Original Keetoowah Society

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The Original Keetoowah Society is a Cherokee religious organization that preserves the culture and teachings of the Keetoowah Nighthawk Society (Cherokee:ᎩᏚᏩ ᎤᎾᏙᏢᎯ) in Oklahoma. Allogan Slagle, an historian of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, argues that the Original Keetoowah Society is the surviving core of the Cherokee religious movement originally led by Redbird Smith in the nineteenth century, whose aim was to preserve the culture and teachings of the Keetoowah in Oklahoma after the Indian removal of the tribes from the American Southeast. Slagle's argument that the group now known as The Original Keetoowah Society evolved from the early 20th century group known as the Keetoowah Nighthawk Society (or the Nighthawk Keetoowahs) appears in a lengthy treatise, Burning Phoenix (1993).

Keetoowah Society beliefs, history, and spirituality[edit]

Budd Gritts, a Cherokee Baptist minister, was appointed to draft a Constitution and Laws of government for the "Keetoowah Society", in response to the changing religious and political climate of the times.[when?][citation needed] The constitution and Laws of Government were formally adopted by the Keetoowah,[when?] who prospered and lived in peace under its provisions for many years.[citation needed]

In 1861 the Keetoowah Society enacted a provision, which stated:[citation needed]

"...if any urgent and important message from the Chief of the Cherokee Nation should be received by Head Captains to be looked into, it shall be the duty of the head captains to send up the message to all parts of the Cherokee Nation. If anyone, or any one of us Keetoowah is called upon or chosen to take a message for them he shall willingly without hesitancy respond to the responsibility."[this quote needs a citation]

During the period from 1859 to 1889, the Keetoowah flourished and were strongly united.[citation needed] Almost without exception, the Keetoowah sided with the Northern States during the Civil War.[citation needed] During this period, the Keetoowah were predominantly members of Protestant Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches, as well as having a few Quakers.[citation needed] In addition, some of the people practiced traditional rituals of the ancient Keetoowah; Gadugi was strong among the Cherokee people during this period in their history.[citation needed]

Influenced by white missionaries, the members of the different denominations became strictly sectarian in their practice.[citation needed] In 1895 when the question of the allotment of lands to the members of the Five Civilized Tribes was being discussed, the traditionalists among the Keetoowah worked to oppose the change, as they believed it threatened their community: the Keetoowah were united in their opposition to any speedy change.[citation needed] From this time to 1900, the followers of Redbird Smith were designated, universally as the “Nighthawk Keetoowahs” because of their vigilance in their activities.[citation needed]

The Keetoowah Constitution and Laws of Government were amended in 1889, making it a political organization in character.[citation needed] From this period, the differences between the Christian Keetoowah and the traditionalist (or Ancient) Keetoowah became more marked, and they disagreed on political issues as well.[citation needed]

Slagle summary of early events[edit]

Allogan Slagle summarises early events in the introduction to his 1993 work, Burning Phoenix: A Study of the Federal Acknowledgment, Reorganization and Survival of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma.[1][2] He notes that, "In November 1899, the [original] Keetoowah Society convened in Tahlequah to pass resolutions critical of the Cherokee Council and the Dawes Commission particularly with regard to plans to dispose of [i.e., to divide and distribute] Cherokee land and to create a roll [of its members] without the consent of the Cherokee Nation."[1] They perceived that it was the government's intention to declare any remainder of land not distributed in the allotment, to those enrolled, as a surplus it could sell to non-Native American settlers.[citation needed] Slagle goes on to argue,

They challenged amendments to the Constitution, and resolved to enroll [register with the Dawes group] only under protest. The Keetoowahs in convention at Big Tucker Springs on 6 September 1901 decided to enroll with the Dawes Commission led to a final schism between Keetoowah factions. Redbird Smith left the meeting with eleven of his traditionalist supporters to resist enrollment actively, forming the Nighthawk Keetoowahs.

Several hundred Keetoowah Indians, including several groups that started out as members of the Keetoowah Society and left with the Nighthawks in 1901, coalesced to form a number of secretive, traditionalist, exclusive factions. Most of these groups started near Gore, Vian, or Proctor, and adjoining areas. These groups were nascent within the Keetoowah Society as early as 1893, and derived from Goingsnake fire or various of the Four Mothers Nation fires. Like the Nighthawks, these groups generally refused until 1910 or later to accept the work of the Dawes Commission.

