Address of Hon. James Sherman of New York

Chairman House Committee on Indian Affairs.

Mr. Moderator, for there seems to be so much of the Christian spirit in this conference that I think I may address you as such, without meaning in the least to criticize what in legislative parlance we would call “the steering committee,” I desire to say that the position in which they put me first, to speak yesterday morning, then in the evening and then this morning, and at last to be introduced at 14 minutes before 10 this evening reminds me somewhat of an anecdote I heard of a German member of an orchestra who was criticized by his manager for being habitually tardy. The manager told him that there was too much of ” dis tardy beesnes,” and he threatened him that unless he could be prompt he would be discharged. The man appeared on time for a week, when the manager said to him, “Hans, I discover what you turn over those other leaf. I notice you was early of late. You vas always been behind before; I am glad you vas first at last.”

Introduced in the complimentary way in which I have been by your chairman calls to my mind a circumstance that a charming guest of Mr. Smiley’s related to me this afternoon of her embarrassment in not being able to discover whether Mr. Smiley was himself or his brother, and Mr. Smiley relieved her of that embarrassment by saying that that was once a question that had troubled him. At one time in Philadelphia, but for the strength of a mirror, he would have injured himself in shaking hands, as he supposed, with his own brother! Mr. Thomas B. Reed once described a statesman as a politician who was dead. I can not very well, with my style of architecture, claim to be deceased, and having been for a dozen or fifteen years a member of the House of Representatives, I can not claim to be entirely aloof from politics; and when I take into consideration the somewhat uncomplimentary remarks that have been now and then made during these two days about politicians and Congressmen, I am somewhat uncertain whether I am myself or somebody else.

It has not been my pleasure to attend a Mohonk conference before, although our good friend, Mr. Smiley, has frequently honored me with invitations. I came this year because I wanted to, and that statement has the novelty of being a true statement from a politician. I think I can prove my desire to come when I say that I took the train at 1 o’clock in the night, got into Kingston at 5 in the morning, and struggled with a restaurant breakfast before I came up here. But before I got here, as I rode up this beautiful driveway, over these matchless hills, painted as they are today by God as no artist could reproduce them, I felt more than repaid for coming even before the conference met. There came to my mind, as we drove up in the early morning and looked down on that beautiful valley before us, that little verse by Eugene Field:

“Sometimes I think I’d like to go
Where bells don’t ring nor whistles blow,
And clocks don’t strike, and gongs don’t sound,
And there is stillness all around.

“If it weren’t for sights and sounds and smell,
I’d like the city pretty well;
But when it comes to getting rest,
I think the country’s lots the best.

“Sometimes I feel as if I must
Just quit the city’s din and dust,
And get out where the sky is blue;
And say, now, how does it seem to you?

Dr. Abbott asked me yesterday morning, when he said that he would like to have me occupy a little time, what I would like to speak about, and I told him that if I had to speak at all, and had my choice, I would like to speak about a minute; that I had come here rather to listen and to learn than to talk and to teach. And I have listened, and I have learned. I have learned much tonight from the Commissioner. I have learned that he can preach one doctrine, and that in the estimates, which he sends to us, he can make a very different one. He tells you tonight that the way to civilize the Indian, and to do away with the present conditions, is practically to do away with the schools; and yet next month he will send a book of estimates’ asking us to appropriate $4,000, 000 “for the continuance of the schools, and we will do it. We will do it because we believe, as you believe and he believes, that you must get at the minds of men and educate them, cultivate them, before we can civilize and Christianize them, no matter whether they are white or black or red. I agree in part with the Commissioner in many things, the same as I do with this conference. I came here to find out what you desire, and Dr. Abbott suggested to me that I might give you some notion of how you might assist the legislative or lawmaking power, and it was that to which I intended to address myself, and that briefly. You can aid the lawmaking power by holding these conferences just as you have been doing. I rather guess that so long as Brother Smiley intends to invite us here, and entertain us in this royal way, there will be quite a little gathering here annually.

President Gates. He never can stop these conferences until he “cuts off rations.”

