by Sallie Cotter Andrews
Wyandotte Nation Culture Committee
We often say, “If these walls could talk…” In this case, if the buckskin dress could talk that the Wyandotte Nation received during Culture Days (September 2009), it would tell of the strong mind of its owner – Jane Zane Gordon, and of meeting U.S. President and Mrs. Warren Harding; speaking before prestigious organizations in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles; and taking part in the planting of memorial trees at the Hollywood Bowl with authors, philanthropists, elected officials and other prominent persons. Before coming to its final home in Wyandotte, Oklahoma, the buckskin dress spent several decades in Lafayette, Louisiana, in the care of Mary Jane and Irv Gallaspy, where it was occasionally worn by Mary Jane to schools where she told of her own Wyandotte heritage. On October 23, 2005, Mary Jane passed away. In 2009, Irv Gallaspy and his daughter and son, Lynn and Alan, donated the dress to the Wyandotte Nation.
Jane Zane Wallace Waters Gordon was born on May 14, 1871, in Wyandotte, OK. She was the daughter of Alexander Zane and Hannah Coon Whitewing Zane. She was a member of the Deer Clan and had the Wyandotte name Who-Shon-No, meaning “As the Deer Runs.” Two of her half sisters were Mary Whitewing Kelly (her mother’s daughter) and Kate Zane (her father’s daughter). One of her sister’s had the Wyandotte name Ta-Wes-So, meaning “Where the Deer Slept Last Night.” She attended the Seneca Indian School and Haskell Institute. A newspaper article stated that Jane was orphaned at four years of age, was reared in Indian schools, and that her land was withheld from her until she was 25 years of age.
Jane married Jerry C. Wallace and had one son, Everett, who was born in April 1893. She lived in Chicago, Washington, D.C., New York and Los Angeles. In Los Angeles she owned her own home – a bungalow in the high hills. Jane was a bookkeeper, weigh master, stenographer, hair dresser and play write by profession. But her true talent was in public speaking – and her heart was wholly devoted to improving the lives of American Indian people.
On April 24, 1921, an article about Jane appeared in the New York Times. In it she explained the situation of American Indians (350,000 people, she said), and spoke particularly of the Osage tribe and how their women were exploited by white men for their oil money. She explained the situation that the Blackfeet Indians were facing and the unscrupulous white cattle raisers who wanted to cheat them and graze their cattle on Indian land.
She stated, “I want to see the Indians taken out of politics, their freedom protected, property rights given to them, and an opportunity afforded them to go into business as the white man does and learn to take care of themselves. What other races have done, the Indians can do….I want to see something done for the Indian women….they are the mothers of future generations, and it is in them that the traditions of the race, the artistic ability, the memory of things that are great and gone, are preserved.”
Jane developed a philosophical and economic position about trees and reforestation that she believed would benefit Indian people, and she spoke on this subject before many prominent groups. She believed by the 1920s that 5/6ths of all virgin timber, 800,000,000 acres, had been destroyed without any thought of reforestation. Only 137,000,000 acres of forest land remained, she stated. She said, “This is the heart-breaking tragedy of the trees…desolating the country and making it unfit for our children’s children to live in….Indians should go into reforestation work; they are capable of undertaking these projects, for they are a primitive race understanding and loving trees.”
In a synagogue in California, she suggested that “the government of the United States appropriate $15,000,000 per year for the reforestation of the denuded hills and mountains of the country…and that Indians be employed and paid from the appropriation. Tremendous results would be immediately apparent…he would be put at a task which would meet with a deep response in his heart. The Indian is the natural-born child of forests. He loves forests naturally. He is happy in a forest. And nothing would so gladden him as to re-create forests – make a new forest grow in a place where an ancient forest had been destroyed.”
A newspaper editorial writer’s column was adjacent to the story of Jane speaking in the synagogue. He stated, “This woman of the Wyandottes is well informed. She has been highly educated in the schools and has spent a great deal of her time at the seats of the mighty in Washington pleading for the Indian people. Of course, as we all know, the time she spent at the seats of the mighty in Washington was spent in vain. Congress listens unwillingly or not at all to the pleas for the Indians. The ruthless, inhuman and diabolical policy of our government to crush the Indians has not yet been halted.” In 1922, Jane met with President and Mrs. Warren G. Harding. Her photograph with him (wearing this buckskin dress) appeared in the newspaper.
In Washington, D.C., she founded the American Indian Arts & Crafts Foundation for the purpose of preserving to America an art of its own. Jane opened a store in New York where Indians could sell their goods without being financially exploited. In 1925 she spoke in California about the plight of the American Indians. There she co-founded the “American Indian Reparation & Reconstruction Work” through which she hoped to make life better for Indians everywhere.
In California, Jane often spoke to groups about Wyandotte traditions and culture and the Indian’s reaction to citizenship. She said, “The Indians were always noted for their great hospitality. God gives great things for use. In our primitive state we had no poverty. Everybody had plenty. There were no orphans, because all were children of the clan. We have been accused of letting the women do the farm work. But hunting was a serious business. How many white men today could actually supply their families by hunting or fishing? The Indian had the responsibility of the tribe on him when he hunted. The reason the women did the farm work at home was because the Earth is our mother, and the woman should be the priestess. She should know how to feed man. But the fiercest warrior was the kindest husband. The food and skins were divided among all. The native Indian peoples had the best of all governments in the world. The League of Nations is just waking up to it…”
Miss Gordon believed her people to be among the finest artists of all time. “Underneath the ceremonies of the Indian, his dances, weaving, painting, legends and myths, there lies a deep soul expression…It is expressed for him in beautiful colors, under which, as with the Bible, there is a far deeper meaning for those who care to study and understand. Wyandottes have many strange customs,” she said. “They celebrate five great feasts during the year. The First Fruit of the Trees, when the sap begins to run; First Fruit of Earth, about the time strawberries ripen; Green Corn Feast, during the period corn is in the milk; Thanksgiving Feast, at the time when all crops are in; and New Season Feast, celebrated about the last of the year. Tribal dances are held at these celebrations and the native pray to the Great Spirit. They also hold long councils. The rest of the day is given over to games.”
Another of her dreams for Indian people was a place called “The Home Arts Center.” There Indians could learn to do any kind of art work and receive room and board in exchange for working in the Center. “This central arts center will be the storehouse for all our designs. We shall have examples of all work being done on the other reservations. It will be a storehouse for goods…it will be our clearing house…it will be a ‘Friendly Tipi’ or meeting place for Indians and will be used for obtaining employment for Indians, both men and women, and to encourage Indians to preserve their own arts and crafts,” she said.
In January 1922, writer Victor Flambeau wrote, “There’s a sort of Indian magic about Miss Jane Zane Gordon, a handsome Wyandotte girl, who has recently come to Washington. You feel that if you weren’t good to her, she might just ‘make medicine’ on you and turn you into a grasshopper, as the odd character in one of her legends did to the giant. Miss Gordon is full of faith in the Great Spirit who has bidden her hither, and with confidence in the American people and the Great White Father…she has undertake her mission out of pure love.”
Jane was true to her Wyandotte heritage and her Wyandotte name which meant “As the Deer Runs.” She crossed the United States like a deer with a strong message that American Indian people needed a chance to contribute, that they should be treated fairly, and that their art was truly America’s unique treasure.
Sources include: Quapaw Indian Competency Commission report; newspaper articles from The New York Times (April 24, 1921); Federation News (October 1, 1924); Pasadena Evening Post (December 13, 1924); other newspaper clippings; all from the collection of Mary Jane Gallaspy.