by David A. Cornsilk
Managing Editor in 1997
For many years a battle has been brewing in the Cherokee Nation. This battle isn't one you will see on television or watch outside the local bar. This battle isn't between two diverse groups of people who don't like each other for ridiculous reasons, such as skin color, religion, creed or national origin. No, this battle is between members of the same household, the Cherokees.
The Cherokees, from the beginning of our recorded history in the 1700's, have been a divided people. Natural lines or fractures exist in our society which with external pressure, open into wide fissures. These fissures create what appear to be irreparable wounds which prevent unity and sap the strength of our Nation.
The old adage, "Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it", is appropriate for a Nation so rich in history and lessons from the past as the Cherokees.
Described by outsiders as a single Nation under the title of Cherokees, we called ourselves the Principal People (A-ni-yuh-wee-yuh) and KEETOOWAH people (A-ni-kee-too-wah-gee). The former was used in conversations with or about other Nations of Indians to show the Cherokee superiority. The term in now commonly used to refer to all Indians. The latter term was more spiritual in nature and was used among Cherokee speakers to refer to themselves.
Kituhwa was the mother town or original settlement of the Cherokees. The town served as a spiritual center and capitol for the Cherokee people until the development of a new capitol at Chota. The town of Kituhwa has long since faded into the annals of Cherokee history and even its true location is a mystery. Some scholars believe the town is located in western North Carolina near the present reservation of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
The Cherokee Nation, from the earliest records, was divided into several bands separate from each other by geographic features and language dialects. Each band functioned politically separate from all others and within each band, the towns functioned as separate political entities. In times of warfare, each band and town made a choice to join together for defense, remain neutral or even fight against each other. The situation was much like the city-state politics of early Greece and medieval Italy. The Cherokees did not unify under a single government until the English, weary from dealing with so many "heads of state", withheld vital trade goods until the Cherokees selected an "Emperor", through whom the British could deal.
Clearly, the novel concept of a single, all-powerful monarch was foreign to the democratic Cherokees and sub chiefs continued to play a vital role in the development of the tribe and its foreign policy.
Warfare broke out frequently in the Cherokee country during the 1700's, mainly due to the machinations of the agents of France, Spain, or England. Most of the Cherokee towns were strongly in favor of British trade. This was not true of the five Chickamauga towns under the leadership of Dragging Canoe and later, The Bench, ancestor of the Benge family. Runningwater, Nickajack, Chickamauga, Tinsawatie, and Elijay were closely aligned with the Spanish in Florida and their English spy, John McDonald, who ran a trading post at Pensacola and was the grandfather of Chief John Ross.
The Chickamauga Cherokees fought against the settlement of lands ceded by the pro-English Cherokee government to the British colonies. Dragging Canoe stated, "The settlement of this land shall be dark and bloody", and he made it so. The names of Dragging Canoe, The Bench and the Chickamauga Cherokees became the most feared in the territory. The fighting couldn't go on forever and upon the assassination of the Bench, the Chickamauga laid down their arms, and the Cherokees would wage no further wars with the European and American powers.
1790 saw great changes taking place in the Cherokee Nation and in its relationship to the new nation, the United States. Prideful from their victory over Britain and hungry for land, the Americans were eager to punish the Cherokees for siding with the British during the Revolutionary War. Land cessions became the order of the day. With a single head of state, the only formality in obtaining more was the correct amount of rum and trinkets.
Many sub chiefs, dissatisfied with the Nation's politics and their own diminishing power, chose to separate from the Cherokee Nation and become a separate political entity. This was accomplished by leaving the eastern homeland and finding suitable territory west of the Mississippi.
A small group of Cherokees settled in the Arkansas territory, established their own government and requested recognition from the United States. In the treaties of 1817, 1819, 1828 and 1833, the Western Cherokees were recognized as a separate Nation. Once again we can see that outside pressures of white emigration, cultural genocide and political change drove the Cherokees to fracture into two separate Nation's.
