Carlos Montezuma

Carlos Montezuma (ca. 1865-1923), was a Yavapai (Mohave-Apache) university-educated medical doctor and political leader, who bridged both cultures.

Sometime in the mid-1860s, perhaps as early as 1865 or as late as 1867, Carlos Montezuma was born as Wassaja to Yavapai parents in a band in central or southern Arizona. As that period was quite turbulent, given Anglo-mining expansion and settlement and warfare among the southern Arizona tribes, Wassaja's childhood was far from uninterrupted play. Indeed in 1871, the Yavapai's longtime enemies, the Pimas, attacked Wassaja's band and carried him off, along with his two sisters. A man bound for Mexico soon purchased his sisters, and the boy never saw any of his family again.

Later that same year, an Italian immigrant photographer/artist named Carlos Gentile took pity on the boy, purchased him for $30, and had him baptized as "Carlos Montezuma" on November 17 in Florence, Arizona. Soon Gentile moved to Chicago, where the child attended public school for the next three years, moving on next to Galesburg, Illinois, where Carlos attended a country school for his health for the next two years. The next stop was New York, where the lad went to school in Brooklyn. Gentile's business suffered a reversal, however, due to a fire, and he was unable to care for the child any longer. After a short time under the care of a Mrs. Baldwin, Carlos found himself the ward of a Baptist minister, William H. Steadman, of Urbana, Illinois.

Once in Illinois, Montezuma prepared himself for college and enrolled at the University of Illinois. There he pursued a B.S. degree in chemistry, obtaining grades ranging from middle C's to low A's. He authored a thesis entitled "Valuation of Opiums and Their Products" and received his degree by the mid-1880s. After a brief period of indecision in Chicago, Montezuma resolved to go on to medical school. With the help of a Dr. Hollister at the Chicago Medical College, he entered that program, working at a job cleaning a local drugstore. In 1889, after some setbacks with the faculty, he finally completed medical training and contemplated where best to apply his new skills. Contact with the "Friends of the Indian" reformer group soon propelled him in the direction of becoming an Indian doctor.

Captain Richard Henry Pratt, the founder and director of the Carlisle School in Pennsylvania, was Montezuma's first backer. As early as 1887, Montezuma had been corresponding with the energetic reformer. Pratt was a staunch believer in immersing Indian children in white culture and erasing indigenous traits. For Pratt, and increasingly for Montezuma at this time, no matter how glorious was the Indian's past, the present and future realities dictated that tribal peoples modernize according to the whites' model. At his school, Pratt often brought in reluctant charges for this social experiment. Although Montezuma was too old for Pratt's curriculum, he became an adult example of what the whites' education could accomplish for indigenous people. In 1887, Montezuma thus addressed audiences in New York and Philadelphia on this topic.

Such a bright specimen of the white man's handiwork caught the attention of Commissioner of Indian Affairs Thomas Jefferson Morgan. After an exchange of letters, Morgan appointed Montezuma to be a clerk and physician at Fort Stevenson in Dakota Territory in 1889. Montezuma embarked on the mission with great zeal:

While there is life in me I shall teach my race the values of life from savagery to civilization. I will lead them to the Father that watched over their forefathers when they fell into the hands of their enemies, to the God who permitted the nation to which they belonged to be nearly wiped out of existence.

Once in Dakota Territory, however, Montezuma found reservation conditions much worse than he had expected. Soon he was in conflict with Office of Indian Affairs policies and personnel. Handling the medical problems of the Arikara, Gros Ventre, and Mandan tribal peoples on the Fort Berthold reservation, Montezuma became convinced that physical problems stemmed from the inadequate supervision of the reservation facilities. Within the year, he and Superintendent George Gerowe were trading accusations. Commissioner Morgan stepped in and transferred Montezuma to the Western Shoshone Agency in Nevada in 1890, where he remained until January 1893. Although Montezuma's service there was less choppy, the lack of medical and other supplies, clashes with tribal shamans and customs, and rivalry between Catholic and Protestant missionaries frustrated his attempts to make progress. Commissioner Morgan granted his request for another transfer, this time assigning Montezuma to the Colville Agency in Washington state. That move was no better, however; the Colville Agency, too, lacked the necessary supplies and facilities for a doctor to carry out his tasks. Quickly Montezuma secured another transfer to what would be his last Indian Service position, physician at Pratt's Carlisle School. In July 1893, he began his tenure at Carlisle, a position he kept until January 8, 1896.

