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The strange case of the Northwest’s Native American Nazi

He was a Native American from Oregon who called himself “Chief Red Cloud,” and he cut an impressive figure. In the late 1930s, he appeared in public schools, lecture halls and at youth organizations in the Northwest talking about the plight of the American Indians, their role in creating American democracy, and the dangers they faced from a global foe — the Jews

His attire was striking. As a witness to one of this lectures wrote, he “dressed in full Indian costume, beautiful headdress of white, green and lavender feathers, a Thunderbird design in center of [his] headband with a Swastika on each side; pants of buckskin trimmed with fringe and beads, a beaded vest and arm bands beaded in Swastika and Thunderbird design.”

When he spoke, it was often to rail against the Jews and the “Jew Deal” of President “Rosenfelt.” He praised Adolf Hitler as a spiritual brother and painted a vision of a coming war when white Christians and American Indians would unite to defeat the Jews.

In the history of Nazism in the Pacific Northwest, few figures stand out so incongruously as Chief Red Cloud, who was in reality the invented persona of a Native American attorney based in Portland named Elwood A. Towner. In the 1930s and ‘40s he traveled to Seattle, Spokane, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix, Washington, DC, Alaska, Mexico, and Canada and elsewhere, spreading the word about the threat Communism and Jews posed to America and the American Indian.

Towner was a regular attendee of Portland’s weekly German-American Bund meetings, an organization embraced by the Third Reich as the hub of America’s Nazi movement. He was admired by domestic fascists like William Dudley Pelley, whose Silver Shirt Legion sought to be the same for middle- and working-class “Aryan” Americans.

Elwood A. Towner, also known as "Chief Red Cloud", wearing a Native American headdress and a swastika armband.
Towner wearing a Native American headdress and a swastika armband.

In 1939, an editorial in The New Republic titled “Red Indians, Brown Shirts” warned that Towner was “trying to mold Indians into good storm-troopers for use in a ‘future emergency.’”

That same year, Towner attended a Bund meeting in Portland where, according to an informant feeding information to the local Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, he said that “when it was all over the Jews, etc. would be in concentration camps surrounded by barbed wire and with Indians on guard. He said the Indians would find an excuse to see that all Jews were killed and the country and the world would be a lot cleaner.”

In another speech, Towner said the Jews were “chuck-na-gin,” which he claimed was an American Indian term for “children of Satan.”

Before preaching on behalf of Hitler, Towner was known as a Northwest tribal advocate. Born in the late 1890s on Oregon’s Siletz Reservation, his people were from the lower Rogue River region and had been displaced by the Rogue River War of the 1850s and removal to the reservation of many other tribes of Western Oregon. As a boy he had been sent to Salem’s Chemawa Indian boarding school, part of a system of government-run schools meant to assimilate tribal youth into mainstream American culture. He also attended public high school in Salem, and after service in the U.S. Marine corps during WWI, got his law degree from Willamette University. He was a leader on the Siletz reservation and did legal work for native and tribal clients throughout the region.

In 1933, Towner wrote an editorial in the Oregonian urging the closure of the Chemawa school. He believed closing American Indian boarding schools would be part of the “emancipation” of Indians and that such schools were extremely damaging to Native Americans.

“The Indian bureau…has spent millions of dollars of taxpayers money encouraging a system of peonage and slavery in supporting an educational system immeasurably inferior to that of the public schools.” He condemned the system for its segregation and for inducing “a feeling of racial inferiority.”

Towner also opposed the federal government’s big dams on the Columbia River, and filed suit on behalf of Native American elders whose traditional fishing grounds were being decimated.

With his distrust of federal authority established, Towner opposed the Indian Reorganization Act, a reform package of American Indian policy by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which was touted as the American Indian’s “New Deal.” The act sought to reverse the policy of assimilation of Native Americans and to re-establish tribal control over native lands. However welcome this new attitude was greeted by many tribes, others opposed what they saw as a top-down imposition of tribal governance, the collective ownership of land, and the removal of things like the availability of mineral rights from the public domain. The people of the Siletz refused to back the reforms, with Towner’s encouragement.

A fringe group opposing the act, called the American Indian Federation, was formed and became a rallying point for right-wing critics who saw the new law as communistic. The Federation drew support, including financial backing, from anti-Semitic and pro-fascist groups like the German-American Bund and Silver Shirts.

Perhaps deciding the “enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Towner embraced the idea that the Bureau of Indian Affairs was run by members of an international Jewish conspiracy. Communism was invented by the Jews, he said, and the BIA was rife with them.

