Today we will continue with the history of the conflict between the Cherokee Nation and the United Keetoowah Band (UKB). In my previous update I outlined the emergence of the Keetoowah Society as a political movement from the Civil War era and stated that the name “Keetoowah” began to be used about this organization at this time. This is important because one of the arguments the UKB makes today to try to support its assertions that it is a government of equal jurisdictional standing with the Cherokee Nation goes back to an even earlier era and involves an extreme revisioning of Cherokee history.
In the past eight or ten years, the UKB has claimed that “the Keetoowahs” (and again, this is obscure as to whether this means the political or the ceremonial group) are the descendants of the Old Settlers, those Cherokees who emigrated first to Arkansas in 1817, and then were relocated to the Indian Territory in 1828. These dates are prior to the Trail of Tears, and the both of the treaties involved conveyed tracts of land to the Cherokee Nation from the United States. The intent of this revisioning of Cherokee history has been to suggest that the Keetoowahs were the original and earliest occupiers of the land base that is now the disputed jurisdictional area, occupied it before the Cherokee Nation did, in other words.
These claims can be easily disputed and dismissed. First, it is impossible to link the founders or the membership of the UKB in the twentieth century exclusively as descendants of the Old Settlers. Second, as I stated yesterday, there are no references to any group called “Keetoowah” in the extensive documentary record prior to 1858. Third, and most significantly, the government to which the land in Arkansas was ceded in 1817 and in the Indian Territory in 1828 was the Cherokee Nation. Land is not conveyed by treaty to individuals or sub-groups within a citizenry, but to a government. And that government was very clearly “the Cherokee Nation” as stated in both treaties, and so that is the government that took ownership of those lands.
There is no question that history and law are two fields that are very interpretive, and it is not unusual for historians, like lawyers, to argue over the meanings and merits of the past. But the UKB’s rewriting of this aspect of the Cherokee Nation’s history is not one that is accepted or repeated by any reputable historian. In fact, one doesn’t find this interpretation anywhere except in the UKB’s own literature and in its museum. It would be easy to dismiss this claim, and most do, but for unknowing members of the media and the public, these assertions made by the UKB and its supporters have been picked up uncritically from press releases and propaganda and have been repeated to the point that many people simply accept these misrepresentations as truth. So it is important to understand that the emergence of the Keetoowah Society as a political and military organization was in the Civil War, and not before.
Now, I will pick up from yesterday’s story and move on. The Keetoowah Society experienced a split in its membership around 1900, midway through the allotment era. For most of the 1890s, the clear intent of the federal government had been to terminate its relationship with and recognition of the Cherokee Nation. Through several pieces of legislation, including the Curtis Act of 1898 which abolished Cherokee law and courts and extended Arkansas law over the Indian Territory, and the Cherokee Agreements of 1901-1902 which legislated March 4, 1906 as the day when the government of the Cherokee Nation would cease to exist in the eyes of the United States, every move on the part of the US had been to dismantle the governments of all the Five Tribes (Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole). In these extraordinary times, the Keetoowahs were fairly unified in their opposition to allotment.
But social scientists have frequently noted that in desperate times, religious revitalizations frequently occur within a People, and this happened among the Cherokees as well. A ceremonial practice, which had been almost lost among the Cherokees by this time, was rejuvenated in large part by the efforts of Redbird Smith (great-grandfather of former Chief Chad Smith), who rekindled the ceremonial fire at a newly-established ceremonial grounds at Blackgum Mountain in present-day Sequoyah County. Very quickly, thousands of Cherokees began to participate once again, and Redbird led these practitioners away from the politically-organized Keetoowah Society toward a stated goal of “getting back to the old ways” – in short, of re-focusing on ceremonial practices.
But these ceremonialists, who had the moniker “Nighthawk Keetoowahs” bestowed upon them by the local white media in Muskogee, were far from uninvolved in the events of their Nation. Coupled with their revived spiritual practices, the Nighthawks also engaged in a campaign of passive resistance to enrollment for allotment. They evaded federal commissioners and returned unwanted allotment deeds unopened. While the Nighthawks began to be identified as a separate movement due to their return to ceremonial practice, the politically-oriented members of the Keetoowah Society persisted with an organization as well. They were active in the Sequoyah Convention in 1905 (an attempt by the Five Tribes to create an Indian state out of their territories). In that same year, when it appeared the Cherokee Nation was soon going to be legislated out of existence, they applied for a federal charter of incorporation, which they received, establishing the Keetoowah Society, Inc.
By the end of the allotment era, the Keetoowah Society had thus split into two distinct movements and organizations. But in 1906, something amazing happened. And that’s tomorrow’s story!
(Dr. Julia Coates is a councilor on the Cherokee Nation Council)