This Date in Native History: On June 23, 1927, the Sioux County Pioneer, a newspaper in south central North Dakota, reported that U.S. President Calvin Coolidge would be adopted into the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
Coolidge, who was celebrated for signing the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, spent the summer of 1927 in the Black Hills region of South Dakota, working out of an office in Rapid City High School. When Sioux Chieftain Chauncey Yellow Robe, a descendant of Sitting Bull, learned the President would be there, he suggested he be adopted into the tribe.
The Sioux County Pioneer, a weekly publication that came out every Thursday, reported that Yellow Robe had urged his people to extend to the President “a united welcome and genuine western hospitality.”
“It has been asked ‘What the Indians are thinking of President Coolidge’s coming to the Black Hills,’” Yellow Robe reportedly said: “The Indians are like anybody else, they are also anxious to see him come. Our population of more than 20,000 Sioux Indians, the first people of the Hills, will also open their hearts with most sincere and hearty welcome of President Coolidge to the land of the Dakotas and if the occasion should permit, President Coolidge will be adopted into the Sioux tribe. We hope he will find in these beautiful Pahasapas (Black Hills) rest, peace, quiet and friendship among us.”
Coolidge, a Republican attorney from Vermont known by various nicknames including “Silent Cal,” served as vice president under President Warren Harding. When Harding died suddenly in 1923, Coolidge was sworn in and served the remainder of the term. He was elected in 1924 and served until 1929.
During the summer of 1927, Coolidge and his wife, Grace, fled the bustle and humidity of Washington, D.C., said Rushad Thomas, program and editorial associate at the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation. They arrived in Rapid City, South Dakota on June 13 and liked it so much they stayed for three months.
The Coolidges stayed at the Game Lodge in Custer State Park, and while the President worked or fished, Grace knitted on the lodge porch and enjoyed nature walks, states a 2011 article in South Dakota Magazine.
Their stay also coincided with the sculpting of Mount Rushmore. Coolidge, who participated in a widely publicized dedication ceremony in August of 1927—two years after the project began—later supported legislation to fund completion.
The Sioux were eager to honor Coolidge for the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, Thomas said, though Coolidge did little to thwart the government’s assimilation policies. The tribe planned to publicly adopt him during a ceremony August 4 in Deadwood, South Dakota.
According to United Press reports, 10,000 people attended the ceremony, during which 400 Indians “dressed in Native costume, some naked except for loin clothes, their bodies painted every hue of the rainbow; others, squaws, with papooses on their backs and all bedecked with eagle feathers” escorted Coolidge onto a fairgrounds. There, Chief Standing Bear placed on his brow a $2,500 feathered war bonnet.
Speaking in his Native language, Standing Bear lifted his hand over his head and said to Coolidge, “You will hereafter be known among our people as Leading Eagle, our greatest chief, which is shown by your double tail feathers. I say goodbye and hope you will continue to bend the will of this great nation to its great destiny,” the United Press reported.
Though momentous at the time, the event quickly faded into history. Coolidge himself does not mention it in his autobiography. Historians believe Coolidge’s decision not to seek a second term in office dwarfed news of his adoption.
Within two weeks of the adoption, Coolidge walked into a press conference in South Dakota and handed small pieces of paper to reporters, then left without saying a word. The slips read, “I do not choose to run for president in 1928.”
Yet the photographs of Coolidge in his suit and tie with the Sioux war bonnet on his head gained popularity and even influenced later political photos.
As Politico reporter Josh King wrote in his 2013 article Dukakis and the Tank, “the first rule of political photo ops is: Never put anything on your head,” a rule that arguably can be traced to an “encounter between President Calvin Coolidge and some feathers.”
King claims that Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis may have lost the 1988 election because of a photo in September of that year in which he dons a helmet and poses in a tank.
“You don’t put stuff on your head if you’re president,” Obama said. “That’s politics 101.”
Apparently, political advisers in 1927 warned Coolidge not to wear the war bonnet in the photos, saying he would look funny.
Always laconic, Coolidge reportedly replied, “Well it’s good for people to laugh, isn’t it?”
This story was originally published June 23, 2014.