by Sandra Sac Parker (former staff member)
Recent legal action against the Horsebend Bingo Hall, Sperry,
Oklahoma, by the Tulsa County district attorney's office has brought to
public attention a Cherokee Tribal Government previously hidden from view-2sgbyg
or The United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma.
The publicity surrounding the case prompted John Hair, [from
the Kenwood Area of the Cherokee Nation] (former) Bi-Lingual Chief of the
2sgby or the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokees, to give an interview about
"I still don't want to give it", he said, but due to the litigation
going on, reporters are continually asking, 'Who's the United Keetoowah
Band? And 'Who's the Chief?' People need to know who we are."
The United Keetoowah Band of Cherokees, a federally recognized
tribal government organized approximately 50 years ago, consists of a Chief,(Present-John
Ross) Assistant Chief,(Present-Jim Henson) and a Tribal Council of nine
members elected by district.[they are the original nine districts within
the Historic boundary lines of the Cherokee Nation] Headquarters are in
Tahlequah. Its current membership is around 7500, all of whom are
at least one-quarter (1/4) Cherokee.
The 2sgby or United Keetoowah Band should not be confused with
the Keetoowah Society, also known as Nighthawks, a major traditionalist
religious society with which many people are familiar. Nor should the Band
be confused with the current Cherokee Nation, another governmental organization
established much later than the Band.
Because the Keetoowah Society is a religious society which
can be compared to any other major religion, and the two tribal governments
do not prohibit membership in the other, it is possible for a Cherokee
to belong to all three organizations.
To understand the history of the United Keetoowah
Band, it is necessary to understand the history
of the Cherokee People in this century and the latter part of the
After the Cherokee Nation was forcibly removed from its eastern
homeland, it re-established its government and society in what is
now approximately the northeastern 14 counties of Oklahoma.
The Cherokee Nation Government had executive, judicial and lawmaking
branches. A lighthorse patrol kept the peace, and the Cherokee Nation educational
system was recognized as the finest west of the Mississippi. Land was held
in common by the people, which meant a citizen could settle anywhere on
Cherokee Nation land he pleased and farm as much land as he
wanted, with the stipulation that he not encroach on any of his neighbors.
However, various Acts passed by the United States Congress in
the latter part of the 19th Century, in particular the Curtis Act of 1898,
sought to abolish [and did] the governments of the so-called Five
Civilized Tribes-The Cherokees, Creek [Muskogee], Choctaw, Chickasaw and
Seminole. The Governments were stripped of their functions, tribal
courts were abolished, and the Tribes' schools were merged into the Non-Indians'
public school system.
Most devastating, land was divided into parcels with individual
ownership, termed allotments. What the Federal Government called "excess
land" after this division was taken from the Indians, Without Just Compensation!
The territory of the Five Tribes, along with the remainder
of Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory, was officially proclaimed the
state of Oklahoma by President Theodore Roosevelt on Nov. 16, 1907.
After 1907, the only time the Cherokees had a semblance
of National Government was when the President of the United States
appointed a "Chief for a day" to act on behalf of the Cherokees that
However, Federal Policy would ultimately favor restoration of
some measure of Tribal Government, of which the major instrument was the
Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934. This Act included provisions for
chartering and reorganizing Indian Governments, but specifically excluded
This was corrected by the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act (OIWA)
of 1936, which extended the provisions of the IRA to those Tribes within
the boundaries of the state of Oklahoma.
The United Keetoowah Band of Cherokees organized in the late
1930's under the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act, said Ed Munson, former UKB
attorney. "The United Keetoowah Band was really the only governmental organization
(of the Cherokee people) at that time," he said. "But for some reason
things just weren't formalized."
"We were asked to organize a government so we would have a governing
body and to administer the Cherokee assets and monies," Chief Hair
said of this early period."Our guardian, Uncle Sam, said 'You need to form
a government to take care of your people.' They gave us lawyers and
everything to help us."
Indeed, after passage of the Indian Reorganization Act and Oklahoma
Indian Welfare Act, the Cherokees were only one of many Tribes the Department
of Interior assisted in drafting Constitutions, Codes, and Governmental
structures, The Department of Interior, through its agency the Bureau of
Indian Affairs (BIA), is charged with administering the Federal Government's
Trust responsibilities to the country's Tribes.
In 1948, Congress authorized the President to appoint Chiefs
of the Five Tribes, said Ed Munson, Cherokee Attorney (he is a descendant
from the Bushyhead family). Despite the existence of the United Keetoowah
Band Government, already at least 10 years old, Harry Truman appointed
William W. (W.W.) Keeler, a Phillips Petroleum executive and only 1/16
Cherokee, as Chief of the Cherokee Nation.
