A Day Full of Promise
On August 17, 1927 a caravan of sleek dark automobiles bumped along a dusty gravel road in South Dakota’s rural southwestern corner. One carried Calvin Coolidge, his wife Grace, and their twenty-year-old son John. The other vehicles contained the trappings of any executive visit: a gaggle of reporters, the state’s congressional delegation, and a mixture of staffers, bureaucrats, and security guards. That day’s ride to the Pine Ridge Reservation was an historic event, as Coolidge was only minutes away from becoming the first sitting American president to set foot in Indian Country.
The moment was ripe with promise and optimism, and many viewed the day’s events as a harbinger of improved relations between Native peoples and the federal government. Brutal encounters between the US and tribal peoples had scarred the preceding century. By the 1920s, the US was nearly fifty years into a series of policies that had removed Native peoples from their lands, confined them to reservations like Pine Ridge, and attempted to strip them of their cultures, religions, economies, and systems of government. Violent encounters, like the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890, which left upwards of 200 Lakota dead, exacerbated tensions between the government and Native people.
Even before his trip to Pine Ridge, Coolidge had made several moves signaling a shift in federal/tribal relations. In 1924, he signed the Indian Citizenship Act, which unilaterally naturalized every Native American that had not already achieved US citizenship under the 1887 Dawes Act. His administration also commissioned a detailed study of the conditions on reservations across the county. This document, titled “The Problem of Indian Administration,” but known for its author Lewis Meriam, identified core policy failures that the Indian New Deal of the 1930s would attempt to fix.
Two weeks before the president’s visit to Pine Ridge, Lakota leader Henry Standing Bear had welcomed the president to his people’s land during a ceremony in Deadwood, some 130 miles to the north. Along with nearly 300 tribal members, Standing Bear symbolically adopted the president into the tribe and gave him the name Wamblee-Tokaha or “Leading Eagle.” This title bestowed upon the president not only honor, but also a set of responsibilities to help guide and protect his new symbolic community.
While on Pine Ridge, Coolidge spoke to over 10,000 Natives from around the region who had gathered for the event. Some wore traditional ceremonial dress and painted their faces, while others donned blue jeans and cotton shirts. Clad in a statesman’s stuffy black suit, Coolidge described problems plaguing Indian communities, thanked Native veterans of World War I, and noted his administration’s concern over the speculators who sought to dupe Native peoples out of their land and resource rights. He promoted economic development, and encouraged Indian families to seek education for their children.