On October 30, 1925, hundreds of delegates from 28 Northwest tribes gather in Spokane for the first Northwest Indian Congress. This gathering of tribal leaders is sponsored by the Spokane Betterment League, a group of white civic leaders, partly as a sincere attempt to draw attention to Indian issues and partly as a tourist draw for Spokane. The tribes erect 88 tepees on Glover Field in the Peaceful Valley neighborhood of Spokane, creating an irresistible tableau for photographers and evoking what a Spokane newspaper called "pleasant memories of days long gone by" ("Indian Horde ..."). The congress includes speeches, educational sessions at Spokane's Masonic Temple, a parade, a football game, and a beauty pageant of "Indian princesses" ("War Bonnets"). A second, even bigger gathering, renamed the National Indian Congress, will be held in Spokane in July 1926, but it will be the last.
The Birth of an Idea
The impetus for a Northwest Indian Congress came from an unlikely source. The Gonzaga University football team had scheduled a home game on October 31, 1925, against the Haskell Institute of Lawrence, Kansas (now Haskell Indian Nations University). Haskell had a famous football program and had beaten several major college football teams. Spokane's civic leaders realized that the game was likely to draw hundreds, perhaps thousands, of tribal members. The mayor formed a committee that included city officials, Gonzaga priests, railroad officials, and "prominent Indians" to look into how to handle this influx (Schoenberg, p. 317). This committee, sometimes referred to as the Spokane Betterment League, came up with an ambitious plan to expand the gathering into what became the Northwest Indian Congress.
The committee invited 34 Northwest tribes to attend. On October 23, 1925, it dispatched a delegation of tribal leaders to Washington D.C. to confer with the federal Indian department. The delegation was invited to the White House to meet with President Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933), where its members invited Coolidge to attend the congress. He declined due to the late notice and the press of other business, but sent a number of federal officials in his place.
The committee had raised $18,000 to stage the event, and it offered to pay the expenses of up to 25 official delegates from each tribe. Representatives of 28 tribes showed up. As an incentive to create a picturesque Indian village, the committee paid $5 to every Indian who agreed to pitch a tepee on Glover Field. The Indians were also supplied with food and fuel. Newsreel companies, National Geographic photographers, and even a representative of The Graphic, an illustrated weekly newspaper from London, were on hand to capture the tableau (Schoenberg, p. 318).
Many other Indian delegates chose to stay in hotels. L. O. Shirley, identified as the federal "chief special Indian officer," arrived in advance to "help preserve order among the visiting Indians and ... run out all the suspicious renegades who usually follow the Indians around the country to prey on them" ("Indian Vanguard ...").
At least 300 Indian men and women delegates attended the congress "and a like number of whites," although some estimates of the total gathering approached 1,000 ("Indian Congress To Be Annual ..."). "Never since the days of the Indian wars, with their hordes of warriors and their powwow gatherings, have there been so many Indians of so many tribes congregated here, officials say," wrote The Spokesman-Review ("Indians of Many Tribes ..."). The official sessions focused on serious issues of tribal welfare and citizenship. One Yakama Tribe speaker, Nealy Olney, urged Indians to "hang on to their lands … The Indians are not a vanishing race, but their property is vanishing" ("Another Indian Congress ...").
The attitude of the press was not always serious. The banner headline on the front page of the Spokane Daily Chronicle on the first day was: "INDIAN HORDE CAPTURES SPOKANE: Conquerors Willing to Talk Peace" ("Indian Horde ..."). The first day of the congress was summed up by The Spokesman-Review as follows: "To the Indian, the congress appears to be somewhat of a glorified combination of what Santa Claus, Christmas and the Fourth of July mean to a child. And the palefaces are enjoying it as much" ("War Bonnets ..."). The event was purposely combined with another Spokane holiday event, the Halloween Festival and parade. Indians, many in full regalia, played a predominant part in the parade, and cash prizes were awarded to those best-costumed.
The climax of the weekend was the Gonzaga-Haskell football game, won in thrilling fashion by Haskell, 10-9, in front of a crowd estimated at 10,000. The spectacle before the game included a procession of mounted Indians. "No wild west show ever equaled the procession that circled the stadium" before the game, gushed a reporter ("Halloween Parade Brilliant ..."). Alice Garry, of the Spokane tribe, was crowned "Princess America."
Bigger, But Not Better
On the last day of the congress, the assembly voted "by acclamation" to hold an even bigger congress in 1926 ("Another Indian Congress ..."). It also voted to make it national in scope, to rename it the National Indian Congress, and to hold it in the summer instead of the brisk fall.
That second congress, the National Indian Congress, was held July 23-26, 1926, in Spokane. This time, the committee paid the expenses for only 10 delegates from each tribe, chosen by federal Indian agents. A few more tribes showed up, including some from Nebraska and Colorado. Yet it was still predominantly a Northwest tribal gathering. Total Indian attendance was estimated at about 1,000, about 10 percent more than the first year. The tepee village at Glover Field was also larger, with 112 tepees.
However, the good feelings from the first event were hard to replicate. The sometimes-tense nature of the second congress was captured in a passage from the Spokane Daily Chronicle, quoting Charles H. Burke, the federal commissioner of the bureau of Indian affairs: "As soon as the Indian is educated and capable of controlling his affairs, he ought to be permitted to go his way. If he dissipates his property that is his affair. Many Indians, now successful, have done this and settled down to work" ("Will Discuss ..."). The Chronicle reported "scattered applause, confined principally to the white people present" ("Will Discuss ...").
The 1926 National Indian Congress ended with promises to continue the event annually. However, there were already hints of dissatisfaction. Organizers said "the Indians would preferably have the congress in September rather than the middle of the summer -- the hot time of the year as well as the harvest time" ("1926 Congress ..."). Also, the "younger, educated" Indians "expressed the feeling that the deliberations of the congress were progressing without definite purpose" ("Crown Princess ..."). Paul G. Wapato of the Chelan tribe, elected chairman of the next year's congress, suggested that the congress should strive to be more than "an opportunity to air grievances" ("Pass Resolutions ..."). As it turned out, all efforts to continue the congress failed due to a general lack of enthusiasm.