Address by Mrs. Gertrude Bonnin
My brother officers and brothers and sisters of this great country, members of this organization, it fills my heart with joy to hear these encouraging words from my brothers and as they have spoken of their high regard for an Indian sister I know that it extends to all the Indian women in this country and I hope my brothers that at the next meeting you will invite your wife to come with you and you will invite your sister to come with you because you realize that in the home, in the Indian home, the mother teaches the children these very principles we are talking about—we teach our children as they play about our knees and that is why the Indian woman must come to these gatherings, she must listen with her mind open and her heart open that she may gather the truths to take home to our little ones—they are our future hope. Our children! I have received so much inspiration from the words we have heard this morning—you have all felt the same.
The greatest gift in life is consciousness. Not positions, not the dollar, but that the Almighty Spirit gives us life and we have a rational mind with which to see all the wonders of the universe. And this is true, my brothers and sisters—consciousness above all else. That is the way it should be. Let us cling to that. Let us do the practical way. We have had to change from the old styles of hunting, have had to leave the old trails. We have got to learn the new trails—we can do it. We have the power, we can think. We can be fair. Work is honorable as long as men and women are honest. There is no work that is degrading. It is all honorable. I do not need to repeat that, because Indians know it. Our forefathers knew it was no disgrace for the mother to prepare the meal. Work is honorable. We must have a work and each day do it to the best of our ability.
God has given you life, he has given you minds to think with and hearts that we may be just to all, that we may be true to all mankind. Then we are true to God—to ourselves. That means each day the simplest things begin from sunrise to sunset, from sunset to sunrise again. The new trails we are hunting. We have come from our homes to this national teepee and we are talking with one another in a different language, but we are all proud of our Indian blood, we are glad we are Indians. We want our children to be proud of their Indian blood.
There is so much good in our people—everyone knows that when we give our word, we keep it. Let us save those wonderful things, the virtues of our race, their honesty, clean living and intelligence. Let us teach our children that their Indian blood stands for the virtues of their race.
Now we are meeting a civilization from a race that came from Europe. We have to meet it each day—there is no dodging, and it is not easy. It is going to take courage; it is going to test your strength. It is going to test your faith in the Greatest of All. It is going to be hard, but let us stand the test, true to the Indian blood. Let us do that. Let us teach our children to be proud of their Indian blood and to stand the test bravely.
We sometimes think we cannot speak the English language well and we cannot talk in the conference. That is not it. You can tell us what is in your heart. Use the words that are put in your mouth. Use the words that come to you, that which is in the heart and mind. We come to commune with our minds, with our hearts. Do not sit back because you think that you cannot speak English well. Let us hear from those who do not speak it at all, they can have interpreters. We want to hear from the minds and hearts of our Indian people. Language is only a convenience, just like a coat is a convenience, just like a coat is a convenience, and it is not so important as your mind and your heart.
I remember my mother. I was born in a teepee. I loved that life. It was beautiful, more beautiful than I can tell you. But my mother said to me. “You must learn the white man’s language so when you grow up you will talk for us and for the Indian and the white man will have a better understanding.” I said, “I will.” It has not always been easy, but I said, “I am going to do the best I can and then I am going to let the Great Spirit do the rest.” Now every one of us can do that. Of course there are things to discourage. We seem to have no money, no friends, and we have no voice in Congress. How shall we do this thing? Then I think I have forgotten the most important thing of all, and that is our Maker the Great Spirit. We must keep our faith in the Great Spirit because this applied to every day thinking in our homes and wherever we go.
Then let us have level heads. let us not cower. We are men and women with minds and hearts. Why, the Great Almighty made us! We are here like other human beings and there is no reason why we should be afraid to hold up our heads. Let us stand up straight. Let us study conditions; let us give reasons why. And if we fail at the first trial, shall we quit? No, we will try again. You believe in right—then stand for that. The first time you stand up for right and it is refused you, shall you quit? Then you do not believe in it. We must continue speaking and claiming our human rights to live on this earth that God has made, so that we may think our thoughts and speak them—that we may have our part in the American life and be as any other human beings are.
These are things it would seem quite unnecessary to make a speech upon, perhaps, but I want to tell of them because they all come back to you. We are rational human beings. Shall we think or shall somebody think for us? We are on this earth to think and do the best we can according to our light. That is our God-given privilege. Well, then, let us think. We have no one else to fear after we are right with God. We get our intelligence from Him, our life, then let us think calmly and reasonably.
There are matters that we do not agree upon and the way to do is to sift them down, thrash them out. And keep thrashing. If you do not do it, who shall do it for you? Every one of us each day must think and act—not only think, but we must act, else we will not get the benefit. We must put our thoughts into practice every day in the most complex business matter, in the most simple home duty. Let us think and act as rational beings, like other peoples on this earth.
