Rockefellers, oil, Christianity and the Blackfoot

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Sep 3 21:13:27 MDT 1999

(From chapter 2 of "Thy Will be Done, the Conquest of the Amazon: Nelson
Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil, Gerald Colby & Charlotte

On the religious front, it was left to Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick, brother
of Junior’s [Nelson Rockefeller] closest adviser, to fire the first shot in
the Rockefeller counterattack that soon was called "the Fundamentalist

Although an ordained Baptist minister, Fosdick had accepted the pulpit of a
liberal Presbyterian church in Manhattan. Fosdick had already earned
criticism as the "Prince of Modernism" for the liberal views on evolution
he espoused in a speech before the Northern Baptist Convention in 1919 and
for making no secret of his disdain for the ethnocentrism and intolerance
he witnessed during a trip to China secretly funded by Rockefeller Junior.
These experiences influenced one of his first sermons at the First
Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, entitled "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?"
Fosdick actually appealed to Christian unity, but under a modernist banner;
he argued persuasively for an educated science-based faith and liberal
tolerance of other cultures in the world.

Fosdick’s sermon might have gone unnoticed except for the intervention of
Junior and Ivy Lee, the master propagandist. Lee prepared, and Junior paid
for, a mass mailing of the sermon.

The Fundamentalists took the bait and quickly overplayed their hand,
launching a campaign that revealed the full vehemence of their intolerance.
Led by former Secretary of State and Klan-sympathizer William Jennings
Bryan, they even tried to seize control of the 1924 Northern Presbyterian
General Assembly, but were cleverly foiled by a young Wall Street lawyer
named John Foster Dulles. Dulles, a future secretary of state, used his
formidable legal skills to shift the issue of debate from modernism to
Fosdick’s connection with the Baptist church. Fosdick accepted his role as
sacrificial lamb for a modern science-based Protestantism and resigned from
the New York presbytery. The Fundamentalists won the battle, but lost the
war of public opinion. The Rockefellers had again emerged triumphant. That
was in 1925, the year that William Jennings Bryan suddenly died right after
convicting John Scopes in the "Monkey trial." With Bryan’s death, the
Fundamentalist movement was decapitated and was not to reemerge as a
serious political force until half a century later, when Nelson Rockefeller
would be denied the vice presidential nomination after Fundamentalist

The family’s problems with the Baptist church were not over yet. The
indecisive Junior got into trouble again, this time over the conditions of
Indian reservations.

In the spring of 1926, Junior was preparing for his third trip west in six
years, when he received a letter from Wolf Plume, the Blackfoot leader, and
Black Bull, another elder. "We are extremely under hard circumstances as we
go without eating for three or four days at times. . . . We hope you will
be able to see your way clear to aid us this spring."

Junior was on the fence. The Indians’ circumstances again forced him to
contend with old Rockefeller traditions. He did not want to answer the
letter. But his silence could be taken as insensitive by a number of
people, foremost among them his sons.

The Indians struck this tender chord themselves in their letter. How would
you feel, they asked, if "you were in our state of circumstances"? Then
they moved in on Junior’s soft spot: "Wolf Plume wants to know how your
little son [Laurance] is getting along whom Wolf Plume christened."

Typed on the stationery of the Indian Protective Association of Montana,
the letter indicated that influential whites, as well as Indians, were
waiting to see how Rockefeller responded, if at all.

Since his children were involved, Junior also had to consider the feelings
of their mother. Abby was a conspirator of sorts with the children against
Junior’s Baptist authoritarianism and bristled at anything hinting of
racial discrimination.

"Put yourself in the place of an honest, poor man who happens to belong to
one of the so-called ‘despised’ races," she wrote Nelson, Laurance, and
John during these years.

