University of Illinois’ First Indian

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independent media publisher, activist, caricaturist, and
Indian are but a few of the roles and identities held by
the University of Illinois’ first Native American graduate
of the Class of 1884. Carlos Montezuma, Yavapai Indian
born 1865 in the territory today known as Arizona,
holds a place in the history of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois,
in Arizona, and in the histories of
over 550 American Indian Nations in
the United States.
Born “Wassaja,” which in Yavapai means
“beckoning” or “yearning,” Carlos Montezuma’s
story is one of abrupt removal
from an indigenous life with the Yavapai of
the Southwest, to a life of traveler and city
dweller in an economically and industrial
burgeoning Midwest and east coast. Montezuma,
endearingly referred to as “Monte”
by classmates, was taken from his mother
and Yavapai tribe around the age of six
when Pima Indian raids took him and
other youth into captivity. An Italian adventurer,
Carlo Gentile, purchased the youth
for 30 silver dollars from the Pima, feeling a
sense of connection with him.
It was in Arizona that Gentile and Montezuma’s paths
crossed and they began a unique relationship, as Gentile
finds in the newly adopted youth a traveling companion.
Little could Gentile have known, at the time, of the
impact this unlikely merger would have on a young boy
of Indian heritage, who would grow up to be one of the
most significant and outspoken Indian activists of the
early 20th Century.
After time in the west, Gentile would see a need to settle
down. He set up a photography studio first in Chicago
and then New York. It is in both these bustling metropolises
that Montezuma was introduced to public education.
In 1878, he was sent to live in Urbana with Baptist
minister Charles Steadman, by George Ingalls, a New
York Baptist missionary representative, whose goal for
Montezuma was a practical degree so he could return to
help his people. Montezuma was accepted into the University
of Illinois in 1879 and graduated in 1884 with a
degree in Chemistry.
During his undergraduate years, Montezuma was an
active member of one of the University’s early literary
societies. Since Greek organizations were banned during
the early years of the University, literary societies provided
alternate means for association
through a club membership, such as the
Adelphic Society. Montezuma was a part
of these weekly activities, which included
speeches, poetry readings, debate, and
musical performance.
Carlos Montezuma embraced a sense of
“rugged individualism,” even though he
was not completely seen as an equal
amongst his peers. It is hard to assess the
degree to which Montezuma was affected
by racism, but it is clear that a perception
of inferiority towards other minority populations
was present on the campus of
that era. The reference to local African
American youth as “nigs” on campus and
“the need for a coon hunt” can be found
in the student publication of the Illini.
The thoughtful Montezuma was surely not immune to
such sentiments.
However, during this period, the young man grew to be
an articulate, dedicated, and extremely bright student
leader amongst his peers. Even the University of Illinois’
Board of Trustees were impressed enough to waive Montezuma’s
matriculation fees. Clearly the time spent at the
University of Illinois was an exciting and formative period
of his life.
Following graduation from the Chicago Medical College
in 1889, Montezuma spent seven years working as a
physician for the United States Indian Agency. It was during
this tenure that Monte worked at the famed Carlisle
Indian School, which was the first governmental project
for the mass re-education and assimilation of the Indian
child. Montezuma seemed to have found positive his
experience at Carlisle, but longed to return to Chicago.
Returning prior to the World’s Columbian Exposition, he
established a practice, where he was not only a physician,
but also an advocate for Indian rights,
During this period, he independently published a
monthly newsletter called Wassaja that spoke to the Indian
condition and was a vehicle to critique issues of governmental
agency oppression, as well as anti-war (WWI)
sentiments, voting rights for Indians, and issues of selfdetermination.
Montezuma’s life took him to many places
to speak to many people, but it was always the plight of
voiceless Native Americans that he championed.
Thirty years after leaving Arizona, Montezuma finally
returned to his Yavapai home, where he again worked tirelessly
for the rights of his tribal nation. In 1923, he passed
away in a simple thatched hut on the Fort McDowell Yavapai
Montezuma always expressed a fondness for the University
of Illinois. Active in his participation as an alumnus,
he would stay connected to classmates and the institution.
In 1968, Montezuma was featured in commemorative
book The First 100 Years, as one of the University’s
most notable alumni. But 40 years later, Carlos Montezuma
seems to have withered from the pages of Illinois history.
Nevertheless, he remains the University of Illinois’ first
Native American student, deserving of honor as a leader
and an indigenous man who fought for equality, democratic
values, and respect for all human beings.

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