The Keetoowah Society and the Avocation of Religious Nationalism in the Cherokee Nation, 1855-1867
 Conclusion


I have endeavored in my efforts...for my people to remember that any religion must be an unselfish one. That even thought condemned, falsely accused and misunderstood by both officials and my own people I must press on and do the work of my convictions

This religion as revealed to me is larger than any man. It is beyond man's understanding. It shall prevail after I am gone. It is growth like the child growth eternal. This religion does not teach me to concern myself of the life that shall be after this, but it does teach me to be concerned with what my everyday life should be.

The fires kept burning are merely emblematic of the greater Fire, the greater Light, the Great Spirit. I realize now as never before it is not only for the Cherokees but for all mankind... [1]

Redbird Smith Chief of the Nighthawk Keetoowah 1917
Introduction

When they gathered in the chapel of Peavine Baptist Church on that evening in 1858, little did this small group of fullblood Cherokee know that they would be setting into motion the origins of a political and religious movement that would dominate Cherokee history even to the modern day. They gathered to attempt to regain control of a Nation which they felt that had been lost to a group of people whose culture and society were at odds with the way in which they had been brought up. They gathered to return the Nation to the "old way" that she might not lose her soul and become captive to an alien nation and an alien culture -- a nation where the particularities of one's birth became a determining factor in one's life. They believed that by returning to her traditions, the Cherokee Nation might be able to endure in the spite of tremendous adversity.

What they started in that small meeting at that small church in the Goingsnake District of the Cherokee Nation became one of the most enduring phenomena in Cherokee history. Even to this day in the dark nights of the Oklahoma foothills, the Nighthawk Keetoowahs hold their secret meetings to which none but the fullblood are welcome. They prepare the sacred fire as they have been taught by their parents; they dance about the fire as did their ancestors even into the seventh generation; they tell the tales of the ancestors and pass down the tradition of the wampum in ways which none but the Cherokee can understand. The "Kituwah spirit" still reigns supreme among the beloved community who value the "old ways."

In Western Arkansas, another branch of the original Keetoowah Society lives as a people of the Cherokee heritage. The United Keetoowah Band of the Cherokee Indians, a federally recognized tribe by the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs, reminds people that even though there is a Cherokee Nation East and a Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, there is yet a third "Keetoowah" people. Tracing their ancestry back to the "Old Settlers" who had come west as early as the conclusion of the Seven Years War, this branch of the Keetoowah lives as a people in both worlds, the modern and the ancient. [2] With an enrollment of nearly 8000 members, the tribal literature of the United Keetoowah Band (UKB) contends it has the largest actual number of fullblood Cherokees of any federally recognized Cherokee body in the United States. [3]

The Keetoowah Society has endured into the modern era by clinging to that which is the essential element in Cherokee Society -- the "Kituwah spirit" and its ties to religious and cultural traditionalism. When confronted with the challenges of modernity and the ever present threat of total cultural and social assimilation, the Cherokee time and again return to the political nationalism, the religious communitarianism, the egalitarian humanism, and the radical social consciousness which exists in the personification of the "Kituwah spirit." Central to the Keetoowah ideal was a belief in the universalism of the human spirit as exemplified in the thought of Redbird Smith, leader of the Nighthawk Keetoowahs, "this religion that is revealed to me is larger than any man... this religion does not teach me to concern myself of the life that shall be after this, but it does teach me to be concerned with what my everyday life should be. The fires kept burning are merely emblematic of the greater Fire, the greater Light, the Great Spirit. I realize now as never before it is not only for the Cherokees but for all mankind..." [4]

"Union is strength; dissension is weakness, misery ruin" [5]

At this time it might seem that our society was scattered on account of other or different lodges, societies, and companies being organized amongst our people. The purpose of some is greed, some to oppress your fellow man of his character, some to assist the railroad companies, some to deprive each individual of his property, some to destroy the Cherokee National Government... From the way it looks now we are liable to lose our government; for that reason we resolve by the Keetoowah meeting that we should reorganize our old Keetoowah Society as friends, loyal to each, to abide by our old laws.
Reorganization of the Keetoowah Society February 15, 1876 [6]
In her 1996 work entitled African Americans and Native Americans in the Creek and Cherokee Nations 1830's to 1920's: Collision and Collusion, ethnohistorian Katja May looks at the role of the Keetoowah Society in the Cherokee Nation. In such, she makes the following assertion:
 
