Fox James.
Not that James is forgotten. Google Native American month and his name pops up. But beyond mention of his rides in 1914 and 1915, little is known about him.
Much of the information about him is ambiguous, contradictory. Perhaps James liked it that way. The man is a study in contrasts.
Take his tribal identity: He is variously identified as a Blood Indian, a half-breed Crow, a Blackfoot and, as the Bureau of Indian Affairs says, “undetermined.” James does little to set the record straight.
By today’s standards, he’d be considered a racist and more. He’s an assimilationist. He’s a Catholic who becomes anti-Catholic; he admires the Improved Order of the Red Men, a white fraternal group that embraces the Noble Savage stereotype. Indians aren’t allowed to join.
James “also disliked immigrants, believing they brought crime and degeneracy to this country,” Hazel Hertzberg writes in her book, “The Search For An American Indian Identity.”
Consequently, European immigrants—and Blacks—are barred from joining his organizations, such as the Teepee Order of America, founded in New York City in 1915, after James makes his second ride to D.C.
It’s about this time, too, that he joins the Anglican Universal Church. When he becomes a deacon, and later a priest, newspapers publish his picture, making him a minor celebrity.
That winter in 1915, while waiting to see President Wilson, James poses for photographs. He looks tall and lean. Tufts of hair stick out from under his cowboy hat. It has a high, round crown, a curled brim and a pin that reads “USA.” The hair threatens to cover large, protruding ears. He wears a scarf and a thick, double-breasted coat with large pockets, belted at the waist. A medal and a Boy Scout badge are pinned to his left breast. He admires the Scouts and is a member.
In 1914, three troops of D.C. Boy Scouts escort him to the White House. Scouts or scout officials often welcome him at towns and cities during his ride.
He tucks his pants into square-toed boots made of supple leather. When he sits on his horse, Montana Tombstone, the brim of his hat hides his high, wide forehead and shadows his deep-set eyes, adding to his pensive, melancholy look. He doesn’t look directly at the camera, but off to the side and his mind seems elsewhere. His mouth is turned down at the corners.
A stars-and-stripes blanket drapes the back of his horse. Beneath it protrude pennants. One of them reads “Be Prepared.”
On one of his rides to the White House, either in 1914 or 1915, the information is once again contradictory, he carries a petition, signed by 24 state governors. The newspapers say that he hopes to give it Wilson. The petition either urges Wilson to make American Indian Day a national holiday or asks for citizenship for American Indians. Chances are James politics for both issues.
The man tends to reinvent himself. He gives himself different names: Francis James; Francis St. James; Red Fox James; Red Fox Francis St. James; Red Fox Skiuhushu, which he once said meant Red Fox in Blackfoot; the Rev. Barnabas Skiuhushu; and finally, the Rev. Dr. Barnabas.
He is born either in Manitoba, Canada or near Great Falls, Montana, around 1889 or 1890. He says his people are originally Welsh. When they come to this country, they marry into “the Indian tribe in Virginia.” Thus, he says, his father James Thomas St. James, is Welsh and 1/16 Indian and that his mother, whom he does not identify, is a Blood Indian from Western Canada.
In 1914, he is cowboying in Montana when he makes his first trip on horseback to D.C. to push for an American Indian Day. Arthur C. Parker, a Seneca, is one of the first to publicly call for the holiday.
Parker writes in the New York Sun on November 15, 1912, that 90 million “imported Americans” and 265,683 American Indians “ought to see the opportunity” in having an Indian holiday.
But Parker’s duties as Secretary of the Society of American Indians take priority and his dream of an American Indian Day languishes.
Then, possibly before the Society knows about it, James rides off with the idea, garnering lots of publicity.
Parker is angry. He calls the effort “show-Indian” publicity,” Joy Porter writes in “To Be Indian: The Life of Iroquois-Seneca Arthur Caswell Parker.”
“I am a little dubious about the amount of good will that will be accomplished by holding general ‘powwows’ as you call them,” Parker tells James in the book.
Parker refers to programs and lectures James gives on American Indian culture along his route. He carries with him 50 slides for this purpose.
Porter writes that Parker fears that these “powwows’’ will be “seized upon for their advertising value” and rob an American Indian Day of its dignity.
But publicity doesn’t mean approval. Many newspapers mock the American Indian Day idea.
“There is something pathetically respectable about this attempt to create a national feeling among members of the only race which has full title to the name American, even though they have gone about it in the wrong way. We have holidays enough and too many…” says The New York Times, in an October 1, 1915 editorial.
About two weeks later, the paper covers Theodore Roosevelt’s Columbus Day speech on “Americanism” at Carnegie Hall where 2,500 people cheer themselves hoarse.
“There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americans,” Roosevelt says. “And the sooner he returns to the country of his allegiance, the better.”
James rides east on the Lincoln Highway. Its western terminus is San Francisco, where 20 million people from around the world flock to the Panama Pacific International Exposition.
Ishi, whom the press calls the last Yahi, the last wild Indian from the Stone Age, attends. He surfaces in Oroville in 1911, capturing the county’s imagination.
At the exposition, Ishi meets a group of Blackfeet. They probably see James Earle Fraser’s 25-foot tall equestrian sculpture, the “End of The Trail.”
It depicts a tired, exhausted Indian, holding a spear, slumped over his equally tired horse. Critics call the work poignant and say it captures the despair of the vanishing Indian, a victim of Manifest Destiny. It wins a gold medal.
In 1915, the nation produces 892, 618 cars and trucks. Cars cost an average of $672. Many travel the Lincoln Highway. But James rides his horse along it instead, making him the first to do so. While on his ride, a German U-boat sinks the Lusitania May 7, 1915, killing 1,195 people. This helps draw the U.S. into World War I, which Wilson declares on April 6, 1917. A million men are drafted.
During a July 4th celebration in 1917, James appears on stage at the City College of New York stadium with Secretary of War Newton D. Baker and the French actress Sarah Bernhardt. James pleads with Baker to send 50,000 armed Indians on horseback to guard the U.S-Mexican border. Perhaps this is because Germany tries to bribe Mexico—and Japan—into attacking the U.S.
James begs the Secretary to let American Indians fight in the war. More than 17, 300 volunteer. It’s doubtful James does. He is supposed to have raised $10,000 for the Red Cross, but that’s unconfirmed.
On his first ride, Red Fox James meets with President Wilson on December 17, 1914. Wilson promises to consider the American Indian Day idea. Nothing comes of it.
When the Panama Pacific International Exposition ends in December 1915, the “End Of The Trail” is dumped in a muddy marina. Tulare County rescues it. A bronze copy stands in Visalia’s Mooney Grove. The original is in the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center in Oklahoma City.
On March 25, 1916, Ishi dies of tuberculosis in San Francisco, where crowds pack the Cort Theater to see “Ramona,” a 13-reel, Mission Indian love story set in Southern California. Admission is 25, 50 and 75 cents.
New York Governor Charles S. Whitman proclaims May 13, 1916 American Indian Day, making it the first state-sanctioned holiday of its kind.
By the late 1930s, Red Fox James seems to disappear from the pages of history.
Pepper Heredia is a former newspaper reporter/feature writer/book review editor. He is a member of the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, Fallon, Nevada.