Caitlin McGurk lives in Clintonville. Every day on her way into work, she passes a sign on High Street in the Old North: "Red Men Sioux Tribe No. 128."
"I first noticed it when I was admiring the kind of mid-century modern look of the Sprite sign that’s now been destroyed," McGurk says. "But I’ve always wondered what this was.”
I took a tour inside the building one day, walking to the back of the long parking lot, past "members only" signs. Seth Golding, the lodge manager, says it's home to a century-old Columbus group.
"It’s more of a fraternal club," Golding says, "where we have a lodge and come in have a couple of beverages, pop, play darts, pool."
A couple of retired members are doing just that as Golding walks through the largest room in the lodge. A bar runs the length of the room, its mirrored backsplash reflecting memorabilia depicting American Indians on the opposite wall.
"I think it’s a framed blacklight poster, pretty cool, huh?" Golding laughs. "We have various Native American artwork. We honor Native Americans. I think our name, some people think is like the Cleveland Indians or the Washington Redskins."
McGurk is among those skeptical of the name.
"Now, last time I checked, indigenous people have not embraced the term 'red man,' so I can only assume that this is something racist or rooted in racism," she asks. "Why is it still here?"
Golding says the Red Men Sioux Tribe's roots aren’t in racism, but in the Sons of Liberty in 1765.
"They patterned themselves then off the Great Iroquois Confederacy. And that’s when they dressed up as Indians for the Boston Tea Party," Golding says. "After the American Revolution, the name was changed to the Society of Red Men and they kept the Indian customs."
The group claims a number of founding fathers and U.S. presidents as members, including Paul Revere, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and, later on, both Roosevelts.
"The Official History of the Improved Order of Red Men," published in 1893, discusses its original namesake.
"History records no coalition more wonderful than that of the Hodenosaunee, known to us as the League of the Iroquois," the authors write in the introduction. "For centuries it stood unmoved and unbroken by any of the weakening internal or external influences which have laid low so many of the mighty empires of the earth. It was not until long after the advent of the paleface invader that it fell asunder."
The Red Men's sister organization, the Councils Of The Degree Of Pocahontas, branched off in 1885. But in Columbus, the two act as one, and both men and women can join the lodge.
Membership has fallen significantly since the 1800s (in 2011, the national headquarters put the number at a little more than 15,000), but Golding says that admiration is still present today.
"We honor Native Americans," he says. "It's probably the highest compliment, having their name on our moniker is a constant reminder of them."
But in the 21st century, with a better understanding of appropriation and the struggles American Indians face, is it still appropriate?
"I can see in today’s culture where things are extremely politically correct, that it has maybe become a problem to some," Golding says. "So if we’ve developed into a climate where we have to walk on eggshells to honor somebody, well it’s just the way it is."
WOSU reached out to six organizations that advocate for, or study the history of, American Indians. Only one answered, declining to comment because they did not "want to take any action that would give such groups further visibility."
The Columbus chapter, which has just 65 members, is one of six in Ohio. Its clubhouse was rebuilt on High Street in the '50s, but the group itself has a 120-year history in the city.
Beyond the social aspects of the club, the national organization fundraises for Alzheimer's research and highway safety.
Golding says they're accepting new members and any adult is eligible, although he recognizes the air of mystery that still surrounds the club.
"It is a sort of a enigma sitting here back from High Street," he says. "We’re just keeping it going, having a good time."
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