The term Keetoowah was also an umbrella term for several competing groups known by that name. Keetoowah groups did not have African American members, unlike "traditionalist" or "nativist" movements in the Muskogee Nation... [7]
This position is at odds with the historical situation in the Cherokee Nation. The accuracy of her second position is mitigated against by the inaccuracy of her first position; Ms. May is using evidence based in an historical analysis of the Cherokee Nation in the latter nineteenth century to make a universal statement about the Keetoowah Society. The Keetoowah Society was several competing groups only following the dissension in the Nation as a result of the forced decollectivization of the Cherokee Nation following the Civil War; that there were no African American members of the Keetoowah Society is a position advanced yet unsupported.

At a later point, she argues that "They [the Keetoowah] engaged in guerrilla warfare [sic] against Confederate Cherokees, but were "abolitionists" only in the context of whether their lifestyle as traditional Cherokees was in danger" [8] What May presents as a position against the purportedly "abolitionist" position of the Keetoowah Society is at the core of the critical issues raised by this dissertation. It is precisely that "abolitionism" was at the center of the "lifestyle of the traditional Cherokees" that compelled them to collectively organize and battle for the freedom of African American Cherokee. In the "old way" was an understanding of humanity that predated the racism of the enveloping European culture; in the traditional society, there was a loyalty to a Cherokee Nation based upon a common culture and not upon the prevailing ideas of modernity.

It is also important to realize that the Keetoowah Society had its origins within the Baptist Church, a church that was a mixed congregation from its very beginnings in the Old South as well as in the Indian Territory. To put forward the position that there were no African American Keetoowah is to attempt to rip the society from its historic roots deep within the Baptist Church. It is also to deny the common struggle and the horrendous losses of African Americans and Native Americans during the struggle to end slavery and reunite a people fought during the years 1861-1865. We can rest assured that just as there were blacks protecting the people on the Trail of Tears, there were African sentries posted at Caving Banks to ask the question "Who are you?" and to respond "I am Keetoowah's Son."

The Keetoowah's commitment to African American enfranchisement was further evidenced following the Civil War. Though the Cherokee Nation, and the Downing Party as well, was composed of former slaveowners, the leadership of the Keetoowah Society continued to press for the rights of their African American constituency. One member of the Nation wrote to then President Grant in 1872 of the Keetoowah advocacy of African American political rights in spite of severe challenges:
 

Mr. Grant...most of the Cherykees is down on the darkys. The Cherykees says they aint in favour of the black man havin any claim, that they had rather have any body else have a rite than us poor blacks...[Lewis] downing, is for us, Chelater [Oochalata], and mr. Six Killer, them tree is in our favour, and what can they doo with so many [on the other side]? ... [We] all think it rite too, after we have made them rich and built their land, doo you [?]... Now, mister grante, I wante a mesig from [you] rite away. [9]
In spite of the provision in the Treaty of 1866 preventing citizenship to African American "latecomers," Lewis Downing, in one of his first acts in office, introduced a bill granting citizenship to the "latecomers." The bill did not pass but not so much because of racism within the Nation, but because the more people that were involved in the distribution of Cherokee lands, the smaller would be the allotment for each individual citizen. Year after year, the Keetoowah Downing, Oochalata, and Sixkiller introduced bills granting citizenship to the "latecomers" but the opposition to these bills was strong and the bills never passed. The fullbloods commitment to the African American brethren was consistent and unwavering. [10]

On the eve of his reelection campaign, Lewis Downing once again submitted a bill granting citizenship to the "latecomers" and it was again defeated; that he even introduced a bill which so controversial spoke to his intents should he be reelected. Upon his reelection, he resubmitted the bill granting citizenship to the "latecomers" only to have it defeated once again in the Senate. William Boudinot wrote of the bill's defeat in the Senate:

