The Eucharistic Congress of 1932 brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets of Dublin, but one man certainly stood out from the pack. Father Philip B. Gordon, known as “the Indian Priest”, was only the second Native American Catholic priest ordained in the United States. Gordon was a champion for the rights of Native Americans, and clashed with the bigoted KKK on more than one occasion in the 1920s. Newspapers described him in Dublin as “A full-blooded Indian priest of the Chippewa tribe who appeared in the regalia of his people in a procession of the Congress.”
His presence on the streets of Dublin was a reminder of a moving moment in 1919, when the Chippewa tribe to which he belonged made an important gesture towards Irish nationalists. In that year, Éamon de Valera visited the Chippewa Reservation in Wisconsin, where he was honoured by community leaders there. De Valera told the Native American people that “‘you say you are not free. Neither are we free and I sympathise with you because we are making a similar fight. As a boy I read and understood of your slavery and longed to become one of you.”
From June 1919 until December of the following year, Éamon de Valera traversed across the United States, an elected representative of the ‘Irish Republic’ which sought international recognition and allies. While he failed in securing recognition from President Woodrow Wilson, which was perhaps an overly ambitious goal, he did succeed in raising enormous sums of money for the cause, as well as in shining a light on the Irish question in the American media.
Interest in Ireland didn’t come only from the predictable corners, such as the Irish Diaspora. Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League and a champion of Pan-Africanism, had named the Harlam headquarters of his movement ‘Liberty Hall’,in honour of the centre of trade unionism in Dublin. In one speech, made at a time when de Valera was in the United States, Garvey proclaimed that “the time has come for the negro race to offer up its martyrs upon the altar of liberty even as the Irish had given a long list from Robert Emmet to Roger Casement.” Similarly, Puerto Rican nationalist Pedro Albizu Campos would express his admiration for the cause of Ireland and de Valera, while making quite the impression on the visiting Irishman.
Joined by a team that included Dubliner Harry Boland, de Valera’s journey across America brought him to places of great symbolic importance. He laid a wreath on the grave of Benjamin Franklin, visited a memorial to George Washington, and even touched the famous Liberty Bell. Enthusiastic crowds mobbed him in cities like New York, and the cameras were never far away. Some in the American press compared him to Benjamin Franklin, and Harry Boland told one New York newspaper that “in Ireland five men out of six are prepared to die for him.”
The visit of the Irish delegation to the Chippewa Reservation created a lot of excitement in the American press, and the Irish certainly enjoyed themselves. Boland remembered that “we had the pleasure of seeing the native games and dances, fed on venison and wild race and other delightful Indian dishes.”
In the pages of the Irish World and American Industrial Liberator newspaper, it was reported that:
Eamonn De Valera, president of the Republic of Ireland, is a Chippewa Indian Chieftan.
He was adopted today by the old Indian tribe on their reservation in Northern Wisconsin and was named ‘Dressing Feather’ or Nay Nay Ong Abe, after the famous Indian chief of that tribe who secured for the Chippewa their rights to the Wisconsin land under the treaty of 1854.
The ceremony took place in an open field in the reservation in the presence of more than 3,000 Indians and white people and was interpolated by a weird series of Indian dances and speech-making.
The ceremony began with Chief Billy Boy greeting the Irish leader in Chippewa, and then the headsmen of the tribe “presented the Irish leader with a handsome beaded tobacco pouch and moccasins”. When de Valera began his speech, he spoke in the Irish language, before telling the gathered crowd of thousands:
I speak to you in Gaelic…because I want to show you that though I am white I am not of the English race. We, like you, are a people who have suffered and I feel for you with a sympathy that comes only from one who can understand as we Irishmen can.
You say you are not free. Neither are we free and I sympathise with you because we are making a similar fight. As a boy I read and understood of your slavery and longed to become one of you.
Dev was presented with a ceremonial headdress (though not the one he is shown wearing in the images from that day), which made its way back to Dublin with him. According to UCD’s excellent historyhub, “Terry de Valera recalled in his memoirs how he and his siblings used their father’s headdress in their games as children.”
Thirteen years after he was honoured by the Native American people, Dev hosted the visiting Father Gordon during his time in Dublin, demonstrating that he hadn’t forgotten the honor bestowed on him by the Chippewa people. Whatever one thinks of the political decisions later taken by De Valera, there remains something remarkable about this particular story.
Sources: In particular, historyhub (linked above) was important, providing the detailed contemporary newspaper report. My thanks to Andrew Flood for pointing me towards an online biography of Father Philip B. Greene, which mentioned his visit to Dublin. The Library of Congress website hosts historic American newspapers.