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The Most Famous Unknown Native American in Arizona

Dr. Carlos Montezuma

Geronimo, Cochise, and Dr. Carlos Montezuma. These three men should be the most famous Native Americans in Arizona. Everyone knows the first two, but the third is known only by a few Arizonans. He receives none of the international acclaim he deserves for his contributions to Native American rights.
His Yavapai name was Wassaja (pronounced wass-jah), which means “signaling” or “beckoning.” He was born in central Arizona around 1866, and captured by Pima Indians in the Superstition Mountains in 1871. Capturing children was common practice among many Arizona Indian cultures for as long as history has been recorded in Arizona and probably for centuries before. Some were raised as slaves, others were sold, and many became prominent members of the tribe that abducted them.
Wassaja was sold to Carlos Gentile, a traveling photographer, who changed his name to Carlos Montezuma. They lived in Chicago for several years, until a fire destroyed all of Gentile’s belongings, and Montezuma was then raised by a Baptist minister in Urbana, Illinois. Montezuma excelled in chemistry, and graduated from the University of Illinois in 1884. He went on to earn his doctorate in medicine from the Chicago Medical College, a branch of Northwestern University, in 1889, and received his medical license the same year.
After an unsuccessful attempt at private practice, Dr. Montezuma became a physician with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). He worked at Fort Stevenson Indian School in North Dakota, the Western Shoshone Agency in Nevada, the Colville Agency in Washington, and eventually the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. His work made him aware of the substandard conditions on most reservations, and he began protests that continued the rest of his life. His experiences on the reservations influenced his acceptance of the concepts of Carlisle’s founder, Richard Henry Pratt.
Born in New York State, Pratt fought in the Civil War and enlisted in the regular Army in 1867. He experienced Anglo-Indian cultural conflicts firsthand through service at forts in Oklahoma, Texas, and at a prisoner of war fortress in Florida. Pratt came to believe that American Indians should be assimilated into mainstream society through education and financial aid.
He was one of the founders of the Carlisle Indian School in 1879. With an emphasis on vocational training and stripping away all Indian culture, Carlisle became the model for the boarding schools that were later established on or near reservations throughout the West. Pratt felt it was necessary to “kill the Indian and save the man.” Montezuma forged a friendship with Pratt while working at Carlisle that continued with a steady stream of letters throughout their lives.
Montezuma returned to Chicago and opened a private practice in 1896. In spite of his opposition to the BIA, he was invited to become Commissioner of Indian Affairs twice, but he refused the offer both times. In 1911, he helped found the Society of American Indians, one of the first pan-Indian rights associations. In 1918, Montezuma began publishing Wassaja, a monthly magazine devoted to his views on the BIA, Native American Education, water rights, and American citizenship for Native Americans.
Dr. Montezuma became the team doctor for the famous Carlisle football team. Jim Thorpe, 1912 Olympic decathlon gold medal winner, played on the team while Montezuma worked there. When the team visited Arizona, Dr. Montezuma was reunited with his long-lost relatives at the Fort McDowell reservation. Seeing how connected the Yavapai were with their land, he changed his lifelong views of assimilation.
It wasn’t until he went to live at Fort McDowell that Montezuma realized the importance of preserving and maintaining the Yavapai way of life, and the cultures of all other Native Americans as well. From 1910 until his death, he led the resistance to the removal of the Yavapai from Fort McDowell to the Salt River reservation.
In later years, Montezuma contracted tuberculosis and moved into a traditional wickiup on the Fort McDowell reservation, and died there in 1923.
In light of his medical career and his decades of constant activism for Indian rights through public speaking, publications, and the founding of the Society of American Indians, Dr. Carlos Montezuma deserves much more national recognition and a well-deserved place in the minds of Arizona residents.
Carlos Montezuma and the Changing World of American Indians, by Peter Iverson.
Carlos Montezuma, M.D.: A Yavapai American Hero, by Leon Speroff.
— Mike Miller. Photo courtesy of author.

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