At the same time, the Eastern Cherokees were struggling to hold on to their ancestral homeland which had been reduced to about one-fifth (1/5) its original size. Pressure was being placed on the Cherokees to emigrate west and join the Western Cherokees in Arkansas Territory, and after 1828, in Indian Territory.
The Spanish and the French continued to put pressure on the Southern Cherokees and the now sovereign states of Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and North Carolina were harassing the Cherokee Nation. All of these pressures combined to create an explosive atmosphere for the Cherokee people to begin drawing lines and creating fissures.
The Western Cherokees, prospering in their new homes, sent letters and messages to the Eastern Cherokees of a land of milk and honey. They talked of the abundance of nature, the fruit of one's labor and the absence of the ruinous influence of the white man. In a letter to the Eastern Cherokees, Chief George Lowrey begged his eastern brethren to join him in his happiness in the west. He signed his letter in the Cherokee Syllabary developed by his cousin Sequoyah, and followed his name with the heading Kituhwa-gi. The A-ni-ki-tu-wa-gi had established themselves as a separate government in the west.
During the period of turmoil in the east, factions developed and merged and redeveloped almost on a daily basis. The Cherokees living in North Carolina long the Occonuluftee River, under the leadership of their chief Junaluska (Drowning Bear), severed their ties with the Cherokee Nation East, relinquished their Cherokee citizenship and became citizens of the state of North Carolina.
During the Cherokee Removal of 1838-39, Junaluska's band of Cherokees were not required to leave and remained unmolested as their brethren were driven west over the Trail Where They Cried, Junaluska's band became the nucleus of what is known today as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina, a separate political entity.
The Cherokees who lost their homes in the east came west in two very distinct factions. Between 1835 and 1837, members of the Treaty Party included signers of the now infamous Treaty of New Echota and other supporters of removal who voluntarily relinquished their homes and lands in the east.
The years of 1838-39 saw the forced mass migration of the Cherokees opposed to removal and the treaty which had caused it. Bitter hatred seethed in the hearts of families who had lost everything, including family members to the removal. Of course the U. S. Government was the true culprit, but convenience laid the blame on the Treaty Party and the Western Cherokees, now known as Old Settlers. Murder in the Cherokee Nation was an everyday occurrence and revenge killings were rampant.
The Treaty Party, its members fearful of being murdered, sided with the Old Settlers for protection or fled to Texas where many of their descendants continue to reside today. The emigrant or Ross faction of the Cherokee Nation, with members to their advantage, decided to overpower the Western Cherokee's government and install their Chief, John Ross, as the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.
Even the title "Principal Chief", speaks to the factionalism common to our Nation. Many sub chiefs continued to wield great power in the Nation. Principal Chief was used to distinguish Ross from the numerous sub chiefs.
In June 1839, an Act of Union was written by William Shorey Coody, an Old Settler, uniting the warring factions of the Cherokee tribes into one Nation under the control of the Principal Chief, John Ross. The Act of Union brought together, by mutual agreement, the Ross Party, the Treaty Party, and the Old Settlers. The Act, however, was just a piece of paper and only as good as Ross' leadership. Fighting and bloodshed continued among the Cherokees for seven years. It was not until 1846 that John Ross successfully negotiated a new treaty and was able to soothe the torn and weary Cherokee people. The wounds were deep and merely awaited new pressures to split open anew.
Mixed-bloods such as the Ross, Adair, Vann, McNair, Bushyhead, Sanders and Downing families dominated the Cherokee Nation political scene. A new fissure was developing which, although near the surface, had not been seen before. The full-bloods were becoming outnumbered by their mixed-blood brethren. The full-bloods, dominated by thinkers from the A-ni-ki-tu-wa-gi, were losing power in the Cherokee Nation.