Montezuma's stay at Carlisle was far happier than his other Indian Service positions. Back with his friend Pratt, he threw himself into the spirit of the school, praising the education, football team, and band. Although critics pointed to discrepancies in Carlisle's mission and its accomplishments—few students graduated or stayed in the East— Montezuma believed in the potential of the school. One of the musicians, a Dakota named Gertrude Simmons or Zitkala-sa, would figure importantly in Montezuma's life. Being in the East also allowed him greater contact with the white reformers. In 1893 and 1895, he attended the annual Lake Mohonk conferences of the "Friends of the Indian." By 1896, despite his positive connections with Carlisle, Montezuma decided to venture back into private practice.

At first back in Chicago, Montezuma had few patients. Then he chanced to meet up with Dr. Fenton Turck, an eminent internalist, who invited Montezuma to assist at his clinic. Montezuma's career prospects improved, although he never became an excellent doctor nor a rich one. Around this time, he and Zitkala-sa reactivated their acquaintance. Friendship blossomed for a time into engagement in 1901, but in August of that year, she broke off the relationship. Within the year, she married Raymond Bonnin, a Sioux. Montezuma was bitter at first, but later the two resumed a friendship and alliance in favor of Indian causes. Probably her biggest impact on him was to reawaken some interest in the Indian past. Montezuma never became an enthusiast for indigenous culture, preferring the path out of what he and most whites considered savagery, but in 1901 he revisited the places of his boyhood. On a trip to Arizona with the Carlisle football team the previous year, Montezuma had returned to his native region for the first time. Now he came back on his own and tracked down some of his distant relatives, especially Mike Burns and Charles Dickens. With them and Charles's brother George, Montezuma was instrumental in the creation of the Fort McDowell Yavapai or Mohave-Apache Reservation by late 1903.

Starting in 1905, Carlos Montezuma attracted national attention as an Indian leader. Much of his energies over the next six years focused on establishing a national organization of Indians, one the indigenous leaders would control themselves, unlike the reformer groups such as the Indian Rights Association. Montezuma joined in this Pan-Indian movement with Zitkala-sa and other prominent native leaders, such as the Sioux Charles Eastman and Henry Standing Bear, the Seneca Arthur Parker, the Oneida Laura Cornelius, the Omaha Thomas Sloan and Rosa LaFlesche, the Ojibwa Marie Baldwin, the Winnebago Henry Roe Cloud, the Arapahoe Sherman Coolidge, and the Peoria Charles Daganett. On Columbus Day, 1911, in Columbus, Ohio, with the help of Ohio State University economics and sociology professor Fayette McKenzie, the Society of American Indians held its first meeting. Montezuma, however, in spite of pleas from Sloan, Eastman, Cornelius, Daganett, and Standing Bear, did not attend. Despite his obvious credentials for leadership in such a movement and his ongoing disputes with Commissioner of Indian Affairs Francis Leupp, Montezuma had become disappointed with the agenda of the society. He suspected that the group had simply become a tool for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and, as he and Pratt asserted, did not concentrate on the real needs of indigenous peoples. Instead of contributing to what he saw as a charade, Montezuma returned to southern Arizona to resume his efforts on behalf of his Yavapai tribe.

Since the establishment of the Fort McDowell Reservation in 1903, the Bureau of Indian Affairs personnel and the Yavapi themselves had been trying, with some success, to develop a thriving agriculture on the land. Their success, however, depended on the water supply from the Verde River, which cut across the reservation. The time period was a confusing one for water rights in the West as a whole. Although the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902 projected a bright future for western irrigation, the legal definitions of ownership became murky. The 1908 Winters v. U.S.Supreme Court decision ruled that Indians had prior water rights, but it was ambiguous whether the indigenous people themselves or their "guardian" governmental agencies owned the water. Competition with nearby Phoenix and attempts to consolidate the Yavapai with other Arizona tribes clouded the future for Montezuma's people. Problems with setting up or repairing irrigation ditches further complicated matters. So in 1911, Montezuma, now signing his letters Wassajah, joined in with the Dickens brothers to ward off Bureau of Indian Affairs plans to relocate the Yavapai. After a drawn-out struggle, the Yavapai won their case and the right to stay at Fort McDowell. For Montezuma, this victory had repercussions, as the federal government saw him more as an obstacle to bureau plans rather than a cooperative, educated Indian.

