William Howard Taft took office in 1909, the same year America’s first permanent movie studio opened in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
Champion Film Company, the precursor of Universal Studios, used its location along the Jersey Palisades to film scenes from the “Wild West,” launching a movie genre that from its beginning proved problematic. Years before Hollywood was established as America’s film capital, more than a dozen companies made movies from Fort Lee, transforming local scenery and historic buildings into scenes from the stereotypical West.
These early westerns often portrayed Indians in derogatory ways, prompting a delegation of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians to travel to Washington in early 1911. Concerned that Indians were “discreditably depicted in moving pictures,” the delegates sought an audience with Taft and Robert Valentine, the commissioner of Indian Affairs.
As part of their visit, chiefs Big Buck and Big Bear accompanied a Washington Post reporter to a local theater. The movie they watched followed the story of an Indian woman who, after falling in love with a white man, stabbed the man’s wife with a poison arrow, the Post reported in February 1911.
“If the white people would only take the pains to study Indian characteristics … he could possibly produce something worthy of presentation to the public,” Big Buck told the Washington Post. After viewing the movie, he and Big Bear planned to ask Taft to “close up” the movie house.
“It is bad to be lied about to so many people (and to be) helpless to defend yourself,” Big Bear told the Post.
Valentine was sympathetic and said that he had “seen productions wherein the Indian was pictured as a cannibal, thief, and almost every evil thing one can imagine,” the Post reported. Yet Taft did not respond to requests from Big Bear and Big Buck, and the National Board of Censorship continued to approve the films.
Throughout his presidency, Taft contended with the rise of the Native American Church and its sacramental and medicinal use of peyote, which the Bureau of Indian Affairs viewed as a threat to Christianity. In 1909, the BIA began investigating peyote meetings and in 1912, the Board of Indian Commissioners lobbied Congress for a law criminalizing its use.
“The danger of the rapid spread of the habit, increased by its so-called religious associations, makes the need of its early suppression doubly pressing,” commissioners wrote in their annual report.
In his final message to Congress, in December 1912, Taft spoke of the government’s role as guardians of the Indians and its responsibility for their “condition of health.”
“In spite of everything which has been said in criticism of the policy of our government toward the Indians, the amount of wealth which is now held by it for these wards per capita shows that the government has been generous,” Taft said. He called on Congress to allocate funding for Indian health “in order that our facilities for overcoming diseases among the Indians might be properly increased.”
Two weeks before leaving office, Taft broke ground with a silver shovel on the proposed 165-foot National American Indian Memorial, to be built on Staten Island. Although Congress set aside the federal land for the project, it did not receive funding and was never constructed.
Full Article at ICTMN.