Pig Smith, Creek Sam, and other traditionalists joined forces with Evan and John Jones, white baptist Missionaries, to create a political and spiritual body to empower the full-bloods in Cherokee politics. In 1859, this faction of Cherokees lead by Old Settlers, incorporated as the Keetoowah Society. Favoring traditional Cherokee ways, values and religion, this group was opposed to mixed-blood domination of Cherokee affairs, land cessions, and slavery.
The winter of 1859-60 saw the issue of slavery take on the national attention of both full-blood and mixed-bloods alike. .....Fueled by the Baptist Jones' opposition to slavery and ignited by the full-blown disfranchisement, the Keetoowah Society became Northern sympathizers and abolitionist among the slave-owning mixed-bloods.
Principal Chief John Ross, ever aware of his full blood power base, resolved to remain neutral in the American Civil War, then looming on the horizon. Through the pressures of Stand Watie, a Cherokee Confederate General and Treaty party leader, and the almost total abandonment of the Cherokee Nation by Federal troops, Ross signed a treaty with the Confederacy and joined the war. Almost immediately after signing the Confederate treaty, Ross denounced it as a fraud.
With such great pressures from the outside, the Cherokee Nation fractured along many lines. The old hatreds from the removal broke to the surface with a fury. Many murders were committed in the name of warfare that were really nothing more than revenge killings. Stand Watie and his troops rampaged through the Cherokee country killing and pillaging his OWN people and burning the homes of those he blamed for the deaths of his relatives, Major Ridge, John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot, all signers of the removal treaty.
Full bloods fled north into Kansas, while mixed-bloods, with their slaves, fled south into Texas, leaving the Cherokee Nation ripe for the picking. The Cherokees returned home after the war to a scene of total devastation. The Cherokee Nation was now totally divided along blood lines and political sympathies. Full bloods controlled the government under acting Principal Chief, Watt Pegg. The mixed-bloods demanded consideration and recognition of their chief, Stand Watie. The full bloods wanted the National government turned back over to John Ross and abhorred the thought of Stand Watie as chief.
To keep what they had gained the full bloods used the Keetoowah Society as a vehicle for political power. The spiritualist of the Society did not want to be involved in tribal politics and the Society spilt into two distinct branches, the Keetoowah Society and the National Party.
The National Party, dominated by full bloods, elected the Principal Chiefs of the Cherokee Nation until the election of Joel Mayes. The era of domination of the Cherokee Nation by mixed-bloods began again.
The Keetoowah Society became a secret society before the opening of the Civil War and due to pressures from missionaries and mixed-bloods, settled back to gain the strength that would be necessary to fight the Dawes Commission and the mixed-bloods over the allotment of tribal lands.
Under the remarkable leadership of the great Keetoowah Chief, Redbird Smith, son of Pig Smith, the Society gained the following of nearly every full-blood Cherokee in the Nation. Known as Nighthawks because of their nighttime ceremonies and secretive habits, the Keetoowahs embraced Cherokee culture and prevented its spiraling decline. The Keetoowahs even became involved in the manhunts staged by the U.S. Marshals in the 1890's for the so-called outlaws, Ned Christie and the Wickliffe boys.
Fierce nationalist, the Keetoowahs were opposed to any incursion of Cherokee sovereignty by the U S. or the states. Land cessions were unthinkable among them. Treaties were sacred vows made in the sight of God, to be honored to the letter by the United States and the Cherokees. When the threat of land allotment came, the Keetoowahs and Chief Redbird Smith rallied every ounce of strength to fight for Cherokee rights.
The Dawes Commission responded to the Keetoowah tactics to avoid enrollment by hiring Cherokee spies, usually mixed-bloods, to sniff out the full bloods and testify on their behalf and enroll them against their will. The tactic was so successful that not more than a handful of Cherokee citizens escaped enrollment.
Redbird Smith himself was imprisoned and forced to enroll. Upon his release he issued an order to his Nighthawk followers to stop resistance and, if required, to be passive about enrollment. He did, however, manage to slow down the actual division of land by having his followers refuse to choose allotments or refuse allotment certificates if land had been chosen for them.