'Think of having no friendly hand held out to you, no kindly look, no
pleasant, encouraging word spoken to you. What I would like you always to
do is what I try humbly to do myself; that is, never to say or to do
anything which would wound the feelings or the self-respect of any human
being, and to give special consideration to all who are in any way
repressed. That is what your father does naturally from the fineness of his
nature and the kindness of his heart. I long to have our family stand
firmly for what is best and highest in life. It isn’t always easy, but it
is worth while."

Junior thought it might be wise to make inquiries. He passed Wolf Plume’s
letter on to the BIA. Fearing more requests for aid, Junior suggested that
something should be done to "strike more at the root of the matter." The
response was defensive, rooted as always in the Calvinist notion of
self-sufficiency: "Where the Indians have invested in sheep on the
reimbursable plan, they are getting along very nicely. . . . If these
Indians will get down to business and help themselves just a little, they
can get along alright."

Another response to his inquiries was less quieting. One of his guides in
1924 confirmed that Wolf Plume’s band "is in a worse way now than for some
time past [and] may be going hungry part of the time." But the problem was
in the Indians themselves and their culture. "The band you saw are all
fullbloods, all related or mostly so and that’s the reason Wolf Plume and
Big Spring may be hard up now, because they have shared with the others.
individualism that accompanied property ownership had not taken root with
the older Indians.

He advised the Rockefellers not to send money to these "simple minded
children." He pledged "to admonish" them "not to write you in this way
again." It was "the Government’s place and duty to look after these people
and not you." Junior agreed.

There is no record that Junior ever answered Wolf Plume’s letter.

While Nelson was in France that summer, his alter ego, Laurance, was to
return West with his parents and younger brothers. Junior came up with a
solution. He simply decided not to include the Blackfoot reservation in
their itinerary.

But the Indians could not be so easily controlled. Their revolt was in full
swing and making headlines. Taos Pueblo leaders, backed by John Collier’s
Indian Defense Association, had been jailed for resisting the missionaries
and the BIA, and the Indian rebellion was spreading to the Great Plains
tribes and beyond, to tribes in California. The threat that the Rockefeller
name would again be linked to violent repression emerged. Once more,
Junior’s options seemed split between following Baptist leaders or heeding
the advice of liberal aides like Ray Fosdick, the man who had encouraged
Junior’s $1,000 donation to John Collier two years before.

It had been a short honeymoon for the Rockefellers and the thin,
stoop-shouldered Collier. In 1924, shortly after the BIA started leasing
Navajo reservation lands to oil companies, Collier’s request to Rockefeller
for an additional $10,000 to investigate Indian conditions was rejected.
Instead, Junior launched his own probe—of Collier. He dispatched an aide to
Washington to confer with Interior Secretary Herbert Work and BIA
Commissioner Charles H. Burke. Their attack on Collier bordered on slander,
Burke calling Collier "an agitator" and denouncing the Indian Defense
Association’s efforts as "destructive".

Probably the loudest criticism came from Charles L. White, executive
secretary of the American Baptist Home Mission Society. Although White
personally did not have much influence with the Rockefellers at the time,
because of his flirtation with Fundamentalist donors, Junior wanted to keep
his own power over the direction of the Baptist missions from being further
eroded by Fundamentalist attacks. He listened as White severely impugned
Collier’s character and even suggested that Collier had misappropriated funds.

Those voices from the political and religious establishment were enough for
Junior. He turned down Collier’s request and cut off further funding to his
organization. Instead, he shifted his support to the Baptist
missionary-oriented Indian Rights Association, which White had just
recommended to Fosdick.

It was one of Junior’s greatest blunders. The Indian Rights Association had
taken up the earlier unsubstantiated claim of a Fundamentalist missionary,
Rev. William "Pussyfoot" Johnson, that Christian Indian converts were being
forced to participate in "obscene" dances that allegedly caused the
pregnancy of young girls. The missionaries demanded that all "pagan" dances
end. They were also pressing for federal marshals to be sent in to seize
children from Pueblo parents who had always temporarily removed their boys
from BIA schools to initiate them through religious rites of passage. This
custom was vital to the survival of Pueblo culture, and the missionaries
knew it. The campaign by the Indian Rights Association, its president
stated proudly, was designed to "make the pagan reactionary element in
Santo Domingo [a center of Pueblo resistance] feel that the United States
laws are to be obeyed, and that Christian progressive Indians will be
protected in their rights."

