American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
Teaser Image


The most celebrated American Indian living in Chicago early in the twentieth century was Indian-rights advocate, writer and speaker, political organizer, and surgeon Dr. Carlos Montezuma, a graduate of the University of Illinois (1884) and the Northwestern University's Chicago Medical School (1889).

Montezuma (Mochtezuma, Wassaja, Yavapai) was born around 1866 among the Yavapai ("Almost-People to the East")—one of the thirteen bands of Pai or Pa'a (the People)—in what would become central Arizona. His birth name was Wassaja (pronounced wass-jah), a word translated from the Yuman language into English that means signaling or beckoning. In 1871, O'odham soldiers from the Salt River area, allied with General George Crook and the U.S. Army, captured Wassaja in the Ka Veecum Gahkwoot (Superstition Mountains) and turned him over to photographer Carlos Gentile. Gentile took young "Carlos Montezuma" east and brought him to the Reverend G. W. Ingalls of the American Baptist Home Mission Society. Ingalls selected the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Urbana, Illinois, to raise young Carlos.

Living primarily among non-Indians for five decades following his capture, Montezuma worked for the Office of Indian Affairs (OIA) after obtaining his license to practice in Illinois. He entered government service in September 1889 at Fort Stevenson, North Dakota. In July 1890 he transferred to the Western Shoshone Agency in Nevada, where he worked until December 1892 before spending a few months in Nespelem, Colville Agency, Washington, and about three years at the United States Indian Industrial School hospital in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He resigned in January 1896 to enter private practice in Chicago, where he remained until 1922.

Montezuma traveled with the Carlisle football team to the southwestern United States in 1901 and became reacquainted with his Yavapai relatives, who in 1903 obtained 24,680 acres of the old Fort McDowell Military Reserve (a portion of their homeland near Phoenix). During the final two decades of his life, Montezuma journeyed repeatedly to Fort McDowell, where he became increasingly familiar with his Yavapai family. With Montezuma's assistance after 1906, his Yavapai relations successfully resisted U.S. government–sponsored efforts to remove them to the Pima Salt River Reservation and build a dam on the Verde River, in the middle of the their reservation.

In Chicago after 1896, Montezuma assumed a role that purposefully was in the tradition of leadership among many American Indian peoples—that of caring for less fortunate citizens, hosting Indian visitors to his community, and advocating for the rights of Native nations. Thus, he was uniquely situated to contribute to the formation of Indian organization. During the opening decade of the twentieth century he joined efforts to politically organize Indians: In 1904 he joined with Luzena Choteau (Wyandotte from Oklahoma) to help found the National Indian Republican Association, in 1909 with Thomas L. Sloan (Omaha) and Walter Battice (Sac and Fox from Oklahoma) to form the Indian Progressive Organization, in 1911 with Laura Cornelius (Oneida from Wisconsin) and Henry Standing Bear (Lakota from Rosebud Reservation) to organize a meeting of Indians in Columbus, Ohio, that became the Society of American Indians. In addition to his groundbreaking work creating Indian organizations, Montezuma lobbyed in Congress against OIA paternalism, fought for Yavapai land and water rights, drafted an Indian citizenship bill, gave numerous speeches— including one entitled "Let My People Go"—and published a newsletter.

Wassaja, Montezuma's newsletter, was published monthly from April 1916 to November 1922. By means of Wassaja, as well as numerous newspaper columns, magazine articles, and lectures, Montezuma took his one-man campaign of Indian advocacy to the public. He sometimes expressed his thoughts in verse. Countering the "vanishing Indian" thesis (commonly repeated at the time) in a piece entitled "Changing Is Not Vanishing," Montezuma wrote: "The Indian race vanishing? No, never! The race will live on and prosper forever" (Montezuma, 1987).

In 1922, suffering from the debilitating effects of diabetes and tuberculosis, Montezuma returned home to live with his relatives at Fort McDowell. He passed on January 31, 1923.

D. Anthony Tyeeme Clark (Meskwaki)

Further Reading
Iverson, Peter. [1982] 2001. Carlos Montezuma and the Changing World of American Indians. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.; Montezuma, Carlos. [1916] 1987. "Changing Is Not Vanishing." In The Papers of Carlos Montezuma, M.D. Edited by John W. Larner, Jr. New York: Primary Source Microfilm and Scholarly Resources. [Originally appeared in Wassaja, June 3.]; Speroff, Leon. 2003. Carlos Montezuma, M.D.: A Yavapai American Hero. Portland, OR: Arnica Publishing.

©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

  Chronological Essays
  People and Groups
  Southwest Nations
  California Nations
  Northwest Coast Nations
  Great Basin Nations
  Plateau Nations
  Great Plains Nations
  Northeast Woodlands Nations
  Subarctic Nations
  Arctic Nations
ABC-cLIO Footer