The bill to admit Blacks, formerly slaves of Cherokees who failed to return to the Nation in the time required by the treaty, was lost this week in the Senate. We admire the generous feelings which must have actuated the Principal Chief in recommending such a measure... We share [his] sympathy with the unfortunate colored persons whom accident or inability prevented from realizing the greatest boon ever given to any of the Race. But there is one consolation for us. It is the reflection that what land these persons missed accepting still belongs to those who owned it before, and that their shares, already too small, are not further reduced. [11]
Federal Agent John B. Jones of the Keetoowah Society expressed the feelings of "many of the fullbloods" when he stated:
[The Senate] did not take into account the fact that these colored people and their ancestors have labored for Cherokees unpaid for many years, and that the fruits of such unpaid toil have afforded the means of defraying the expenses of educating many of the most highly cultivated Cherokees. As far as I am concerned, the class thus educated are the loudest and most influential in opposing the adoption as citizens of their former slaves. [12]
In the Creek Nation, the relationship between the Africans and the Creek Keetoowah was quite more profound and explicit than it was in the Cherokee Nation; the Creek had always been more receptive to Africans and had much less assimilated than others of the Five Nations. In the peace negotiations following the Civil War, several members of the negotiating party of the Northern Creeks were Africans including the Reverend Harry Islands. [13] When Samuel Checote of the Southern Creek surrendered leadership of the Creek Nation to Sands Harjo, the council met at the home of an African American Creek named Scipio Barnett. [14] When terms of a new treaty were negotiated in Washington in 1866, Reverend Harry Islands was the translator between the Creek Representatives and the Federal authorities led by Ely S. Parker. [15]

In the Creek national elections of 1870, it was the "colored towns" of North Fork, Arkansas, and Canadian who unanimously backed the full blood candidates for office and carried them to victory. In the elections of 1875, once again the "colored towns" were decisive in carrying Lochar Harjo and Ward Coachman to chieftainship in the Creek Nation; the conservative/freedmen alliance controlled the destiny of the Creek Nation time and again.

In the years following the Civil War in the Creek Nation, the Keetoowah Society became a powerful political force and "exerted a strong hidden influence throughout the nation," yet, interestingly enough, "its political alignment at this point cannot be exactly determined." [16] As the leadership of the Keetoowah Society increasingly promoted diversity within the Creek Nation, there occurred a split within the ranks just as in the Cherokee Nation. Samuel Checote, Methodist Freemason and former leader of the Southern Creeks, came to be associated with the "Pins"; the conservative leadership that had formerly been associated with the Keetoowah Society became known as the Loyal Party.

After a contentious election in 1880 that was decided by fifteen votes in the popular election and one vote margin in the house, Samuel Checote returned to power in the Creek Nation. Almost immediately, there was trouble when the empowered African American members of the Creek Nation came into conflict with former Southern Cherokees and Texans who sought to keep them in their place. Conflict escalated as the Africans and their supporters among the full blood fought against allotment; eventually the people "put on the shuck" and struggle erupted into in what came to be known as the "Green Peach War of 1882." [17] In the early days of the twentieth century, the Creek Keetoowah once again united under the leadership of Chitto Harjo and engaged in what was known as the "Crazy Snake Uprising" against the Dawes Allotment Act and its attempt at forced destruction of the "old ways." [18]

In 1875, the Cherokee Nation elected Charles Thompson (Oochalata) over William Potter Ross to be the Principal Chief in one of the most contentious and violent elections in Cherokee history; the decision was carried by less than fifteen votes. Thompson, born in North Carolina in 1821 and raised as a full blood, was baptized and raised and became a deacon and licensed preacher in the Baptist churches of Evan and John Jones; he was also a member of the Keetoowah Society as early as 1859 and served in both Drew's regiment and Lewis Downing's Third Indian Home Guard. [19] Following the Civil War, he returned to the Nation to pursue a law practice and to maintain a small store in the Delaware District; following his election as Principal Chief, he was ordained to the Baptist ministry. [20]

Shortly after Thompson's election, the Keetoowah Society reorganized in order to assist Thompson in his pledge to restore traditional Cherokee values concerning social harmony, sharing, and cooperation. The provisions of reorganization of the Keetoowah Society described to the splintering of the Nation in terms reminiscent of earlier eras:

The purpose of some is greed, some to oppress your fellow man of his character, some to assist the railroad companies, some to deprive each individual of his property, some to destroy the Cherokee National Government... From the way it looks now we are liable to lose our government; for that reason we resolve by the Keetoowah meeting that we should reorganize our old Keetoowah Society as friends, loyal to each, to abide by our old laws. [21]
They also echoed the sentiments of Chief Thompson:
There is a class of people in the United States, embracing a powerful minority, chiefly speculators, that have but little, if any, respect for our national or individual rights, who lust for our lands. I have no doubt that this last named class is led not only by wealthy men, but also by men of very strong ability who, by their shrewdness, have managed to occupy generally the chief seats of financial and political power in the United States and have, through Congressional legislation and otherwise, preyed upon the people. [22]
The Keetoowah Society once more became a powerful political and social force in the Nation; not only did they provide steadfast support for Thompson, they successfully controlled the leadership of the Cherokee Nation until the end of the Indian Territory in the 1890's. [23] The Keetoowah Society made the "Kituwah spirit" first and foremost in Cherokee politics, defining Cherokee patriotism in ethnic and cultural terms rather than economic and political ones. [24]

Consistent with this theory was Thompson's commitment to including the "too-late" former slaves in the discussions around national identity and political sovereignty. Oochalata once again proposed to the council in 1875 that the "too-late" African American residents of the Indian Territory be made citizens of the Cherokee Nation; again the council refused to take any decisive action toward that end. Increasingly, the fate of the "too-late" African Americans became tied to that of the flood of white "intruders" who had deluged the Nation following the opening up of the territory by the railroads. [25]

The central issue of defining who was a Cherokee, a question regarding political sovereignty and national identity so important that a war was fought over it, increasingly became an issue to be decided by federal bureaucracies. The loss of control over this issue became emblematic of the increasing interference and domination of Cherokee National affairs by the federal government and led to what William McLoughlin has termed "the twilight of Cherokee sovereignty." [26] In addition, it was the assault upon the political sovereignty of the Cherokee Nation by the federal government over the issue of the fate of "intruders" that led to the "estrangement between red and black peoples, who though different lived as One." [27]

Appealing to Federal authorities, the "too-late" African American Cherokee made their claim to Cherokee citizenship:

The Cherokee Nation is our country; there we were born and reared; there are our homes made by the sweat of our brows; there are our wives and children, whom we love as dearly as though we were born with red, instead of black skin. [28]
This political struggle over the sovereignty of the Cherokee Nation, one in which race was an issue but never a factor, became symbolic for the larger destiny of the people of the Nation. It once again characterized how the Federal government used idealistic moralism to cover for political disenfranchisement and the colonialism of economic speculation. Had the Cherokee council but listened to the pleas of the Keetoowah Society, then this loss too could have been prevented. Had we but listened to the words of Charles Thompson of the Keetoowah Society, perhaps we might find ourselves in a different state. We reflect on the words of one Keetoowah leader:
This religion as revealed to me is larger than any man. It is beyond man's understanding. It shall prevail after I am gone. It is growth like the child growth eternal. This religion does not teach me to concern myself of the life that shall be after this, but it does teach me to be concerned with what my everyday life should be.
The fires kept burning are merely emblematic of the greater Fire, the greater Light, the Great Spirit. I realize now as never before it is not only for the Cherokees but for all mankind... [29]
Finis

In the early 1880's Senator Henry Dawes of Massachusetts toured the Cherokee Nation under the auspices of a small group of Eastern humanitarians who met annually to discuss the "Indian question." Dawes described his discussion with then Chief Dennis Bushyhead to the assembled multitude at Lake Mohonk:

The head chief told us that there was not a family in that whole nation that had not a home of its own. There was not a pauper in that nation, and the nation did not owe a dollar. It built its own capitol, in which we had this examination, and it built its schools and its hospitals. Yet the defect of this system was apparent. They have got as far as they can go, because they hold their land in common. It is Henry George's system, and under that there is no enterprise to make your home any better than that of your neighbors. There is no selfishness, which is at the bottom of civilization. Till this people will consent to give up their lands, and divide them among their citizens so that each an own the land he cultivates, they will not make more progress. [30]
By 1896, the Dawes Commission was authorized by Congress to take a census of the Cherokee Nation and to determine who from among them was entitled to receive a portion in the following division and distribution of the Cherokee lands. Two years later the Curtis Act effectively ended the traditional government of the Cherokee Nation. In 1907, the state of Oklahoma came into being.

