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In an area that has been Tlingit country for ten thousand years, it seems presumptuous that the Improved Order of Red Men would set up its tents. But indeed they did. And they did this during an era when fraternal organizations flourished, as a recent exhibit at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum, an exhibit curated by June Hall, illustrated. Hall's research revealed that there were once 50 different fraternal organizations operating in Juneau.
One evidence of the existence of the Red Men is a horizontal, metal grave marker in Evergreen Cemetery. It reads, "Frank G. Moore, A red man. Aged 38 great suns. Summoned by the Great Spirit, Dec. 23, 1904."
Other evidence takes the form of objects donated to the City Museum by Charlotte Price Mahaffy, whose father, Charles Price, was a member of a Juneau Red Men tribe. These objects included badges/ribbons - one from the "Auk Tribe" and another from the "Taku Tribe," both from the early 1900s. The museum collection also features dues receipts from 1906 and 1907, Thanksgiving Dance programs from 1901 and 1906, and dance ribbons from a 1909 Thanksgiving Ball.
According to David Lintz, director of the national Red Men Museum and Library, Alaska's first tribe of Red Men was instituted in Juneau on Sept. 26, 1899. That was Takou (Taku) Tribe No. 1, for which Edward Russell was Chief of Records or secretary, succeeded by Harry R. Haste in 1900. Tribes operated here until at least 1913. Subsequent to the founding of the Taku Tribe, tribes took shape in Skagway, Eagle, Ketchikan, Wrangell, Haines and Douglas City. These later tribes flourished longer than Juneau's, Lintz said in an e-mail.
"Alaska has never had enough tribes to have its own state council, so (the separate tribes) have always been under the jurisdiction of the Great Council of the United States (the national organization)," Lintz added.
Eagle had an active tribe of Red Men between 1904 and 1941. The group built a 30x60-foot log wigwam the year it was organized; the wigwam was deeded to the Eagle Historical Society in 1993, and the Society restored it for the Gold Rush Centennial. The Eagle lodge is a contributing element in the Eagle Historic District, which became a National Historic Landmark on Oct. 17, 1970.
Today's Order lists itself on its website as "the nation's oldest patriotic fraternal organization of American origin."
The Red Men did not admit Native Americans as members, but adopted some of their terms such as the Ojibwa or Algon-quian word "wigwam" and the Narragansett word "sachem." The organization was founded in 1765 and originally called itself the Sons of Liberty. It patterned itself after the Iroquois nation and the Iroquois' democratic governing body. There are "degrees" of membership, as in the Masons, represented by badges, which, because of their Indian motifs, have proved collectible. The highest officer of each "wigwam" is the Sachem; the treasurer is the Keeper of Wampum.
In the early days of the American colonies, members concealed their identities behind "Indian" disguises and worked "underground" to establish freedom. Early members included John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson and Paul Revere. The most famous act of the Sons of Liberty was dumping 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor on Dec. 16, 1773, to protest the British tax on tea.
After the American Revolution, the name changed to The Order of Red Men. By 1877 there were councils in 21 states with a membership in excess of 150,000. About this time, a female counterpart was formed, the Daughters of Pocahontas. By 1920, there were tribes of Red Men in 46 states with a total membership of more than half a million.
Both Franklin D. and Theodore Roosevelt were Red Men. Teddy Roosevelt once said, "The fraternal societies are one of the greatest powers for good government and the protection of the home that we have in this country. The government will endure just as long as we protect the great interests represented by our fraternal societies."
Like the original members, today's members of the Improved Order of Red Men continue to pledge themselves to high ideals of freedom, friendship and charity. Like many other fraternal organizations, they embrace charitable or medical good works; for example, the current national charity project is raising funds for Alzheimer's research.
The sole tribe in Alaska today is Thlinget Tribe No. 4 of Ketchikan, for which Ray Hendricks is Sachem. Hendricks has been a member since 1958, following in the footsteps of his father and his two uncles. The Ketchikan Tribe was founded in 1900, within months of the chartering of the city, Hendricks said in a telephone interview.
The Ketchikan Tribe has 121 members and meets every Tuesday except during the summer when it meets every other week. Hendricks, who is also a Mason, thinks of the Red Men as "a patriotic group that promotes the American way of life. We are older than any other fraternal organization in the U.S. except the Masons, which came from Europe. When we make donations to charities, we usually do it anonymously. We don't toot our own horn."
Hendricks cites a story his father told him about Eagle's Red Men: "In the winter, the old-timers would ride their dog sleds down the Yukon River on the ice to go to meetings. They were tougher in those days. I wish I knew more about them."
Southeast Sagas is a series that appears in the Juneau Empire every other week. Its aim is to profile people and describe events that help to shed light on the varied history of this part of Alaska.