Last Arrow Ceremony

Posted on 16 October 2016

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While studying for my Ph.D. in western U.S. history, one of the books that most influenced my education was Frederick Hoxie’s A Final Promise: The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, 1880–1920 (1984). Hoxie explains how federal officials, eastern reformers, and western politicians—working with best and worst intentions—attempted to Americanize reservation Indians through coercive detribalization of Native lands and Native communities.

One descriptive element from Final Promise stuck in my imagination—the “Last Arrow Ceremony.” Prior to the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, a reservation Indian could become a U.S. citizen only after he proved his “competency” by going through the process of gaining fee-simple title to his own piece of private property. To mark such moments, the Indian Office began staging ceremonies in 1916. As Hoxie writes,

The candidates for land titles were dressed in traditional costume and armed with a bow and arrow. After ordering a candidate to shoot his arrow into the distance, the presiding office, usually the agent, would announce, “You have shot your last arrow.” The arrowless archer would then return to the tipi and reemerge a few minuted later in “civilized” dress. He would be placed before a plow. “Take the handle of this plow,” the government’s man would say, “this act means that you have chosen to live the life of the white man—and the white man lives by work.” The ceremony would close with the new landowner receiving a purse (at which point the presiding officer would announce, “This purse will always say to you that the money you gain from your labor must be wisely kept”) and an American flag.

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For years I have described this scene to students in my U.S. history courses, but until this semester I never had illustrations. Thanks to the State Historical Society of North Dakota, I can now share two pictures of last arrow ceremonies at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in 1917, and the standard script for all such proceedings.

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Rarely I have encountered images and words that capture so well the combination of federal authoritarianism, Christian paternalism, and racial capitalism—a domineering combination that shaped so much of post-Civil War America. But ceremonies of “lasting” are rarely the last story. As shown by the Dakota Access Pipeline protest at Standing Rock in 2016, tribal identity and tribal sovereignty survive as sources of citizen power for American Indians.

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