An Iroquois Indian canoes in Central Park

It’s all a very culturally insensitive stunt from the 1920s, apparently. According to the caption on the back of this Getty Images photo, with the city skyline in view:

“Often romanticized, native people were hired to help promote New York events and locales. In 1927, amid much fanfare, So-Tsien-O-Wa-Ne (Chief Great Fire), a local Iroquois man, began patrolling Central Park’s lake in a canoe.”

A New York Times article from April 16 of that year has this to say:

“The Indian, an Iroquois, is to glide hither and thither around the three-mile stretch of water, preserve order, and lend local color. . . . He has lived for some years in Brooklyn, although born on a reservation in Montreal. On duty, Chief Great Fire will be attired in the usual buckskin clothes with plenty of feathers attached.”

It’s not the first time the city has officially sanctioned putting a human being more or less on display, as this story, of a man who lived for a short time in the Bronx Zoo, reveals.

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10 Responses to “An Iroquois Indian canoes in Central Park”

  1. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    There’s a great ad also from the 70s

  2. wildnewyork Says:

    I heard that guy was actually Italian.

  3. T.J. Connick Says:

    The man in the canoe was put on the lake by Francis D. Gallatin, Parks Commissioner. Gallatin was a Tammany Hall Sachem, appointed commissioner by Mayor Hylan in 1919. The wealthy and accomplished lawyer was a member of a front-rank Manhattan family, and his career was usually free from such stunts.

    By May, Gallatin had resigned his post after being the object some withering criticism by Mayor Jimmy Walker, none of it related to the guy in the canoe.

    Why was “Chief Great Fire” put on the lake? Was it a bit of jazz-age silliness? Spring fever? Was it the outcome of a lifetime at Tammany events with their ersatz Indian themes?

    The stunt may not have been Gallatin’s idea. The previous August, the then 55-year-old commissioner had married 23-year-old Dorothy C Brady, a publicity agent and former journalist. The marriage took place in a small ceremony at the Municipal Building, and seemed to have caught all who knew Gallatin by surprise. The bride did a good job of keeping herself in the papers, with a busy schedule in society and being the centerpiece in lots of typically self-congratulatory charity work.

    Gallatin was released from his blissful union in 1933, when he joined other departed Gallatins under the ground at Trinity’s uptown graveyard.

    As for the canoe-paddling Iroquois, an April 26, 1927 piece in the Evening Post described the job in a way that suggests an imminent return to his life as a high-iron riveter. In addition to floating in a stately manner in resplendent raiment, he was charged with keeping the lake clear of kids who were in the habit of ignoring prevailing lake etiquette. They liked swimming in the lake, and weren’t afraid to show what they thought of the whole swimsuit concept. After being expelled by their feathered tormentor, the lads drew upon ancient New York tradition, made the most of an unfair advantage in numbers, and commenced an organized rock-throwing attack upon the hapless Chief Great Fire.

    The bizarre bit of Central Park’s past slips mercifully into obscurity thereafter.

  4. wildnewyork Says:

    Such a colorful details as usual TJ, thanks for filling out the story. Interesting that his day job was riveter. American Indians have a long history putting up skyscrapers in New York City.

  5. onemorefoldedsunset Says:

    Great to hear the background to the piece. I guess the Iroquois Indian lived in Gowanus/Boerum Hill, where there was a big community of Mohawk steelworkers. Joseph Mitchell wrote about this community. Here’s a fairly recent article from the Brooklyn Public Library’s Brooklynology blog:

    Most of the bars they frequented, such as The Spar & The Wigwam are gone now. The only one left is Hank’s Saloon, on Atlantic, which was then the Doray Tavern.

    Hank’s, along with a couple of other buildings, was put up for auction today. I doubt it’ll be around much longer.

  6. Brooklyn, Brooklyn take me in « Rambler's Central Says:

    […] Sospiri? Possibile che negli anni Venti le acque del lago di Central Park fossero pattugliate da una canoa condotta da un indiano irochese? L’East River nasconde un tesoro sommerso? Sapevate che il Ponte di Brooklyn fu attraversato […]

  7. Patricia Dahl Says:

    I am his great Grand Daughter and He was in the Iron workers Union. His wife Thelma made his vest by hand and he wore it everyday. He ate plan cornflakes coverd in black coffee off a plate for breakfast and he raise 2 of granddaughters my mother was one of them until she was 10. He had TB and when in he was in quarantine only my g grandmother would stay with him but he would put shadow puppet shows on in the window at night for his kids and grand kids since they couldn’t visit. he had pow wow’s & meetings on his roof top to the apartment building

    • Kevin berman Says:

      I am his grandson my nother Thelma was his daighter

      • Patricia Dahl Says:

        Thelma was his wife, she was 13 when they got married their first born was jane my grandmother the same year they were married. they raised 2 of jane’s daughters one was my mother. they lived in brooklyn after moving from st regis I know there were 14 kids so I am guessing they names a daughter after after her?

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