Mr. Serman. I thought when I listened to Mr. Gates’ s opening address yesterday that I had seldom heard a man who could express himself so beautifully, and he has proved it again now. What we desire to do, we who make the laws, is to do that which makes for the public good and the public weal, and we desire to be assisted in reaching that end by the best thought of the best minds of the best people under the sun. You can assist us, you of the Mohonk Conference and you friends of the Indian, by discussing dispassionately what we do, criticizing where we deserve criticism. Neither Brother Jones nor most of the members of the Indian Committee will hesitate to acknowledge the correctness of your criticism when you are right. We are not infallible; neither are you. You make some mistakes, and we know some things about the Indian question ourselves. We come in contact with the Indian; we know something of his wants. You can assist us by discussing dispassionately the various phases of the Indian question, and suggesting remedies for evils, remedies for mistakes, corrections of wrongs. It would be an easy matter for one of Mr. Smiley’ s men to go out and tear down this old building, but it is a very different proposition when it comes to building up the magnificent structure that is to take its place. It is very easy to tear down, but not easy to build up. It is very easy to talk about taking away the rations of the Indian and doing away with their school system, but how are you going to do that without giving them something to take the place of all this? Commissioner Jones, in his suggestion about changes, has not only suggested taking away, but he has suggested putting something in the place of that” which was taken away. If the Commissioner he right in all his suggestions, I hope he will follow them up by making these same recommendations, not here at Mohonk only, but to the legislative body of this Government which has the right to act upon such matters. That is the practical way to do it, and I shall expect next winter, when you (turning to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs) come before the Indian Committee, to ask you if you believe then all that you have stated here tonight.

Commissioner Jones. I will put it in writing.

Mr. Sherman. We want all the light we can get from every source and we want new light. We want not only the light of this conference, but the light of all other conferences. Of course there has been fraud in the Indian service; but there are men there who are as honest as any in the land, and here sits one of them in the person of Commissioner Jones. Dishonest men are not only in the Indian service, but also in other branches of the Government service and everywhere else, in private as well as in public places. The millennium is more than three months and seven-eighths of a mile distant. Some one had paraphrased the lines of Goldsmith to read:

“They used to sing some time ago
A rather plaintive song
Man wants but little here below,
Nor wants that little long;
But nowadays the song is set
To a different rhyme,
Man wants as much as he can get,
And wants it all the time.”

That is the fact today all over the land. Cupidity is in all places, public and private. It is in the Indian service; but that service today is vastly purer, vastly better, than it was twenty or thirty years ago. The condition of the Indian race today is infinitely better than it was thirty years ago. It seems to me that in all the history of the world there has never been a more remarkable advance in the condition of any people than there has been in the North American Indians of the United States from 1869 up to the present time; and I think, differing somewhat from the Commissioner in that respect, but happily coinciding with Colonel Pratt, that that changed condition is largely due to the educational system which we have inaugurated and extended and perfected for the Indians throughout the country. That being so, I want to see that educational system continued. I want to see the tribal relations broken up, and I want to see that begun in New York just as soon as possible. There are difficulties in the way which have not been mentioned. Some of the New York Indians have a title to their land only so long as tribal relations exist. The Cattaraugus Reservation is owned by a private corporation called the Ogden Land Company. The Seneca have only a tribal claim. The Ogden Company’s claim must be “wiped out before we can allot the land on that reservation. That is a thought that probably had not occurred to most of you, because probably you did not know the fact. I want to see the tribal relations broken up and the rations done away with, but not prematurely. Indians are not the only people who require help. The percent of the population of Great Britain that are today paupers is not inconsiderable. Every county throughout this State and throughout this country has its poorhouse to support indigent whites. In every tax levy there is an item for the support of the poor in every little town throughout this State and every State. Are you going to strike those all out and let the poor, the halt, and the blind starve to death? Why, then, do it with the Indians? Do away with the rations as quickly as you can. Make the Indians work, and you must make them work, since they do not work because they want to. The Indian is not naturally an industrious man. Naturally he would derive his support from sports, not from labor like the white man. We have got to work up to this thing gradually. We cannot do away with the Indian Office in three years. I hope we can in ten, but I don’t believe it.

The President. It takes faith and works.

Mr. Sherman. I have the faith, but not so great faith as yours; but I am willing to put in just as hard work as you, my dear sir, to accomplish this, and I will do so; but the end I think is in sight, though a long way off so long that I do not expect to live to see it, but I think my children will. The end will be expedited by the good wishes, the thought, and the work of the Christian people throughout the country, and especially by those who come year by year to the Mohonk conference.


History, Mohawk,

Board Of Indian Commissioners. Thirty-Third Annual Report Of The Board Of Indian Commissioners. Government Printing Office. 1901.

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