Friday, December 9, 2011

The Original Keetoowah Society of Cherokee

Subject: Cherokee Nation Update: The Original Keetoowah Society

Hello, everyone –

This week I will give a history of the issues between the Cherokee Nation and the United Keetoowah Band (UKB) – issues that are currently threatening the Cherokee Nation’s historic jurisdiction in northeastern Oklahoma. This is a complex story so I will be taking several days to cover it. And then I will provide some talking points for you to use in communicating your concerns to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the elected officials of the Cherokee Nation.

Part of the confusion today results from the fact that there are actually two different entities that informally call themselves “Keetoowahs.” One is the Keetoowah Society, a ceremonial group that was revitalized in the allotment era and which still functions at several ceremonial grounds in northeastern Oklahoma, and the other is the United Keetoowah Band, an organization incorporated in 1946 under the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act (a federal act) for the purposes of accessing programs offered by that legislation. Although each organization customarily refers to itself as “the Keetoowahs,” they are not the same organization. The ceremonial group has a private membership, usually acquired by birth or by invitation. The UKB is a political organization whose membership is open to anyone who meets the criteria: directly descended from the Dawes Rolls and of at least ¼ blood degree.

The emergence of the original Keetoowah Society in the Cherokee Nation was around 1858 or ’59, just prior to the Civil War. At that time, it organized at the request of Principal Chief John Ross as a way to counter the influences of southern-sympathizing Cherokees led by Stand Watie. Ross approached his longstanding friends, the northern Baptist missionary team of the Rev. Evan Jones and his son John B. Jones, with a request that they quietly ask their congregations to form this counterpoint group. Although ultimately comprised of both ceremonial and Christian Cherokees, it was initially led by Cherokee Baptist ministers trained and ordained by the Joneses – Budd Gritts, Lewis Downing, and Smith Christie. This early Keetoowah Society’s stated goals were to hold the line on the rising southern influences within the Nation and to place themselves at the disposal of the Ross administration and family for their protection. This is the organization within which the “Pin” Indians formed – about 1500 Cherokee men who fought as part of the Indian Home Guard, a Union regiment. Overall, the Keetoowah Society was a large organization during the Civil War, counting an estimated 70% of Cherokees as its members – basically all those who opposed the Confederacy.

The ceremonial Keetoowahs of today have an oral history that says that the Keetoowah Society as a ceremonial group did not emerge in the Civil War, but existed from ancient times. I’ve no doubt that is true, but I don’t personally believe that the name “Keetoowah” was used by the ceremonialists previous to the Civil War. My reasoning is this: there is no tribe in the country that is as documented as the Cherokees, in large part because of the development of the written language and our habit of launching strong legal and political defenses of our Nation and sovereignty, including an impressive body of political rhetoric authored by Cherokees. There are copious missionary accounts as well written by people who worked closely with the Cherokees and who were particularly observant of their “pagan/heathen” ceremonial practices, which the missionaries frequently noted and condemned. So those practices were not a secret, in fact seemed pretty flagrant from the perspective of the missionaries. And yet nowhere in the extensive documentary record of the Cherokees is there any mention of a “Keetoowah Society” or anything bearing that name, except the old town of Kituhwa, until the Civil War era. And then suddenly there are numerous mentions of a group called that, and the group itself is developing constitutions and keeping membership lists, etc. So although I absolutely believe that ceremonial societies existed far back in time and came through the ages, I also think the name “Keetoowah” was adopted around the Civil War period. And the group at that time had a predominantly political purpose and secondarily a military purpose, rather than a ceremonial purpose.

The Civil War era Keetoowah Society provided leadership to the Cherokee Nation after the death of Principal Chief John Ross in 1866. Subsequent Principal Chiefs such as Lewis Downing and Charles Thompson (Ochelata) were members of the Keetoowah Society. It was not a political party, per se, but was a movement within the Cherokee Nation that continued throughout the last decades of the 1800s, always identified as a community-based, grassroots organization of more traditionally-oriented subsistence Cherokee people.

The stresses of the allotment period contributed to increased activity by the Keetoowah Society, but also resulted in a split in the Society. And that’s when things start to be confusing. That will be tomorrow’s story.

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