In 1905 the remnant of the National Party and the Keetoowah Society incorporated under federal law and began what was to prove to be a 46 year struggle to regain the separate government they had before the Act of Union in June of 1839.
Convinced of the abrogation of the Act of Union, Redbird Smith set out to gain separate tribal status for the full bloods through the Keetoowah Society. By incorporating, the Society would be an organized political entity, even though they continued to function under the original Keetoowah Constitution of 1859.
Redbird Smith accepted his allotment, as well as that of his wife and children around 1914. During the time between 1906 and 1914, many Keetoowah leaders began to suspect Redbird Smith of selling out. He had accepted his allotment and had even sold some acreage of one minor son to finance home improvements! Keetoowah leaders, such as Ned Blackfox, James Hilderbrand and Eli Pumpkin broke away from the Keetoowah Society and organized their own societies. Names such as the "The Eastern and Western Cherokee Keetoowah", began to appear. These organizations operated independently of each other in their attempts to continue avoiding allotment, restoration of the old order and enforce the treaties or gain some measure of protection for the full bloods who had accepted their allotments.
A branch of the Keetoowah Society sprang up in nearly every full-blood community as Redbird Smith's influence among them began to fail. After Redbird's death in 1919, there were 22 separate Keetoowah organizations functioning independently in the Cherokee Nation. Each organization carried out its own political agenda and continued to practice the old ceremonies.
Bitter rivalries began to develop between the older sons of Redbird following his death, with each attempting to take charge of the Keetoowah Society and accusing the others of different wrongs. The youngest son of Redbird, Stoke Smith, grasped the helm and took charge of the Keetoowah Society, the mother society of all other branches.
Disturbed by the lack of unity of the twenty-one other ceremonial grounds and by the desecration of the original ground on Blackgum, Stoke Smith moved the ceremonial grounds to its present location a few miles west of Blackgum. To consolidate his authority over the diverging Keetoowah branches, Stoke visited each ground and ceremonially killed their fires and brought them home to the new mother ground at Buffalo town near his home. The last to go home were at Sugar Mountain and Chewey.
The leaders of the Keetoowah organizations were not to be thwarted so easily. Although many Keetoowahs followed the fires to the new mother ground, many continued to follow the old dethroned ground chiefs. These chiefs led their people for several years, acting as nearly as possible as despot mayors of the several communities.
Under the leadership of James Hilderbrand, Dick Pickup and Ned Blackfox, a new organization was begun. It functioned under the title of Keetoowah Society and relied heavily upon the 1905 charter of incorporation, even though the Keetoowah Society proper continued to function as a non-political, spiritual society in Sequoyah County with Stoke Smith as chief.
After the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934 and subsequently, the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act in 1936, Dick Pickup brought together the leaders of the numerous Keetoowah branches at Tahlequah. After lengthy discussion, a vote was taken to unite the fractured society under one chief and officially petition Congress for Tribal recognition under the laws. Only one chief refused to participate. Stoke Smith, leader of the Keetoowah Society proper, refused because the new organization had politics as its main concern. Stoke Smith did not, however prevent members of his society from joining the new organization.
Duly organized and ready to ask for federal recognition, a debate ensued over what to call the organization. All present were Keetoowah and wanted the name to reflect that. It was decided that because the group had been brought together and in effect united, the name United Keetoowah Society was selected. The Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington D.C. had some problem with extending federal recognition to a "society" and proposed the present name of United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma. The name was accepted and application was made for formal recognition of the UKB.
Recognition of the UKB did not come easily. There was some difficulty with the re-establishing a government for the Cherokees because of residual recognition of the old Cherokee Nation government through the appointment of the Principal Chiefs by the President of the United States. Congress, however, was able to overcome any reservations it had and extended federal recognition to the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma in 1949.
The rest is history.