Towner also began preaching a false history of America saying that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin had been warned to keep Jews out of America, but were thwarted in getting that provision in the U.S. Constitution — an Native American-inspired document, he said — by none other than Alexander Hamilton. Towner lectures sometimes included readings from an infamously de-bunked tract embraced by virulent anti-Semites even today, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” He met with U.S. fascist leaders, being photographed with the Bund’s West Coast head Hermann Schwinn and entertaining Silver Shirt “chief” Pelley at his Portland apartment. He solicited sponsorship and accepted pay from these groups to keep his Red Cloud show on the road.

In other words, being “Chief Red Cloud” became a paying gig.

 

The image of the “noble savage” embodied by Sioux warriors was embedded in Nazi cultural studies — they admired their “warrior” culture, and Hitler’s fascination with the Western novels of Karl May was well known. The Nazis even declared the Sioux to be Aryan — thus American Indians were acceptable in the Nazi’s tent. The Bund touted its connections with Native Americans, noting the swastika was an ancient native symbol, and running editorials in their publications claiming a role as “wards” of the American Indians to protect them from “anti-Christian Communism.”

The Germans were interested in exploiting the plight of indigenous peoples in North and South America, hoping to incite an uprising by the “hemispheric Indian,” creating allies and instability in their search for world conquest. They sent anthropologists, students and filmmakers to document the conditions of U.S. Indian reservations, and used the brutal treatment of Indians to undermine American arguments for the moral superiority of democracy.

A messenger like Towner had both propaganda and political value.

One of the Bund’s sponsored spokesmen was a Cherokee named Thomas Dixon who traveled giving lectures as “Chief New Moon.” Towner’s Chief Red Cloud undoubtedly reminded others of a chief of the same name, the famed Oglala Sioux leader. Both Red Cloud and New Moon adopted personas designed to appeal to white audiences. Many of the Portland Bund meetings were held at Red Men’s Hall, home of a fraternal organization for whites that appropriated Native American culture.

Towner was effusive about a spiritual connection he felt with the Nazi leader. An account of a meeting in a Portland “beer hall” in 1939 recorded Towner saying “Adolf Hitler is imbued with the spirit of the great Indian prophet and … is establishing an ‘American Indian form of government in Germany.’” He noted that “the Indians… have studied Hitler… (and) found him to be ‘Kulopus,’ (a wise leader, great, strong and courageous).” Towner proposed to lead an American Indian delegation to Germany to present the Fuhrer with a war bonnet.

Towner did not get a great deal of press — though he was highlighted in an Oregonian Sunday feature about the Portland Bund in early 1939, which included a photograph of Towner in his “Chief Red Cloud” regalia on the same page with a formal portrait of Hitler. But Towner was the subject of close observation by the Jewish community. The Northwest B’nai B’rith’s office had informants at Portland Bund meetings who noted what was said, and even took down the car makes and license numbers of attendees. Their first-hand accounts give plenty of evidence of Towner’s frequent attendance and what he spoke about.

Towner first appears in the Bund meeting notes in 1937, not long after a domestic abuse incident involving Towner and his wife who fled naked and bleeding to a neighborhood fire station to get help. Towner was sentenced to 60 days for the assault. A month after the attack, he showed up asking for the Bund’s help in sponsoring a lecture.

A few months later, Towner was contacted by a lawyer, David Robinson, who headed the region’s Anti-Defamation League. Robinson demanded to meet regarding Towner’s growing reputation for anti-Semitic talk. Towner refused and later said a strange man attacked him near his home, after asking if he was the “fellow who had been blasting away at the Jews.” He claimed to have won the fight.

Towner also told a member of the Anti-Defamation League that Jews had killed a Native American whose body was found in Portland’s Willamette River, and threatened that Robinson might meet the same fate.

“You go an tell David Robinson that there is a secret organization of 50,000 people here in Portland that are ready to act at the proper time,” he claimed, ignoring the fact that this many Nazi sympathizers did not exist nationwide, let alone in Portland. “Nobody but the members knows anything about it, but it’s going to do plenty when it begins. It has 75,000 members around San Francisco, members in San Jose, Palo Alto, Santa Cruz and other towns in California and about 35,000 members in Seattle. And we know what we are going to do.”

As WWII broke out in Europe, the pro-Nazi Bund began to feel the squeeze of Congressional investigations, revelations of corruption, and ties to the German government. Public opinion became much more critical of Americans marching while wearing Swastika armbands, “Americanism” became the new watchword, and most tribes also accepted, if not uncritically, the reforms of the Indian Reorganization Act.

