Editor’s note: Voters this year will elect the 45th president of the United States. This is the 29th in a series of 44 stories exploring past presidents’ attitudes toward Native Americans, challenges and triumphs regarding tribes, and the federal laws and Indian policies enacted during their terms in office.
Less than three months before Warren Gamaliel Harding was elected 29th president of the United States, he stood on his front porch in Marion, Ohio, and promised Indians he would look out for their indigenous rights.
Harding, then a U.S. senator, announced his bid for president in June 1920 and subsequently gave hundreds of official and off-the-cuff speeches to audiences numbering in the tens of thousands—all from the comfort of his front porch.
This “front porch campaign” reached a total of 600,000 visitors who traveled to Harding’s crushed-gravel lawn “by car or chartered trains, representing Republican state delegations or farmers or veterans or businessmen or blacks or women or first voters, or, even, traveling salesmen,” David Pietrusza wrote in his 2007 book, 1920: The Year of the Six Presidents. “Each contingent, properly escorted by a brass band, would march up ‘Victory Way,’ festooned every twenty feet by white columns surmounted by gilt eagles.”
On August 19, Harding met on that porch with about 20 delegates of the Society of American Indians who, “arrayed in tribal feathers and beadwork,” attended the speech to plead “for extension of their racial rights,” the Lancaster Eagle reported. Harding, who would inherit a country still recovering from World War I, replied that the United States “might do well to bestow ‘democracy and humanity and idealism’ on the continent’s native race rather than to ‘waste American lives trying to make sure of that bestowal thousands of miles across the sea.’”
Yet Harding, whose presidency was rocked by political corruption and personal scandal, ultimately did little to advance the rights of Native Americans. His predecessor, Woodrow Wilson, granted citizenship to the 10,000 Indians who served in World War I, and though Harding advocated for citizenship rights for all Indians, his primary goal was assimilation.
“During this whole time period, the push was for assimilation of the Indians,” said Sherry Hall, manager of the Harding Home Presidential Site. “Harding was no different in that respect. He pushed for citizenship, but as a way of assimilation. He believed that it made sense to honor the Natives with citizenship as a way to improve their condition.”
Born in Ohio in 1865, Harding’s earliest aspiration was to own and edit his hometown newspaper—a goal he met by age 19. He entered politics when he was elected as Ohio state senator in 1899.
Harding served as lieutenant governor of Ohio and as a U.S. senator before running for president in 1920. A member of the Republican Party, he served only 29 months in office, dying in August 1923.
Harding took office as the nation was still recuperating from the First World War and in the face of drastic social changes. He spoke in favor of the suffragette movement and won the first election in which women were allowed to vote.
Eight months after taking office, Harding dedicated the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, a monument for service members who died without their remains being identified. Crow Chief Plenty Coos (or Plenty Coups) was invited to participate in the ceremony and, “attired in full war regalia, feathered bonnet, furs and skins of variegated colors,” was seated on the platform with Harding and military leaders from Europe, the Associated Press reported on November 14, 1921.
“Thus the uniform of the first American took its place with those of its Allied Powers in the last war,” the AP reported. “A group of Indian braves appeared in the audience, tiptoeing in their beaded moccasins down the aisle to their seats.”
After the burial ceremony, Plenty Coos laid a coup stick and the war bonnet from his head on the tomb. Although organizers had insisted that Plenty Coos remain silent during the ceremony, the chief addressed a crowd of about 100,000 spectators in his Native language.
“I am glad to represent all the Indians of the United States in placing on the grave of this noble warrior this coup stick and war bonnet, every eagle feather of which represents a deed of valor by my race,” he said. “I hope that the Great Spirit will grant that these noble warriors have not given up their lives in vain and that there will be peace to all men hereafter.”
The decision to invite Indians to participate in the dedication signaled a shift in the way the country viewed its indigenous population, Hall said. Although stereotypes persisted in films, carnivals and Wild West shows, leaders were beginning to take Indians seriously.
“We still had the stereotypical views of the Natives as curiosities, but with this dedication, they were given more of a public platform,” Hall said. “The fact that they were asked to participate in this ceremony was a big step.”
As president, Harding also entertained “educated” Indians at the White House, including a 1921 visit from Zitkala-Ša, a Yankton-Nakota woman educated at White’s Indiana Manual Labor Institute, and a 1922 visit from Jim Thorpe, the Sac and Fox athlete who attended Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania.
In June 1923, Harding embarked on a six-week, fact-finding journey he called the “Voyage of Understanding,” during which he visited the West Coast and became the first sitting president to visit Alaska. While there, he met with Alaska Natives, accepted gifts and pledged to help conserve natural resources.
“He wanted to see for himself what was going on,” Hall said of Harding.” He wanted to listen and observe. He wanted people to live there, he envisioned statehood for Alaska, but he also heard loud and clear what the Natives were saying.”
Harding did not complete his voyage. He died of an apparent heart attack in San Francisco on August 2, 1923. His vice president, John Calvin Coolidge, completed his term.