The Improved Order of Red Men is a fraternal organization, in some ways structurally similar to Freemasonry, and perhaps typical of the many fraternal organizations once widely popular across the United States. This one, without wishing to question the sincerity of its rank and file, was founded upon what may be described as a stereotypically patriotic and romantic vision of the Revolutionary War and of Native American culture.
According to their own website, the Improved Order of Red Men has its origin in 'secret patriotic societies' founded before the American Revolution. These were essentially revolutionary in character, whose intention was the overthrow of colonial rule. Such groups they inform us, included The Sons of Liberty, the Sons of St. Tammany, and later the Society of Red Men.
On December 16, 1773 a group of men, called the Sons of Liberty, perceived of as members of a formal organization in the account of the IORM, met in Boston to protest the tax on tea imposed by England. Although their initial protest resulted in the resignation of Andrew Oliver, the Massachusetts stamp officer, a group of individuals led by Samuel Adams disguised as Mohawk Indians, subsequently dumped 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor.
Modern patriotic interpretations of American history imagine these secret societies as quite formal and organized affairs. The reality was neither so clear cut nor romantic. There was definitely a leadership which established ties across the colonies with a specific political agenda. These were most often educated public figures, and members of the more professional trades. Sometimes these groups took the name of Sons of Liberty or Liberty Boys, and sometimes they didn’t. Being a child of liberty was a flexible concept, and sometimes debated. The vision of the IORM is both reified and romantic. They describe what was a complex, dispersed, and initially inconsistent reaction against British policy in these scripted terms: "members of secret societies quenched their council fires and took up muskets to join with the Continental Army. To the cause of Freedom and Liberty they pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honors. At the end of the hard fought war the American Republic was born and was soon acknowledged among the nations of the world."
The site of the IORM tells us that following the American Revolution many of these revolutionary secret societies continued in existence as brotherhoods or fraternities. While there may be exceptions, it is more likely that patriotic citizens of the new nation formed fraternal organizations to celebrate their patriotic feelings, basing one or two upon the by then mythic revolutionary secret societies. The connections between the original groups and later societies are most likely more one of inspiration than it is historical.
Again, according to the official site of the IORM, "for the next 35 years, however, 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. At Baltimore, Maryland, in 1847, the various local tribes came together and formed a national organization called the Grand Council of the United States. With the formation of a national organization, the Improved Order of Red Men soon spread, and within 30 years there were State Great Councils in 21 states with a membership of over 150,000. The Order continued to grow and by the mid-1920s there were tribes in 46 states and territories with a membership totaling over one-half million."
Other people utilized the name for various purposes, indicating that such names probably represented more a symbolic association than a literal one. In 1859, a longtime congressman named Joshua Giddings becoming frustrated with the unjust nature of American laws upholding slavery, established a committee in Ashtabula County, Ohio, to use force against slave catchers. He named this committee the Sons of Liberty.
One of these rednecks. Brant Scott, a justice of the peace, recently elected on the Socialist Ticket, testified before a United States Senate Subcommittee - which was looking into the causes of the strike. In response to allegations that the radical strike leaders were from outside the district or were the local foreign element, Scott testified that 90% of the striking miners on the two creeks were native Americans and that a great many of them belonged to Improved Order of Red Men, the oldest fraternal organization in the United States. He should know, Scott explained, because he was the Chief of Records of the Algonquin Tribe, #74 which had its wigwam at Mucklow (now Gallagher) on Paint Creek...
Most coal mine camp communities of any size and virtually all nearby incorporated towns has a surprising number and variety of fraternal organizations. For instance, in the lower end of Fayette County, West Virginia which was essentially populated by coal miners in 1910 there were ten lodges of Masons, thirteen chapters of the Order of American Mechanics, six each of Modem Woodmen, Knights of Golden Eagles, Modern Mechanics, and thirteen Tribes of the Order of Red Men.(5) Some of these organizations were little more than benevolent societies of the type which workmen had formed before the Civil War to provide a decent funeral or tide members over in case of temporary unemployment or other emergencies. However, many lodge halls like those of the Red Men could more accurately be described as partial substitutes for familiar neighborhoods and extended family relationships which were being fragmented by the forces of modern industrialism. Fraternal Lodges also served as training ground where workers practiced many of the skills needed to sustain other organizations that would aggressively challenge a new industrial order.
There is much in the origin and development of the Improved Order of Red Men that may have made it the most comfortable lodge for Socialist miners and other radical workers in the Southern West Virginia Coal Fields. The Red Men trace their origins to the decade or so prior to the American Revolution when patriotic groups of mechanics and merchants in several colonies formed secret councils generally known as Sons of Liberty whose purpose was to oppose British mercantile policies.
It needs to be noted about the testimony of Brant Scott that identification of an individual as native American at the time was far from transparent. While many people may have had native American blood, at least in small measure, it was also a claim frequently made by people of mixed ethnicity to avoid being identified as African American or Mulatto.
In 1850, the German-language "Metamora Tribe" of Baltimore refused to pay for a benefit. The Great Councils of Maryland and the United States decided that it was legal and proper for them to do so, and as a result Metamora surrendered its charter and formed a German-speaking Independent Order of Red Men. The Independent Order had a height of 12,000 members. It still existed in 1896, but according to Albert C. Stevens it gave "no sign of vigorous growth". By the early 1920s, another researcher, Preuss could not get any response to his inquiries .
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".
It should be noted that The IORM is experiencing the same general decline that Mainstream Freemasonry and other fraternal organizations are, and with similar results. An article by Larry Perl in the Baltimore Sun in 2013, informs us that the Red Men were selling their long time lodge and merging with another group in an adjacent county.
Some general information on the structure of the IORM:
“Tribes” meet in “Wigwams” (lodges) to initiate “pale-faces” in return for “wampum,” and officers include the following:
Great Inchonee: Supreme head of the order
Sachem: Tribe head
Prophet: “Religious” leader
Senior Sagamore: Lesser chief
Junior Sagamore: Lesser chief
Chief of Records
Collector of Wampum
Keeper of Wampum
The months of the year are also given Indian or pseudo-Indian names, but they do not work according to a lunar calendar; instead, they correspond to regular Gregorian months. They are:
Cold Moon January
Snow Moon February
Worm Moon March
Plant Moon April
Flower Moon May
Hot Moon June
Buck Moon July
Sturgeon Moon August
Corn Moon September
Traveling Moon October
Beaver Moon November
Hunting Moon December
The Improved Order of Red Men also use alongside the Gregorian calendar a unique calendrical system, based on the “discovery” of the Americas by Columbus in 1492. According to the I.O.R.M dating system, 2014 would be the year 522.
The rituals are based on white perceptions of some northeastern Native American tribes, especially those of the Algonquian linguistic group. There are three degrees, Adoptive, Warrior, and Chief. There is also a non-initiatory Beneficiary Degree for insurance.
For the Warrior degree, familiar Masonic touches are employed: The coat is removed and a blindfold is applied.
The third or Chiefs degree is an adaptation of the Hiram Abif legend in Indian guise — including the use of a pipe of peace.
Apart from its customary fraternal activities, the I.O.R.M. today espouses a right-wing conservative political agenda, which is ironic given some of its history.
In 1935 there were apparently well over half a million Improved Red Men and Pocahontases. By 1965, the number had dropped below 85,000. The Degree of Pocahontas is the female auxiliary: the Degree of Hiawatha is for boys; and the Degree of Anona is for girls.