In June of 1919 Éamon de Valera, the American-born president of Ireland’s revolutionary government, was smuggled out of his war-torn homeland and onto an ocean liner for a long voyage to the United States where he was to launch a whirlwind, coast-to-coast tour that brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets of several major cities. The Irish political leader, who just months earlier had escaped from a jail in Britain, led rallies in New York (where he was born in 1882), addressed congressmen, governors and state legislators, and raised millions of dollars for the embattled Irish Republic, Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Army. Despite the reluctance of an isolationist White House to interfere in British imperial affairs, and the outright opposition of the anglophile State Department, de Valera’s mission succeeded in bringing further international pressure to bear on London during Ireland’s struggle for independence.
However one of the more unusual events attended by the “Chief” was at ”the Chippewa tribal reservation” in Spooner, Wisconsin, where on October the 18th 1919 he was made an honorary leader of a Native American nation in front of a large and appreciative audience. The name granted to him in the Chippewa language was rendered phonetically by contemporary newspaper accounts as Nay Nay Ong Abe or “Dressing Feather”. This is almost certainly a reference to Chief Beautifying Bird or Dressing Bird (variously rendered as Nay-naw-ong-gay-be, Na-naw-ong-ga-be or Ne-na-nang-eb) whose name means “[Bird that] Fixes-up Its Wing-feathers”. In 1854 the latter signed the Treaty of La Pointe with representatives of the United States government and though we cannot be sure it seems likely that the Chippewa who greeted de Valera are the Lac Courte Oreilles Tribe.
Unfortunately Éamon de Valera’s speech is long since lost and we must rely on second-hand sources for what was said but here is one contemporary account:
“Irish World and American Industrial Liberator 25 October 1919
DE VALERA MADE CHIPPEWA CHIEF
3,000 SEE RITE
President of Irish Republic Named ‘Nay Nay Ang Abe’ After Old Indian Leader
Chappewa Indian reservation, Spooner, Wis., Oct. 18 – Eamonn De Valera, president of the Republic of Ireland, is a Chippewa Indian chieftain.
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.
Dance to Tom Toms
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.
Chief Billy Boy, resplendent in a head dress of feathers reaching to his ankles, greeted De Valera in Chippewa. Billy Boy was followed by Joe Kingfisher, the headsman of the tribe.
Kingfisher, who presented the Irish leader with a handsome beaded tobacco pouch and moccasins, expressed a poetic sentiment as he tendered the gifts.
‘I wish I were able to give you the prettiest blossom of the fairest flower on earth, for you come to us as a representative of one oppressed nation to another’.
The ceremony continued and Chief Billy Boy then invested President De Valera with his new name and informed him of his adoption by the Chippewa nation.
Mr De Valera rose and walked to the center of the ring. He accepted the head dress of a Chippewa chieftain with gravity as the tom toms sounded louder and louder. Signifying he wished to speak, the music ceased and the Irishman then began talking in Gaelic.
‘I speak to you in Gaelic,’ he said, reverting to English, ‘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.’
Mr De Valera then told the red men how Ireland had been oppressed by England for 750 years.
‘I call upon you, the truest of all Americans,’ he said, ‘to help us win our struggle for freedom.’
The Indians listened to his impassioned address with owl-like gravity, but when Ira Isham, the tribe interpreter, translated Mr De Valera’s words into Chippewa they cheered him wildly.
Mass Precedes Ceremony
The ceremony was preceded by a memorial mass in the reservation church by Father Phillip Gordon, Chippewa priest, for the Indians who died in France.
President De Valera and his party, consisting of J.P. Finnerty of St. Paul, Sean Nunan, secretary to Mr De Valera, and Fathers Phillip Gordon, P.J. O’Mahony, John Harrington, Peter Rice and Floren Gerhardt, left the reservation for the Twin Cities tonight, where he will speak Sunday and Monday on the Irish bond issue soon to be floated in this country. He journeyed to the Indian reservation from Milwaukee Friday night. At every station on the way through Wisconsin delegations were waiting for him at the depot.
At Spooner, Wis., his party left the train and was met by a dozen automobiles, which carried them over forty miles of wild country to the Chippewa reservation on the edge of Lake Court Oreilles.”
Both in Ireland and the United States this symbolic coming together of two native peoples who had experienced the disastrous effects of invasion, occupation and colonisation is all but forgotten. The only real memory in this country of the meeting is the iconic photograph featured above of President de Valera taken in his ceremonial headdress (I have cleaned up this image in Photoshop from an original online copy). However in 2004 the Native American newsletter, Canku Ota, while commemorating the career of Father Philip B. Gordon, noted that:
“Father Gordon not only cared for his six missions, but he visited the Potawatomi Indians of eastern Wisconsin, who long had been neglected by the government and the missionaries.
Among other well-known guests the priest entertained was Eamon de Valera, who became prime minister of Ireland. He was honored by the Indians and received an Indian name. In return De Valera presented a number of rifles to the Indians. These were treasured by the Indians, and no doubt at least some of them are still being used.
When De Valera died on August 29, 1975, at the age of 90, a St. Paul paper mentioned the fact that he was an Indian chief.”
The official website of the Tribal Government of the Lac Courte Oreilles nation can be found here if you wish to learn more about them and their Native American “Gaeltacht”.
Note: Technically in 1919 Éamon de Valera was the Príomh Aire or president (literally “Prime Minster”) of the Aireacht or government (literally “Ministry/Cabinet”). However he was commonly referred to as the President of the Irish Republic and in the United States this term was used to match American political nomencalture. In August of 1921 the revolutionary constitution of Ireland was altered by Dáil Éireann to clarify the use and recognition of the title of “President”.