The Keetoowah Society was at the center of the resistance to the Dawes Allotment Act and the Curtis Act and fought valiantly and often violently for the preservation of traditional Cherokee society and the preservation of the "old ways." Names such as Redbird Smith, Smith Christie, Zeke Proctor, Isparhecher, and Chitto Harjo became legendary figures in Native American history. Their struggle against the combined forces of the federal government, the state of Oklahoma, and tribal officials is a remarkable story of conviction and resistance in the face of overwhelming odds. That, however, is another story.


Footnotes

[1] Redbird Smith quoted in Janey Hendrix, Redbird Smith and the Nighthawk Keetoowahs (Park Hill: Cross Cultural Education Center, 1983), 79.

[2] Allogan Slagle, "Burning Phoenix" The United Keetoowah Band of the Cherokee Indians of Oklahoma Website, 1993. See also Georgia Ray Leeds, The United Keetowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma (Ph.D. Dissertation: University of Oklahoma, 1992)

[3] Stephen M. Fabian, "Three Nations - One People," The United Keetoowah Band of the Cherokee Indians of Oklahoma Website, 1993.

[4] Redbird Smith quoted in Janey Hendrix, Redbird Smith and the Nighthawk Keetoowahs (Park Hill: Cross Cultural Education Center, 1983), 79.

[5] John Ross quoted in William Gerald McLoughlin, After the Trail of Tears: the Cherokees' Struggle for Sovereignty, 1839-1880 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 183.

[6] Howard Tyner, The Keetoowah Society in Cherokee History (MA, University of Tulsa, 1949), Appendix A.

[7] Katja May, African Americans and Native Americans in the Creek and Cherokee Nations 1830's to 1920's: Collision and Collusion (New York: Garland Publishing, 1996), 79.

[8] May, 81.

[9] Lewis Rough to President Ulysses S. Grant quoted in McLoughlin, After the Trail of Tears, 254.

[10] McLoughlin, After the Trail of Tears, 252-253.

[11] William Boudinot, quoted in McLoughlin, After the Trail of Tears, 283.

[12] John B. Jones to Commissioner of Indian Affairs, February 21, 1872, National Archives Film M-234, reel 105, 0283.

[13] Angie Debo, The Road to Disappearance (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1921), 168.

[14] Debo, The Road to Disappearance, 169.

[15] Debo, The Road to Disappearance, 171-172.

[16] Debo, The Road to Disappearance, 203.

[17] Debo, The Road to Disappearance, 268-281; Hendrix, 25-71; May, 137-144.

[18] Debo, The Road to Disappearance, 376; Hendrix, 62-63; May, 145-169.

[19] John Bartlett Meserve, "Chief Lewis Downing and Chief Charles Thompson" in Chronicles of Oklahoma 16 (September 1938): 322-323; McLoughlin, After the Trail of Tears, 325.

[20] Emmett Starr, History of the Cherokee Indians (Oklahoma City: Ok: Warden Company, 1921), 263.

[21] Howard Tyner, The Keetoowah Society in Cherokee History (MA, University of Tulsa, 1949), Appendix A.

[22] Charles Thompson in Cherokee Advocate, May 9, 1874.

[23] Howard Tyner, The Keetoowah Society in Cherokee History (MA, University of Tulsa, 1949), 60.

[24] McLoughlin, After the Trail of Tears, 343.

[25] McLoughlin, After the Trail of Tears, 345.

[26] McLoughlin, After the Trail of Tears, 339.

[27] bell hooks, "Revolutionary Renegades" in Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1992), 183.

[28] hooks, 182.

[29] Redbird Smith quoted in Janey Hendrix, Redbird Smith and the Nighthawk Keetoowahs (Park Hill: Cross Cultural Education Center, 1983), 79.

[30] Board of Indian Commissioners, Annual Report 1885 (House Executive Documents, 49th Congrees, 1st Session, Number 109), 90-91.


This page last updated on Thursday, December 16, 2004

© USGenNet Inc., 2004, All Rights Reserved


Introduction
Beneath the Underdog
Are You Kituwah’s Son?
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Conclusion

Table of Content Pages

Minges Research Papers
United States
Repository Home Page