Sunday, December 18, 2011

Cherokee-Keetoowah in the mid 20th Century

Hello, everyone –

In our continuing saga of the Cherokee-Keetoowah relationships, we move into the mid-20th century. Before starting off, I will add my caveat once again: history and law are very interpretive endeavors. There will be those who disagree with this interpretation, but in the end, the only interpretation that matters is that of the federal courts. And the courts to date have supported the interpretation I am offering to you.

In 1937 the Keetoowahs had been rebuffed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in their attempt to organize as a “band or tribe of Indians” under the terms of the OIWA. The Bureau is an agency of the Executive Branch, but the other branches of government have also been empowered to create and/or recognize tribal groups as well. So in the mid-1940s, the politically-oriented Keetoowah organization(s) of that era gave it another shot. This time they approached the legislative branch, the Congress, with a request to organize as a band or tribe of Indians. And this time, in 1946, the Congress did what the Bureau had refused to do almost a decade earlier and they passed legislation recognizing the “Keetoowah Indians of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma as a band or tribe of Indians under the meaning of the [Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act]” (emphasis mine). (See attachment).

So even as Congress created this new tribe or band for the purposes of accessing the programs and benefits offered by the OIWA, they acknowledged, just as the Bureau had previously, that the Keetoowahs were a part of the Cherokee Nation. As a statute, the OIWA was passed in an era when the idea of modern tribal governmental sovereignty was probably just a gleam in a young dreamer’s eye. Certainly it was not on the radar of federal legislators. The intent of the OIWA seems to be about forming incorporated entities for small business development, especially cultural enterprises. And it seems that Congress may have approached the incorporation of the Keetoowahs from this perspective, indicating even as they did so, that they understood that this incorporated group was still within the government called the Cherokee Nation. But it is hard to know in hindsight what Congress may have understood they were doing.

It is more reliably known that the Keetoowahs were attempting simply to incorporate their organization, not to be recognized as a separate or different government from the Cherokee Nation. A former official of the United Keetoowah Band has team taught the Cherokee Nation History Course with me in the past. He has shared with classes that in the 1980s, he was fortunate to interview, in the Cherokee language, some of the “old timers” who were instrumental in the organizing effort of the 1940s. And he states unequivocally that it was never their thought to be separate from the Cherokee Nation. The Cherokee Nation was their government. They were simply trying to access additional services offered by the legislation. (Those recorded interviews, he believes, are archived at the University of Arkansas, but one would have to speak Cherokee in order to understand them!)

The incorporated group created in 1946 began to draft a Constitution, as they were allowed to do under the OIWA. In 1950, that document was approved by the BIA, in accordance with the Act, which states that all Constitutions, by-laws, and revisions of such documents, must be approved by the Bureau for groups organized under this statute. (This is one of the main reasons the Cherokee Nation has refused to reorganize under the OIWA). By this document, their official name was established as the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma (UKBCIO). But we normally refer to them as simply the UKB. They elected officers, including their first “Chief,” the Rev. Jim Pickup, and thus were launched.

Their Constitution stated that they would have elections every four years, but by 1962, they had never had an election after the first, so they were ordered by the Bureau to have another, which they did the following year. At that time, Rev. Pickup was re-elected to be their “Chief,” and Rachel Quinton, former Principal Chief Chad Smith’s grandmother, was elected their Secretary. Beginning in the early 1960s, there are some records of their meetings and efforts which were clearly centered around economic development enterprises. Interestingly, in the minutes of their meetings throughout the 1960s, the interactions between the UKB and Principal Chief W.W. Keeler are constant. With Keeler himself, or through his representative, Earl Boyd Pierce, the desire of the Cherokee Nation to not step on the efforts of the UKB, as well as the UKB’s constant repetitions that Keeler is their Chief and the Cherokee Nation is their government, the support that each offered the other is obvious. but it also obvious that at many points, the Bureau tried to bypass the

But evidence of the UKB’s organizational difficulties is also in the minutes and correspondence from this time. There are repeated remarks about the inability to recruit people to serve as officers, resignations from positions, and a general lack of time or interest on the part of community members to participate. Any fledgling community organization will recognize these issues as constant obstacles to growth.

And by the mid-1970s, the UKB had largely floundered as the Cherokee Nation began to revitalize once more. With the passage of the Principal Chief’s Act in 1970, which established a mechanism for the Five Tribes to elect their Chiefs again for the first time since Oklahoma statehood, and the federal Indian Self-Determination and Education Act of 1975, a new policy era opened which enabled tribes to push the envelope further and further in re-establishing sovereign powers that had largely been stripped by federal paternalism throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries. As had happened in 1906 when the anticipated demise of the Cherokee Nation had not occurred, a rejuvenated Cherokee Nation in the 1970s rendered obsolete the intended purpose of the Keetoowah groups of each era – to find a way to continue with some semblance of an organization if the Cherokee Nation no longer existed.

And then the dam broke for all the Five Tribes! Tomorrow we will get to the punch line for all of this –

Julia (Dr. Julia Coates is an At-Large Councilor on the Cherokee Nation Council)