This is the thought that I would give to you to take home, not only to my brothers at home, but my sisters. We are rational beings. Let us develop our powers by thinking and acting for ourselves. That is the way we grow. We have been told organization is necessary to bring about results. We have been scattered to the four winds. Are we going to organize? This is a national teepee. We are all coming here to consult together and from these various ideas we want to come to a conclusion. Is that any different from other meetings of American people? All other peoples do the same. They came together. I have been in sessions of Congress when the great men there met together. They will discuss their subjects, some on one side, some on another, both giving soundest arguments. Was it treason for these men to have difference of opinions? It was not treason against the Government. They were representing their people, they were representing the Government, but they had different views and they had the privilege of speaking. Now, I am sure in our humble gathering here, we have that same liberty. We are in America, and we have, each one of us, a right to express our views. We agree on the main thing. We want to form some conclusions. We want the privilege of rational men for, were we idiots or lunatics we would not be here, we would be in some hospital or asylum. But, because we are rational creatures, we have a right to express our thoughts and to try to come to some plan, according to the best of our light. This is our policy.
And, therefore, it is necessary that we organize, that we may act as a body; that we may put our ideas together and choose the best. We must support this organization, we must see that it grows stronger. We will all have a chance to express our opinions and then we will try to use the best. That is our work. Let us all express what seems to us the thing that is needed, and we will assort and choose that which we must strive for at this time.
And to do this, we must have organization. The work of the Society has been grinding and constant, early and late. Do you think any one would work, devote himself entirely to a cause—without a salary—if he did not believe in it? Then you know we must all work for this thing—that the American Indian must have a voice. He must say what is in him and by exchanging opinions, we are going to grow. I believe in that and that is why I am working with my brothers and I hope as time goes on, my sisters, Indians, will come to do their part in their own homes. Then they will help us carry on this work as it must be done so that we may succeed.
We have sent out from our office thousands of letters. We have brought our files up to date. We have revised our lists up to date. Our membership is doubled and more than doubled in a year. It means a good deal of work when you send in your name and membership fee. We give you a card and credit you with what we have sent, We write you a letter then we put your name on the mailing list and send it to our publishers so that you will be sure to get our magazine and when you think of 2000 names coming in to be taken care of in that way, you can realize the work. On account of the war conditions, clerks have been almost impossible to get in our office. The Government gives high salaries and our Society cannot compete. Then we, in our office, had to get just here and there any clerk we could find. Sometimes I had a clerk two hours for one evening in the week and if I got a clerk two or three evenings in the week for two or three hours, I thought I was doing well. I need two clerks in the office every day of the year to carry on the Society’s work as it should be.
It has been extremely difficult this year, the work has been too heavy for one human being as I have only one pair of hands and while I am glad to do this for the Society, it has taken longer time and if your letters do not come to you quickly, it is because I have baskets of letters, all awaiting to be answered. I tell you this so that you may know that we are busy every day.
Some of our friends write and ask the Secretary to attend to personal matters and to attend hearings on Indian affairs. This consumes many hours. There is no one to carry on the business at the office while I am away. I must leave the work and make the trip to the Indian Office, or to the Committee hearings, and this consumes strength as well as time. All this is a part of our work so you may understand what I have been doing. I hope there are those among you who will help share this burden, that there will be those among you who will help in some way to lighten the work in our office so that it will not fall upon one individual and upon one pair of hands. These conditions the Society could not help, but I explain this so that you will know the need for assistance and that you will also realize the cause of delayed replies to your letters.
Sometimes we are not successful on our first trip to the Indian office or to the Committee hearings, and have to go again, and then again. So you can see we were busy—the work was overwhelming. But with this heavy burden, I was happy, because I saw that the organization was growing. I did not despair because I felt from year to year as we grow stronger, we are going to have more workers in the office. We are going to have more workers in the field and we are going to have more publicity and that we will have the help our society is crying for.
I could not complete September accounts and take care of the conference, so that portion of the year’s statement is not ready.
I also have the Treasurer’s report of what we received and what we expended. Remember that no officer has receive one cent of pay. All the expenditures have been for work, carrying the work in the office and getting out the magazine. I want this clear, so that you will all know, and can tell others that no officer in charge has been paid one cent out of these moneys.
Bonnin, Gertrude. “Address by Mrs. Gertrude Bonnin.” The American Indian, Vol. 7, No. 3 (1919). Delivered to the Annual Convention of the Society of American Indians. 2-4 October 1919.