ON DEC. 23, 1924, Clallam County received a significant visitor. Big Chief Gray Horse Eagle came to speak with local tribes.
He was organizing Native American tribes into the Northwest Indian Association. He also took some time to speak at the Presbyterian and Congregational churches.
Gray Horse Eagle, more commonly known as Big Chief White Horse Eagle, came with an impressive resumé. When he visited Port Angeles, he claimed to be 97 years old and a member of the Osage Tribe. His father was a member of the Kioyga Tribe and his mother the Narragansett Tribe.
He was more than 6 feet tall and had the physique of a much younger man. He said his father was Great Eagle who, at that time, was chief over all the tribes of the continental United States. He also said his father died at age 147, his mother at age 137, and that he was part of a family of 22 siblings.
Big Chief White Horse Eagle said he was an 1871 graduate of Yale University and considered a great runner and football player while there. He also was reputed to be an Oklahoma oil millionaire.
He claimed to be the chief of chiefs of all the tribes of the U.S. and Canada. He would wear a “traditional” Native American costume, including a feathered headdress, buckskin clothes, Navajo silver jewelry and a button reading “Lions Club of Pasadena.”
The chief told the S’Klallam Tribe the land upon which Port Angeles is located belonged to them. He wanted five S’Klallam leaders to accompany him to Washington, D.C., to present their financial claims to President Calvin Coolidge. After visiting Port Angeles, he continued his organizing efforts and lecture tour in Neah Bay and La Push.
The chief was well-traveled. He lectured around the U.S. and Europe, finding it profitable. He adopted museum directors, anthropologists and community leaders into his mythical “White Buffalo Tribe.” Of course, a fee was attached to each of these honors.
During my research, I found many other claims he had made: he was godfather to Buffalo Bill Cody; an ordained Presbyterian minister; he preached at Westminster Abbey; was baptized in the Jordan River, where he in turn baptized 102 other people; and he was a guest of Queen Victoria, who made him Knight of the Garter.
He claimed to be acquainted with every president since Abraham Lincoln and made Lincoln and presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding Native American chiefs.
He could sense the presence of gold, silver or water in the earth beneath his feet and could read Egyptian hieroglyphics.
We are familiar with the old adage, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” We should have remembered that. On Dec. 30, Port Angeles Evening News received a telegram from Washington, D.C., stating that the chief was a fraud, and he had no authority to organize the tribes. Plus, he had been arrested before for similar activities. Local authorities warned residents against giving the chief any money.
Locals refused to believe the reports, which is somewhat understandable. The people of the First Nations were desperate to be heard and respected, and those of European descent were too ashamed of the Native Americans’ tragically vanishing past.
Mary Gay Morse, a local poet and author, wrote something very telling in the foreword of her book titled “Lore of the Olympic Land”: “I tender these Siwash legends as a tribute to a vanishing race. They are bits of lore, snatches of human heartthrobs, ‘silhouettes,’ shall I say, of a somber people little loved and all but merged in the thickening mists of cruel oblivion.”
Big Chief White Horse Eagle, a professional ethnic impersonator, was an example of the cult personalities that began emerging in the 1920s. Other impersonators included Charlie Oskoman, chief of the Yakima, and Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance.
These impersonators were very harmful to Native American culture and understanding. They took on an appearance that was most recognizable to the American public and used clichéd language, gaining audiences by speaking about racial justice all the while maintaining racial stereotypes of the time and trivializing Native Americans.
The lecture business eventually dried up for White Horse Eagle. By 1933, he was $39 in arrears on his rent. It was reported he attempted to get a government job working in the forests, but the government was suspicious of his stated birth year of 1822.
“Any man who has had 30 wives and is willing to work at the age of 111 should be given a chance,” a reporter humorously wrote.
White Horse Eagle was not Native American and, at one point in court, gave his name as John Delaney.
Many of us fall victim to impossible dreams or sad stories. It is not that we are completely gullible; rather, I think we are striving to be kind or trying to reinforce our security. So many scammers first make us think our security is being threatened. Others attempt to make us feel better by supporting our way of thinking. Of course, there is a fee to subscribe to their channel.
The Apostle Paul warned of this in his second letter to Timothy: “For a time is coming when people will not longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear.”
There truly is nothing new under the sun. Impersonators continue to this day. Ethnic impersonators try to “identify” as something they are not. Criminal impersonators try every day to get your Social Security or bank account numbers. Intellectual impersonators try to speak into our lives claiming to be experts on subject matters where they have no real understanding.
We should not be content to be mediocre. Do not be afraid to question someone’s claim to fame.
John McNutt is a descendant of Clallam County pioneers and treasurer of the North Olympic History Center Board of Directors. He can be reached at [email protected].