While they fully intended to maintain tribal government and functions regardless of the fate of the Cherokee Nation, the Keetoowahs as a body officially acquiesced under protest to the effect of all the legislative provisions that would dissolve Cherokee Nation's government and allot Cherokee lands. They learned that they could not prevent the 1893 Act, the Dawes Commission enrollment, U. S. citizenship, the Curtis Act and the abolition of tribal courts, the Agreement with the Cherokee Nation of April 1, 1900, the 1906 Act and the virtual political dissolution of the corrupt Cherokee government as of 4 March 1906, presidential approval for all tribal ordinances affecting tribal or individual lands after allotment, and the allotment in severalty [the condition of being separate] of Cherokee lands.[1]

Slagle then directs readers to two court cases, Cherokee Nation v. Southern Kansas R. R. (1890) and Cherokee Nation v. Journeycake (1890).[3][4]

Keetoowah Society deterioration[edit]

Allogan Slagle, in his "Brief UKB Chronology" in Burning Phoenix, states that "John Smith, the most influential Nighthawk leader among Redbird Smith's sons, had lost virtually all credibility among Keetoowahs by the 1930s" for having supported Chester Polk Cornelius, an Oneida who had engaged them in speculative schemes.[1] Writing in 1993, Slagle continues,

Cornelius nearly destroyed the Nighthawk organization with failed get-rich-quick development schemes that left many members landless and destitute. Some Nighthawk spokesmen and leaders now erroneously claim the [modern][verification needed] UKB is a splinter of their religious cult,[clarification needed] though the Nighthawks officially withdrew from all political activity after 1901, and barred its members from affiliating with any other groups or entities, including christian churches. As the number of tribal towns associated with the Nighthawks dwindled from 21 in about 1900 to 3 in 1937, the remnants of the "non-political" Nighthawk faction eventually collapsed into a variety of factions. These included two ceremonial grounds run by opposing factions of Redbird Smith's own family at Redbird's and at Stokes Smith's grounds, as well as the Goingsnake "Seven Clans" fire, the Medicine Springs Fire or Medicine Society, and the Four Mothers Nation.[1]

Keetoowah Society divergence[edit]

In Burning Phoenix, Slagle continues,

Other Cherokee political factions arose among the Keetoowahs, partly due to concerns about potential claims, partly to organize formally as a federally-recognized Tribe: the Cherokee Immigrant Indians, and the Eastern [Emigrants] and Western Emigrants [Western Cherokee Association[citation needed]]. These factions of Oklahoma Keetoowah Cherokees by blood pulled together a coalition from the northern 14 counties of Oklahoma between 1920 and 1924, electing a Chief (Levi Gritts), and an Executive Council of Cherokees by Blood out of the body of the Keetoowah Society, Inc. During the 1930s, the majority of Keetoowah factions [now without assistance from the dwindling Nighthawk separatists[citation needed]] supported the idea of reorganizing all the Keetoowah Cherokees in all the old clan districts as a united Band under the proposed [1934] Indian Reorganization Act, which was intended to return more self-government to Native Americans. The Cherokees by Blood, representing all Cherokee descendants rather than Keetoowahs alone, failed in 1932 to obtain standing as a party to the Cherokee claims litigation.[1]

Christianity and its effects on the Keetoowah Society[edit]

Redbird Smith's son Stokes objected to his father's known reverence for (but not worship of) Jesus and the posthumous adoption of Jesus into the Keetoowah Society in 1936.[citation needed] Stokes Smith rejected this position in 1955:[citation needed]

"A very weird thing happened, politically speaking, in 1955. It had to do with Jesus Christ's membership in the Keetoowah Society (and no, we are not making this up). The Nighthawks at the Redbird Smith Stomp Grounds were in civil strife. Stokes Smith, Redbird's youngest, was Chief. Before Redbird died, he told his people to incorporate the worship of Christ into Nighthawk religion. In 1936, the Keetoowah Society amended its constitution to recognized Christ. While Stokes had acquiesced and signed the measure, he and other elders were unhappy. William Lee Smith, current Nighthawk Chief at Stokes Smith's Grounds, says his father, Stokes, took the fire, wampum and pipe, and left the original grounds, but left part of the fire. The Redbird Grounds people then joined the UKB, realizing they could worship Christ and be Keetoowahs, and have the advantages of political recognition all at the same time, and God would not mind. Thereafter, Stokes' followers refused to recognize either the UKB or his other relatives at Redbirds, although Redbird is still an object of veneration.[citation needed][5][full citation needed]

Some Keetoowah elders's say[who?] it was actually an adoption of Jesus into the Society and not an edict for the worship of Jesus.[citation needed]

Documentary of Keetoowah Society[edit]

The 1984 KJRH-TV documentary, Spirit of the Fire, directed by filmmaker Bill Jones, explored the Keetoowah Nighthawk Society. This was the "spiritual core" of the nation in reference to the traditional ceremonies and rituals practiced and maintained by the Keetoowah. During the film the Keetoowah wampum belts were explained for the first time publicly; Chief William Smith said that the Ancient Keetoowah were told that they were the Chief Indian Tribe in the Americas, and that if and when the Great Spirit spoke to the Indians in the Americas, the message would be first delivered to the Keetoowah.

