March 22, 2009

Improved Order of Red Men

Reflections on the 'Red Men'

Familiar downtown landmark holds hidden treasureMany years ago, where the MetroCenter mall now stands in downtown Binghamton, Red Men walked this land. They were led by a sachem, or chief. During ceremonies, they wore feather headdresses and held tomahawks. They measured time in "moons," and painted images on their lodge walls.

Truth be known, it wasn't really that many years ago. Their stomping ground was the Phil's Gift Shop building, and just to set the record straight, these were definitely not Native Americans!

In the early 1900s, 153-155 Washington St. was headquarters to a fraternal society, the Improved Order of Red Men. A quick check of IORM's original constitution reveals the irony--that in fact, only "white males of good moral character" were eligible to be "Red Men."

Originally, they were known as "Sons of Liberty," a secret society of colonists modeled after Native American tribes, that worked in resistance to the English Crown. As the story goes, in 1773 while British ships were moored off the coast of Boston, the Sons of Liberty, dressed as Native Americans, threw the famous Boston Tea Party.

After the American Revolution, the name was changed to "Order of Red Men" and membership steadily increased. By 1920, the organization had lodges in 46 states and would soon hit its peak with half a million members. Over the years, its members included George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt and constitution notwithstanding, even Richard Nixon.

Today, although greatly reduced in size, the IORM still exists. As stated on its Web site, the organization "is pledged to the high ideals of Freedom, Friendship and Charity."
Comment:  The Order of Red Men was an early example of Indian wannabe-ism. I noted its place in history in my essay The Political Uses of Stereotyping. I gave it a Stereotype of the Month entry when it came to my attention in 2004.

No comments: