As part of Eamon De Valera's U.S. tour in 1919, he sought to not only highlight the cause of Irish Nationalism amongst Irish-Americans and American political leaders, but also looked to other disenfranchised groups for support. One such group were the Native Americans, who had been oppressed in North America since the first European colonies came to the continent. This is the story of how De Valera became known at Nay Nay Ong Abe, a name given to him by tribal elders of the Chippewa Nation.
The Dressing Feather
Perhaps the most iconic and well-known images of Éamon de Valera is that of the Sinn Féin President dressed, not unusually, in a suit and tie but also accompanied, bizarrely, by a Native American war bonnet. The story behind this picture is brief yet offers insight into a hugely significant gesture of solidarity from one oppressed people to another. While much of de Valera’s tour of the United States, which took place between 1919 and 1920, saw him take to the stage in numerous large halls and stadiums across the country, his visit to Wisconsin in October 1919 would present to him perhaps the most unique setting of all his public appearances, past and future.
While passing through America’s Midwest, de Valera was invited to a ceremony in his honour by the leaders of the Chippewa Nation tribe. The Irish World and American Industrial Liberator captured the details of the event in its 25 October 1919 edition, describing the scene as such:
“The recipient of the honors sat in the centre of a semi-circle of clergymen and Indian chieftains. In front five Indians beat continuously on a tom tom drum and at intervals a score of tribesmen dressed in the full regalia of paint and feathers of a great occasion danced around the guests.”
Amidst the barrage of noise and constant dancing, Chief Billy Boy of the Chippewa Nation invited de Valera to step forward to be adopted into the tribe and named him Nay Nay Ong Abe, which translates to ‘Dressing Feather’. While he was undoubtedly well-accustomed to addressing audiences of Irish and Irish-American men, women, and children, the sight of 3,000 Native Americans gathered around him as he took centre stage would have surely been a most unusual experience for de Valera. Nonetheless, the sentiments he had been issuing throughout his tour remained the same and, without doubt, would have resonated deeply with the congregation assembled at the Chippewa Indian Reservation. By echoing the themes of freedom and oppression, de Valera sought to highlight the similarities between the plight of the Native Americans and the Irish, within their respective homelands. He chose to speak as Gaeilge for the beginning of his speech in order to convey to his audience that while he was white of skin, he was not of the English race. He equated the struggle of the Irish in Ireland with that of the Native Americans across North America, and concluded by offering sympathy for their cause and inviting them to support his:
“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. I call upon you, the truest of all Americans to help us win our struggle for freedom.”
Ultimately, while Native America played little or no role in Ireland’s quest for freedom and vice-versa, this event should be remembered as significant for the extraordinary symbolic gesture of solidarity it was. It also serves as a reminder that, while de Valera’s envoy travelled across the great expanses of America in search of official recognition from a government, who were essentially the oppressors of the Native American people, they had not overlooked the similarities they shared with Native America. Instead, the parallels of each people’s story were recognised and celebrated in a unique display of bonding. A final point worth noting on this event is that while de Valera came to be addressed and known as ‘The Chief’, it remains unclear whether there is any distinct correlation between this nickname and the encounter with the Chippewa tribe.
This particular coming together of the Irish and Native Americans would not stand in isolation. De Valera showed he had not forgotten about the kind gesture shown to him during his tour of the United States when he invited Father Philip Gordon of the Chippewa Nation to Dublin for the Eucharistic Congress in 1932. Gordon, also known as the “Indian Priest”, had led a memorial mass prior to de Valera’s adoption and naming ceremony thirteen years previous in Wisconsin. In addition to de Valera, a similar honour was bestowed on Dublin’s Lord Mayor in 1962. During a visit to the United States, Lord Mayor Robert Briscoe was presented with Native American feathered headdress by a member of the Southern Cheyenne Sioux tribe, thus making him “the world’s first Irish Jew Sioux.”
While each of these events occurred in the aftermath of de Valera’s initial visit, the bonds of fraternity between Ireland and Native America stretch even further back than 1919. A plaque, which hangs in Dublin’s Mansion House, acknowledges the generosity of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and the First Nations in Upper and Lower Canada, who together raised funds to be sent as aid to victims of the Irish famine in 1847. More recently, in 2017, a memorial structure, entitled Kindred Spirits, was unveiled in Midleton, Cork to remember the kindness and support offered by the Choctaw Nation and First Nations, with the Chief of the Choctaw Nation and a further fifteen representatives invited as guests of honour for the unveiling. If anything, this represents the everlasting bond between the Irish and Native Americans, who have each been victims of tyranny, oppression, and colonisation.
- Written by Conor Harte
Sources - Thanks to the following websites for providing information used in the article:
· An Sionnach Fionn (https://ansionnachfionn.com/2014/03/12/the-irish-revolution-and-native-america/)
· Come Here to Me! (https://comeheretome.com/2016/12/07/the-chippewa-tribe-irelands-unlikely-friends/)
· History Hub (http://historyhub.ie/eamon-de-valera-chief)