April 24, 1944
In 1937 the Solicitor's Office ruled that the Keetoowah Society of
Cherokee Indians was not a band for the purpose of organizing under the
Oklahoma Indian Welfare. The opinion characterized the organization as
"a secret society
representing the most conservative portion of the Cherohee Indians,"
and naving for its objective in the beginning, opposition to slavery,
and subsequently opposition to allotment. The Solicitor's decision was
based largely on information obtained
from a, report compiled by Charles Wisdom, an anthropologist attached
to the :Indan-Off ice.
Mr Wisdom in examining. into Cherokee history made these conclusions:
(1) That while the name Keetoowah was derived- from an-ancient town;
there is historical connect ion between the society and that original
(2) That there exists only a cultural and mystical relationship between
the two. Using the foregoing-; infomation the Solicitor, in rejecting
Keetoowah. society's request for recognition as a band, held that a
band is a political body having the functions and powers of government.
Likewise, it mist possess a common leadership, concerted action and a
well defined membership; moreover, the membership is perpetuated
primarily by. birth, marriage and adoption. The opinion drew
distinction between the Keetoowah Society and the Creek towns, holding
that the llatter were independent units capable of political action and
particularly initiation of hostile proceedings; not only were they the
functioning political subdivisions of the Creek confederacy or Nation,
but they were the original independent units of government of the Creek
Nation. The Solicitor went on to say "neither historically or actually"
was the Keetoowah group a governing unit of the Cherokee Nation but
rather it was a society of citizens within the Nation common beliefs
This argument of the Solicitor's Office accepts as fact a fiction
which, its own reasons, the United States Government has insisted on
treating as fact more than a hundred years. There was not aboriginally
a Cherokee Nation. There were among the Cherokee people a number of
towns and there was an elaborate ir relationship between these towns,
as there was also intertribal relationship between the Cherokees and
the various tribes in the Tennessee Valley and alone Eastern Seaboard.
The Cherokee people were located in four general areas refeto as the
Lower Settlements, the Valley Settlements, the Middle Settlements the
Overhill Settlements. In a recent study of the Cherokee published in
Bulletin 133 of the Smithsonian institution by William, Harlen Gilbert,
Jr. (1943), the following passage is found: "The central area of the
Cherokees, comprising the Kituhwa (Middle) and the Valley Settlements,
was the heart of the tribe.'' Later, duriing the Revolutionary course
after the removal in 1838 only fragments of the people remained.
Quoting again from. Silbert: "By far the largest and most important
of the remnantal Cherckee groups after the removal were these
clustering at the juncture of The Ocona and Tuckaseegee Rivers near the
old settlement of Kituhwa in the heart of the old Middle'
Settlements.''Moreover, the term- "Kituhwa" (Keetoowah) is used to
designate one of the dialects still spoken in. the Eastern Cherokee
The foregoing information lends considerable color to the contention
of Mr Boudinot, namely, that the term. "Cherokee" never should
have been taken as a tribal name; that in actuality "Cherokeee" ie
derived from. "Tsalagi" which may or may not have been. used- by the
Cherokees themselves -- Boudinot claims that it wwas place name of
minor importance, not properly a tribal designation.. Mooney's article
in the-American. Handbook. observes that the people also called,
themselves "antikituhwagi" meaning. "People of Kituhwa,", which he
describes as "one of their important ancient settlements. "Mooney also
points out that the Delawares and. other tribes called- them-
At the. very least', then, the term "Keetocwah was originally the
name of a Cherokee town, perhaps- the most important of th«
ancient towns; and. in its brodest implication it may be that the term.
is a more appropriate cognomen for the entire people. Taking it at its
least irplication, Keetcewah. is, historically at least, on. a par
with. the Creek towns, in that it was. originally an. independent unit
of government. Hence, the Solicitor is wrong in saying that Keetoowah
was not historically a governing unit.