By the early ‘40s, the Anti-Defamation League caught wind of the fact that Towner was appearing as Chief Red Cloud at Portland’s public high schools, speaking on the history of the swastika and offering his creative take on Native American history. This alarmed members of the local Jewish community, some of whom wanted him banned from the schools.

Feeling the heat of the pushback, Towner finally agreed to meet with Robinson to clear the air. An hours-long confrontation took place in Robinson’s office in 1941, witnessed by several associates, including Towner’s friend A.W. O’Connell, Towner denied charges of preaching “racial hatred,” downplayed his connections to the Bund, blamed the press for inaccurate reporting, denied he had a criminal record (he said he didn’t consider his assault conviction against his wife to be criminal), and insisted that nothing he said at any local schools was subversive.

Robinson wasn’t having any of it, and confronted Towner with a mountain of damning evidence in his own words, including copies of speeches, news accounts and other reports of his extensive Bund ties and anti-Semitic screeds. A partial transcript of the meeting captures the methodical way in which Robinson exposed Towner’s Nazi sympathies and hatred of Jews and calls for their extermination.

Towner couldn’t dismiss the record, and justified himself saying he was simply trying to defend his people against the Indian Reorganization Act.

One witness to the confrontation, Arthur Tarlow of B’nai B’rith, wrote up his impressions of the meeting and believed he detected some regret on Towner’s part. “The methodical and minute documentation of Towner’s anti-Semitic activities throughout the country seemed to convince not only his associates but Towner himself that his activities were not very patriotic and certainly not democratic and far from being ‘kosher’ for one like Towner [who] comes from an underprivileged minority group and who is loud in proclaiming sole interest in the rights of the American Indian.”

Towner’s friend O’Connell, a local businessman and politician, told Robinson later that the result of the meeting was that Towner “agreed to lay off the Jews.” He believed Silver Shirt Pelley “got to Red Cloud” and infected him with hatred. “There are a lot of admirable traits about Red Cloud,” O’Connell said, “If he could get that hate out of his heart.”

When the war came to the United States, Towner was determined to be a non-threat by the government and was not detained, deported, jailed, or interned as some Bund leaders and Pelley were. An invisible army of indigenous supporters of the Nazis did not rise up in Seattle, Portland or anywhere in the Americas, and Native Americans played a significant role in the war effort.

Towner’s admiration of Hitler and hatred of Jews was not widely shared among Native Americans. According to scholar Paul C. Rosier’s book, “Serving Their Country: American Indian Politics and Patriotism in the 20th Century,” some 25,000 Native Americans served during the war. They did so for many reasons, including patriotism, martial tradition, and the fact that many recognized in Nazism and fascism some of the forces that they had been fighting since colonialism arrived on America’s shores.

Red Cloud seems to have retired from lecturing after Pearl Harbor — certainly his paying audiences were no more after the attack, as the Bund and Silver Shirts disbanded and the far-right turned away from overt Nazism. Towner continued to practice law and work for Native Americans until his death in the early 1950s.

The closest thing I’ve found to Towner’s own second thoughts about his Red Cloud phase was a comment he reportedly made as the meeting with the Jewish attorney David Robinson was breaking up. As a chain smoking Towner prepared to leave the Robinson’s office, he was heard to say, half to himself and half to his associates: “I guess I did some wrong talking.”

Further Reading:

  • Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn And the Rise and Fall of the German-American Bund by Arne Bernstein (St. Martins Press, 2013) is an excellent overview with a chapter on New Moon and Red Cloud.
  • Serving Their Country: American Indian Politics and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century by Paul C. Rosier (Harvard University Press, 2009) gives an excellent context on the Indian Reform Act and the relations between Native Americans and American Nazis.
  • The People Are Dancing Again: The History of the Siletz Tribe of Western Oregon by Charles Wilkinson (University of Washington Press) is an excellent history of Towner’s people and their historic challenges up to the present day.
  • William Dudley Pelley: A Life in Right-Wing Extremism and the Occult By Scott Beekman (Syracuse University Press, 2005) give details on the Silver Shirt movement and its founder, who were relative popular in the Northwest in the 1930s.
  • Also, the George E. Rennar Collection at the Oregon Historical Society in Portland contains extensive files on right-wing groups in Oregon in the 1930s. The file on the German-American Bund yielded eyewitness accounts of Bund meetings and documents related to Towner, his speeches, transcripts and letters related to his activities.
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