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The Improved Order of Red Men traces its origin to certain secret patriotic societies founded before the American Revolution. They were established to promote Liberty and to defy the tyranny of the English Crown. Among the early groups were: The Sons of Liberty, the Sons of St. Tammany, and later the Society of Red Men.
Their rituals and regalia are modeled after those used by Native Americans. The organization claimed a membership of about half a million in 1935, but has declined to less than 38,000.
On December 16, 1773, a group of men—all members of the Sons of Liberty—met in Boston to protest the tax on tea imposed by England. When their protest went unheeded, they disguised themselves as Mohawk Indians, proceeded to Boston harbor, and dumped overboard 342 chests of English tea. (See Boston Tea Party.)
However, for the next 35 years, each of the original Sons of Liberty and Sons of St. Tamina groups went their own way, under many different names. In 1813, at historic Fort Mifflin, near Philadelphia, several of these groups came together and formed one organization known as the Society of Red Men. The name was changed to the Improved Order of Red Men in Baltimore in 1834. In the late 18th century, social and benevolent Tammany Societies, named after Tamanend, were formed. The most famous of these was New York City's Society of St. Tammany, which grew into a major political machine known as "Tammany Hall." Around 1813, a disenchanted group created the philanthropic "Society of Red Men" at Fort Mifflin in Philadelphia. From this, the "Improved Order of Red Men" was later formed as a working man's drinking group similar to the Odd Fellows fraternal organization.
In 1886, its membership requirements were defined in the same pseudo-Indian phrasing as the rest of the constitution:
|“||Sec. 1. No person shall be entitled to adoption into the Order except a free white male of good moral character and standing, of the full age of twenty-one great suns, who believes in the existence of a Great Spirit, the Creator and Preserver of the Universe, and is possessed of some known reputable means of support.||”|
In one 1886 tribe, a member's 12 cent a week dues went into a fund which was used to pay disability benefits to members at a rate of about "three fathoms per seven suns" ($3/week) for up to "six moons" (6 months) and then two dollars a week. Some medical care ("a suitable nurse") was available, and also a death benefit of one hundred dollars. The fund was invested in bonds, mortgages, and "Building Association Stock". Meetings were weekly on Friday nights.
The Order has a three tiered structure. Local units are called "Tribes" and are presided over by a "Sachem" and a board of directors. Local meeting sites are called "Wigwams". The state level is called the "Reservation" and governed by a "Great Sachem" and "Great Council" or "Board of Chiefs". The national level is the "Great Council of the United States". The Great Council consists of the "Great Incohonee" (president), and a "Board of Great Chiefs", which includes the "Great Senior Sagamore" (first vice-president), "Great Junior Sagamore", "Great Chief of Records" (secretary), "Great Keeper of the Wampum" and "Prophet" (past president). The headquarters of the Order has been in Waco, Texas, since at least 1979. They maintain an official museum and library in Waco.
A side degree of the order was founded in 1890 as the National Haymakers' Association. There was also once a uniformed division called the Knights of Tammany, as well as a group called the Chieftains League which consisted of members who had been exalted to the Chief Degree (see below) and were in good standing within their respective Tribes.
In 1952 the Order created the Degree of Hiawatha, as a youth auxiliary for males 8 and up. Most of the members of the Degree of Hiawatha were concentrated in New England. In 1979 there were less than 5,000 members in approximately 125 "Councils"
Until 1974, the Order was open to whites only. That year the 106th Great Council of the United States eliminated the all white clause in what was called a "turning point for the order". The Improved Order of the Red Men grew in membership in the late 19th century. It reached 519,942 members in forty-six states in 1921, but had declined to 31,789 in 32 states in 1978 and to 15,251 by 2011.
The order itself claims direct descent from the Sons of Liberty, noting that the Sons participated in the Boston Tea Party dressed as Native Americans. Thus, they continue to dress as Native Americans and are organized into tribes and such.
Like its organization, the Order ritual terminology is derived from language attributed to Native Americans, though it also shows the influence of Freemasonry. Outsiders are called "Palefaces", to open a meeting is called "kindling the fire", officers' installations are called "Raising up of Chiefs" and voting is called "twigging". The Masonic influence is seen in the three basic degrees - Adoption, Warrior and Chief. There is also a fourth degree, Beneficiary, for insurance.
The order has historically opposed federal welfare programs, waste in government and Communism. In the 1970s the order began to support the struggles of the Native Americans by creating the American Indian Development program, designed to aid American Indian children by providing education and health care. By 1976 it had sponsored 212 adoptions of Native American children. The order has also given assistance to the blind and to the "retarded".
In 1850, the German-language Metamora Tribe of Baltimore refused to pay a benefit, even though the Great Councils of Maryland and the United States decided that it was legal and proper for them to do so. The Tribe then surrendered its charter and formed a new, German-speaking Independent Order of Red Men. It asked the other German-language Tribes (or Stamms) to join the new group, but few did so. The Independent Order had a height of 12,000 members, though in the 1880s many Stamms returned to the Improved Order. It still existed in 1896, but according to Albert C. Stevens it gave "no sign of vigorous growth". In the early 1920s, Preuss could not get into contact with them, but felt it probably still existed.
In 1904, another group called the Independent Order of Red Men emerged in Virginia, this time composed entirely of African-Americans. When the Improved Order objected to the use of the name, the leader of the group, R. M. Spears, had the charter withdrawn and renamed the group the "Afro-American Order of Red Men and Daughters of Pocahontas". The Virginia IORM still apparently considered an injunction against the new group, but it is unclear how the episode turned out. A Tribe #23 based Metompkin, Virginia is attested by the existence of a ribbon badge in the collection of Theda Skocpol, suggesting that the group had at least 23 local Tribes in the state. The badge is identical to the ones worn by the IORM, except with the AAORM initials.