Next it remains to explore whether the original significance of
Keetoowah being somehow, associated.. with the heart and. the center of
the Cherckee people went with the people when they were expelled front
the original homeland. The Solicitor assumes that the contrary was
true; that the tern was only resurrected, in stressful days before the
Civil War when the Cherokee people found themselves split on the.
slavery issue., and that it was again invoked' when the fact of tribal
disolution approached, As I point out above, the Solicitor
characterizes it as a secret society. The question deserves mere
research than it has had up to now.
Emmet Stair in the "History of the Cherokee Indians" (quoted by
Wisdon), presents facts which indicate that Keetoowah. was a living
thing and that it went with people. Writing about Red Bird Smith, who.
was the Moving spirit in the founding of the Night Hawk Branch, of the
Keetoowab organization, Starr points out that Bird was bom near Fort
Smith, Arkansas, in 1850, while his parents Mere enroute Indian
Territory, and that his father, Pig Red: Bird (the name Smith. was added
by white people), was an ardent adherent of the ancient rituals and;
which he taught to bis sons. Red Bird then went on to become of
the. Chief expounders of the religious beliefs and moral codes of the
old life. When the Keetoowah drafted their constitu tion in 1950, they
did so not as a private and exclusive society, one feels, but as a
group of trustees might organize an order to keep intact the property
and th« spiritual estate of the people facing peril.
Previously, there had been no occasion for such formal organization
because Cherokee laws, and customs had continued to function. By 1950
many non-citizens had come into the Nation, factionalism became strong,
and it was necessary to adopt measures in self-protection. The
Keetoowahs even adopted a flag in the heat of the Civil War, around
which they rallied support for the cause of the North. In February 1863
they abolished slavery unconditionally and forever (Mooney). In all of
this they acted as a nation, certainly, not as a private, voluntary
The record, incomplete as it is, seems clearly to indicate that the
Keetoowah group, whether we call it a society, a faction, or a band,
did exercise independent political action, even to the point of
initiating hostile proceedings. It has been a formally organized body
at least since 1950 with respresentative districts, and for many years
it had a common leadership. The fact that the origional body split into
factions ought not to persuade our judgment as to the true nature of
Keetoowah. At present there is in evidence a real desire on the part of
all factions to reunite in a common organization.
Membership, according to earlier information, was voluntary and was
restricted to Cherokee Indians of one-half or more degree.
This was a factor in leading the Solicitor to hold that the group could
net be classed as a band. Mr. Boudinot new informs us
(See his letter of April 11, 1944) that the previous information was
incorrect; that as a matter of fact, membership is acquired as a right
of birth. The Consitution of 1950, when it is translated, should throw
some light on this point.
In considering the status of the Keetoowah. association, one ought not
to lose sight of the total history affecting the Cherokee Indians.
As I pointed' out earlier, the united States government insisted on
treating with the Chexekee Nation when there was no such entity, any
more than there was ever a Creek Nation. The pressures exerted by the
United States Government resulted in producing numerous
counterpressures within the Cherokee society. Those elements within the
tribe who were compliant and willing to concede the demands made by the
United States in time were recognized. a« comprising the corpus
of the Tribe; those who resisted were treated as a malcontent minority.
At a most critical juncture ...
Cherokee history, on January 31, 1899, a general election was held for
the purpose of accepting the Dawes Commission terms. The Keetoowahs,
that is to say, the
Indian element of the Cherokee tribe, refused to participate and as a
result their interests were defeated 2,015 votes. The membership of
the. group was more than sufficient to carry the election if they had
mustered their full strength.
From this indication we gather that at that tine the Keetoowah actually
represented a majority within the tribe. The Keetoowahs themselves have
never accepted the view that they are not "the people" and that they do
not speak for the real interests of the ancient Cherokee world.
They continue even to this day to speak and act in all patience as if
the decrees of the courts and the acts of the Congress bad never been.
But they are still puzzed at the failure of the United States to
understand the simple thing they have always said, namely, that
Keetoowah is Cherokee and should never have been considered anything'
I propose that we bring this natter again to the attention of the
Solicitor and try to get a revision of the 1937 opinion.
Tribal Relations Officer