What Calvin Coolidge Didn’t Understand About Native Americans

By Cécile R. Ganteaume
Zocalo Public Square

Officially Indian (Cécile R. Ganteaume)During the summer of 1927, Calvin Coolidge, 30th president of the United States, was formally adopted into the Lakota nation. The ceremonies took place in Deadwood, South Dakota, with the prominent Sicangu Lakota activist and teacher Chauncy Yellow Robe presiding. Yellow Robe’s daughter placed an eagle feather headdress, a potent symbol of Lakota culture, on Coolidge’s head. The tribe also gave Coolidge a Lakota name—Wanblí Tokáhe, or “Leading Eagle”—signifying his welcome into the Lakota nation. To the Lakota, the adoption was an assertion of their survival as a Native nation that desired equal footing with the United States. But that complicated notion was lost on most Americans, including the president himself, as well as the people who witnessed breathless coverage of the adoption ceremony in the press.

That summer Coolidge spent several months in Lakota Sioux territory. He vacationed at his “Summer White House” in South Dakota’s Custer State Park, visited an off-reservation Indian boarding school run by the federal government, met with tribal leaders who presented him with serious concerns about U.S. policies toward Indians, and became the first sitting U.S. president to make an official visit to an American Indian reservation—Pine Ridge, home to the Oglala Lakota.

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