The next year, 1912, Montezuma returned to the Society of American Indians. He became a crucial and controversial force within the group, never completely at ease with the society's agendas. He attended the 1912 meeting, again in Columbus, Ohio, but declined to go to the 1913 meeting in Denver, when it became clear that local promoters were using the gathering as publicity for an upcoming Buffalo Bill Cody Wild West show. Instead, he redirected his energies to Yavapai issues and also to an extremely personal one, marriage to a Rumanian-American woman named Marie Keller on September 19, 1913. The following day, Montezuma left for Arizona. (Marie, who lacked her husband's reformer zeal, preferred to stay in the background of his life.) The next February, however, he returned to the Society of American Indians to plan the 1914 meeting in Madison, Wisconsin. Despite arguments with moderates in the organization, such as Arthur Parker, and continuing conflict with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Montezuma went to the Madison gathering, as well as the 1915 one at Lawrence, Kansas. At the Lawrence meeting, Montezuma sharpened his attack on the bureau with a talk called "Let My People Go," in which he urged abolition of the federal agency.

Clearly, Montezuma was at an ideological watershed in his opinions, deciding that personal commitment was more important than organizational cooperation with the "enemy." The next April, he published the first number of his personal newsletter, Wassaja, an "obsession" that he carried on until shortly before his death. For six and a half years, Montezuma waged an unrelenting war of words with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. That October, even though he was in hot dispute with Arthur Parker, Montezuma attended the sixth annual Society of American Indians convention, held that year at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. There matters deteriorated to a shouting match between Montezuma and Sherman Coolidge over the notion of Indians in the employ of the Indian Service. "I am an Apache," Montezuma screamed at Coolidge, "and you are an Arapahoe. I can lick you. My tribe has licked your tribe before." Obviously, with tempers so frayed, the conference accomplished little, and Montezuma was ever more the lone wolf. His editorials in Wassaja turned more sarcastic and clever. His main antagonist was the Bureau, but he also attacked churches and schools for what he considered complicity in the scheme to defraud Indians. Indeed, although his primary concern was for his people in Arizona, Montezuma expanded his focus to cover Indian calamities in Montana.

When the United States entered World War I, the Yavapai doctor looked at the war effort with ambiguity. The U.S. should not be able to commandeer indigenous males to fight, he thought, but if any wished to fight, they should be able to do so. His editorials also pointed out the ironies of native peoples fighting for rights abroad that they didn't enjoy at home. When war needs justified the closing of Carlisle School in 1918, Montezuma responded angrily. The bureau became, in his eyes, the "Kaiser of America." He urged the Society of American Indians to meet again—it had canceled the 1917 convocation—and lead the fight against the bureau. At the Pierre, South Dakota, meeting that September, Montezuma delivered an impassioned speech on Carlisle. Better yet, from his perspective, the society voted for abolition of the Indian Bureau. The society also named Gertrude Simmons Bonnin to replace Parker as editor of American Indian Magazine. Emotionally elated, Montezuma praised the society lavishly in the pages of Wassaja.

Throughout those years of infighting within the society, Montezuma was also busy defending the rights of his beloved Yavapai and other tribes back in Arizona. In 1912, he responded to requests from the Salt River Pimas to become their representative. Washington officials did not look favorably on that match, but in that year Montezuma and the Yavapai received confirmation of their homeland status on the Fort McDowell Reservation. Arguments over ceremonial dancing on the reservation, however, soon plunged Montezuma into conflict with bureau officials Charles Coe, Frank Thackery, C.T. Coggeshall, and Byron Sharp, as well as Indian Rights Association agent Samuel Brosius. Although Montezuma had no intention of reinvigorating tribal customs of the past, he did support the dances as harmless. Mostly the dispute was over the power of Indian agents over the tribal peoples, so any issue would have triggered the physician's anger. The clash over dancing carried on until 1918. Water problems also continued to plague the Arizona Indians. The Yavapai, particularly, wished for a dam and irrigation system, but Indian Bureau officials maintained that the project was too costly. Instead, the bureau recommended the Yavapai accept allotments on the Salt River. Whether or not this was a thinly disguised attempt to relocate the Yavapai, Montezuma and the Dickens brothers led the resistance to the plan. By 1918, even though the water situation was as tenuous as ever, Montezuma had won the battle over keeping Fort McDowell intact.