Meanwhile, John Collier was not silently sitting by. As far as he was
concerned, both the Indian Rights Association and the BIA were bandits. The
Indian Rights Association was attempting to "split the Pueblos asunder" to
"paralyze" the Indians from benefiting from his organization’s legal
services. And it was doing so at the very moment that the "final settlement
of the land controversies" was occurring. Over the past forty years,
Indians had lost some 40 million acres of parceled tribal lands in sales to
whites and, through BIA-coerced leases, had lost the use of most of the
land they still owned.

In 1926, these leases—and particularly the new oil leases—were the focus of
escalating attacks by John Collier and his chief ally in Congress, Rep.
James A. Frear. Frear called for a joint congressional investigation of the
BIA’s support for the Indian 4)11 Bill that attracted speculators like "a
cloud of buzzards obscuring the sun." Then the two men conducted their own
survey of twenty western reservations, traveling over 4,400 miles by car.
They found that the conditions were worse than they had feared: For
example, the Sioux were starving, and 25 percent of the Crow Indians were
in danger of being blinded by trachoma. The BIA, Collier insisted, was
destroying the Indians because it still had a "hangover" from the "original
military policy which regarded the Indian as an outlaw and danger to society."

By this time, Junior had returned from the West and concurred with Fosdick
that support for the conservative Indian Rights Association had been an
error. The missionaries’ attacks on Indian traditions were
counterproductive; worse, one of the Indian Rights Association’s most
strident officials, Clara D. True, who previously bad been sued by the
federal government for misappropriating BIA funds, bad been indiscreet
about the Rockefellers’ funding.

If Baptist missionaries could no longer be relied upon to prevent violence
or scandal from looming over the Rockefeller horizon, then Junior had
little choice but to turn to other, more scientifically objective sources.

Fortunately Rockefeller money had already ensured that those sources were
on band. Interior Secretary Work, sensing that he was losing the initiative
to John Collier and hoping to forestall a congressional investigation of
the BIA and its Navajo oil leases, invited the Brookings Institution for
Government Research to conduct a survey of Indian conditions, a survey
independent of the BIA, but beholden to the Rockefellers to the tune of

This time Junior had made a safe bet. The Brookings Institution’s board of
trustees included Raymond Fosdick and Jerome Greene, two members of
Rockefeller’s inner legal circle, along with such familiar names as
Carnegie Institute president John C. Meriam (who had advised Junior on his
Western itinerary).

Under Lewis Merriam’s direction, the report of the survey, The Problem of
Indian Administration, was widely hailed when it was published in 1928. But
as Collier had feared, the Meriam Report spared the top BIA officials from
criticism for the conditions it described. Instead, it chose to follow the
BIA’s and missionaries’ line that Congress was to blame for the Indians’
misery. Congress, for its part, conducted its own investigation, holding
hearings that led to the resignation of BIA Commissioner Charles H. Burke.
For a brief while, it appeared to Collier that the reign of big money and
missionaries over Indian affairs might be over.

He was wrong. In 1928 the American people, beguiled by the prosperity of
the twenties and the promise of a "chicken in every pot and a car in every
garage, had elected conservative Herbert Hoover president. To lead the BIA,
Hoover appointed Charles J. Rhoads, a wealthy banker and treasurer of the
Indian Rights Association, who did address grievances, but not with
protective legislation or Indian empowerment. But the Indian Rights
Association had received its last funds from Junior. From then on, the
Rockefellers would increasingly turn away from the Baptists. They preferred
more secular missions at home and abroad as they took command of the age of

Louis Proyect

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