In May 1950, formal recognition of the United Keetoowah
Band came when its Constitution was signed by William E. Warne, Assistant
Secretary of the Interior, and it was ratified by the United Keetoowah
Band members in October of that year (1950). Its Charter and by-laws were
also Federally recognized.
In discussing the formation of the two different governments
for one Tribe of people, (former)Chief John Hair of Kenwood said,"We
were just led to believe this was the government. Cherokee Nation came
along time afterward. I really don't know why they set up Cherokee
Nation (of Oklahoma). I have opinions, but I better
In the beginning, W.W.Keeler and his attorney Earl Boyd Pierce
attended United Keetoowah Band Council meetings, Hair said, and told members
they (W.W.Keeler and Earl Boyd Pierce) were in a caretaker position
only and the actual Cherokee government was the United Keetoowah
Band. Once the United Keetoowah Band members were educated sufficiently
to run Cherokee affairs, Keeler promised to relinquish his position, Hair
However, W.W.Keeler's resignation never came about, and when
President Richard Nixon in 1970 authorized the appointed Chiefs of the
Five Civilized Tribes to call for Tribal elections, Keeler was elected
in 1971 to the position he had held as an appointee for over 20 years.
In the second Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma election in 1974,
[Lame-duck] Chief, W.W. Keeler endorsed Tribal Attorney Ross O. Swimmer,
who was elected with only 23% of the total votes cast.
The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma adopted a Constitution in 1975,
which was approved by Commissioner of Indian Affairs Morris Thompson in
September of 1975. Unlike the United Keetoowah Band's Constitution, the
Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma Constitution had no minimum
blood requirement, either for membership or to hold office.
That same year Congress Passed the Indian Self-Determination
And Educational Assistance Act (Public Law 93-638), which made available
funds to strengthen Tribal Governments and to provide services
to Tribal members.
The amount of funds awarded are based, to a large degree, on
the population size to be served. Most Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma proposals
base population numbers on United States Census statistics, which
includes all Indians in its jurisdiction area, rather than Tribal enrollment.
As both groups claim the Old Cherokee Nation West boundaries, this includes
United Keetoowah Band members.
Also, since neither Government prohibits membership in the other,
many Cherokees belong to both groups.
Because of this overlapping population claimed by both Governments,
Bureau of Indian Affairs officials in Muskogee, Oklahoma asked for
direction from that agency's top official, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs,
in determining funding.
This directive came in the form of a May 1979 policy memo from
Martin Seneca, then acting Deputy Commissioner of Indian Affairs, and now
the United Keetoowah Band's Attorney who is arguing the Horsebend Case
Separate funding of both groups would result in a portion of
the population being counted twice for the same purpose, he agreed. However,
both groups are recognized as having a Government-to-Government relationship
with the United States. That relationship was confirmed when both organizations
appeared on a list of federally recognized Tribes in the Feb. 6,
1979, issue of the federal register, he said.
Seneca offered three alternatives to the population overlap.
The first was that both groups pass concurring resolutions to have one
administer the program in question for both; the second, that the Bureau
of Indian Affairs Superintend would administer the program
in the absence of such concurring resolutions; and third, that if
both Governments (UKB and CNO) amended their Constitutions to prohibit
dual citizenship, then each would be funded independently.[Divide
After Seneca's memo was issued, Swimmer filed suit against the
United Keetoowah Band in Federal District Court, Hair said.
Prior to this, Chief Ross O.Swimmer had written a lengthy letter
dated April 27, 1979, to Henry Bellmon, then Oklahoma's U.S. and
now State Governor, in which he argued
"the only way of avoiding serious
conflicts and complications for all Cherokees is for Congress to act in
accordance with Article 8 of their (United Keetoowah Band's) Corporate
Charter which says their Charter may be revoked by Act
Then-Senator Bellmon relayed Swimmer's letter to Forest Gerard,
Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs (to which the position
of Commissioner of Indian Affairs had been elevated), asking for his legal
opinion on the status of the United Keetoowah Band and other bands in this
He received a reply dated July 31, 1979, from Theodore Krenzke,
Director, Office of Indian Services, whom Gerard had requested to respond.
As the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokees had organized
under the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act of 1936, It "clearly has the status
of a seperate Tribal entity," Krenzke said. Acknowledging the problem of
dual enrolled, he pointed out Seneca's memo had attempted to deal with
As for Swimmer's request that the United Keetoowah Band's charter be revoked, the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokees would remain a seperate entity unless Congress took similar action to abolish the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee's Constitution and by-laws, he said.Within six months, however, Gerard issued his own policy memo, reversing the directives set forth by Martin Seneca.