In what turned out to be the last four years of his life, Carlos Montezuma continued his efforts in national Indian affairs, tried to enroll as a member of the San Carlos Apache, and kept up his interest in southern Arizona concerns. He pressed once again for abolition of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and for citizenship for all Indians (not granted completely until 1924). The Society of American Indians continued to meet, and Gertrude Bonnin still held the editorship of the society magazine, but by the early 1920s, that group was losing its clout and luster. Successive meetings at Minneapolis, St. Louis, Detroit, and Kansas City all witnessed decreases in attendance. By 1922, Montezuma was disillusioned once more with the society. Back in Arizona, however, he launched a more ambitious effort to enroll at the San Carlos Apache agency, because some genealogical tracing had convinced him that his family had ended up on that reservation in 1871. The Indian Bureau, already at odds with the aggressive Yavapai physician, put him through many hoops, requiring sworn statements and proof which Montezuma could not obtain. In the end, the bureau's 1922 denial of his enrollment request was as much a punishment of Montezuma as a bureaucratic technical decision.

Controversies over water rights once again surfaced in 1919. Bureau officials tried yet again to persuade the Yavapai to relocate to the Salt River reservation, and once again Montezuma, the Dickens brothers, and Mike Burns headed off that campaign. In 1920, Montezuma and agent Byron Sharp nearly came to blows on the reservation, an incident that involved some rough handling of Montezuma's wife Marie. Next plans to pipe water to Phoenix across the Fort McDowell lands aggravated Montezuma even further, reinforcing his fears of a gigantic conspiracy between city politicians and the bureau lackeys. Montezuma kept protesting this turn of events, but with the arrival of the new Harding administration and its probusiness secretary of the interior, Albert Fall, Montezuma made little headway. A new Salt River agency superintendent, Frank Virtue, proved as hostile to Montezuma as his predecessors had been. A new generation of Indian leaders would have to pick up the fight for him.

In the summer of 1922, Montezuma noticed that his health was failing. At first, he thought he had influenza, but being the physician he was, he soon diagnosed his condition correctly as tuberculosis, the major Indian-killing disease of the day. Throughout the autumn of 1922, he continued to publish Wassaja, but in December, he chose to prepare for his death. He left Chicago for Arizona, had the Dickens family build him a wickiup rush shelter near their home, and resisted the medical advice of a Tempe physician to commit himself to a sanatorium. Montezuma lingered for nearly a month, writing letters of encouragement to his wife back in Chicago. On January 23, 1923, he finally succumbed, home at last among his people. Several newspapers and native leaders, including the Society of American Indians, eulogized him, but his overall legacy was uncertain. His crusading passions carried over to other native leaders for a few years after his death, but then his memory faded, outside of the Fort McDowell Reservation. Not until the late 1960s and early 1970s, when a reawakening of interest in native American resistance occurred, did scholars and indigenous leaders rediscover Carlos Montezuma.

Further Reading on Carlos Montezuma

American Indian Magazine. 1912-1923.

Papers, Carlos Montezuma at Arizona State University, Chicago Historical Society, University of Arizona, University of Illinois, and Wisconsin State Historical Society.

Wassaja. 1916—1922.

Hertzberg, Hazel W. The Search for an American Indian Identity; Modern Pan-Indian Movements. Syracuse University Press, 1971.

Iverson, Peter. Carlos Montezuma and the Changing World of American Indians. University of New Mexico Press, 1982.

Olson, James and Robert Wilson. The Native American in the Twentieth Century. University of Illinois Press, 1984.

Prucha, Paul Francis, ed. Americanizing the American Indian: Writings of the "Friends of the Indians," 1880-1900. University of Nebraska Press, 1982.

Spicer, Edward H. Cycles of Conquest: The Impact of Spain, Mexico, and the United States on the Indians of the Southwest, 1533—1960. University of Arizona Press, 1962.

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