The seven Cherokee Stomp Grounds in Oklahoma, for ceremonial sacred dance, belong either to the Keetoowah tradition or the Four Mothers Society. In Redbird Smith's time, more than 20 Cherokee Stomp Grounds were maintained.

Origin of name[edit]

Writing in 1902,[6] James Mooney, in an extract of a report for the Bureau of American Ethnology, notes some background on the names by which the Cherokee peoples knew themselves, and were known by others, which included "Ani'-Kitu'hwagi", meaning "people of Kitu'hwa [Keetoowa]":

The proper name by which the Cherokee call themselves is... Ani'-Yun'wiya' in the third person, signifying "real people," or "principal people"... The word properly denotes "Indians," as distinguished from people of other races, but in usage it is restricted to mean members of the Cherokee tribe, those of other tribes being designated as Creek, Catawba, etc., as the case maybe. On ceremonial occasions they frequently speak of themselves as Ani'-Kitu'hwagi, or "people of Kitu'hwa," an ancient settlement on Tuckasegee river and apparently the original nucleus of the tribe.[7]

Court clerk and reporter John Springston, a Keetoowah Society member from the Saline District before Oklahoma statehood, writing in 1928, also alludes to the use of the Keetooway name prior the Indian removal from the southeast, saying "Back in Georgia from whence the Cherokees originally migrated to the Indian Territory in 1838 and 1839, the old Keetoowah group... was dying out as early as 1835."[8][full citation needed] Takatoka, a writer on Cherokee issues, citing a masters dissertation on the subject, relates the legend underpinning the Keetoowah (here "Kituwah") name:

Legends of the Kituwah people say that the name was given after seven of the wisest men of the ancient Cherokees went to the highest peak and fasted for seven days and nights, asking the Creator for guidance. This peak is known today as "Clingman's Dome." On the seventh night of their fast, the Creator told them, "You shall be Kituwah.[6]

The wisest men referred to are the seven priests of the ah-ni-ku-ta-ni,[citation needed] and the reference to Kituwah was to ki-tu'-wa, meaning the spiritual center of the Cherokee People.[citation needed]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Slagle, Allogan (1993). "A Brief UKB Chronology [§1890s to 1901, Preparations for Statehood; The Cherokee Agreement, and the Dissolution of Indian Territory and Cherokee Nation, and Allotment; §1906-1934, The Growth of the Keetooway Governmental Organization Prior to IRA (The Indian Reorganization Act)]". Burning Phoenix: A Study of the Federal Acknowledgment, Reorganization and Survival of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma, and of Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma's Efforts to Terminate the Band (PDF). Tahlequah, Oklahoma.: Allogan Slagle and the Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians. p. 1 and preceding. Retrieved March 10, 2017. 
  2. ^ There are three federally recognized Cherokee tribes in the United States at the beginning of the 21st century, the Cherokee Nation (with an estimated population in the low hundred thousands[citation needed]), and two much smaller bands, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians (each with populations between ten and twenty thousand members[citation needed]), with the Eastern Band headquartered in North Carolina, and the other two headquartered in Oklahoma.[citation needed] This current breakdown is noteworthy in understanding that Slagle's 1993 work focuses in significant part on arguing the origins and historical role of this one band in particular, see Slagle (1993), "A Brief UKB Chronology," which precedes Chapter 1.
  3. ^ Cherokee Nation v. Southern Kansas R. R. 135 U. S. 641 (1890).[full citation needed]
  4. ^ Cherokee Nation v. Journeycake, 155 U. S. 196 (1894).[full citation needed]
  5. ^ Leeds 1992: 60.[clarification needed][full citation needed]
  6. ^ a b The selection of quotations in this section, to Mooney, Springston, and Takatoka, is particularly indebted to the research and decisions of Takatoka, see main text following. His work is Takatoka (2016). "History of the Kituwah People, From Our Beginning to Today, the United Keetoowah Band". In Moore, Lee Standing Bear & Takatoka. The Story of Manataka: The place of Peace and Unbroken Circle, The Sacred Mountain and Valley of the Vapors. Hot Springs, AK: Manataka American Indian Council. p. 838. Retrieved March 9, 2017.  See also the work's title page, on pg. 2. For this quoted information, Takatoka specifically cites the dissertation, Smith, Benny (1967). The Keetoowah Society of Cherokee Indians (M.A.). Alva, OK: Northwestern State College. 
  7. ^ Mooney, James (1902). "Historical Sketch of the Cherokee". Myths of the Cherokees: Extract from the Nineteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology (PDF) (Report). Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. pp. 14–157, esp. 15. Retrieved March 10, 2017. 
  8. ^ Springston, John L. (December 28, 1928). Tulsa Tribune (print edn.). Tulsa, OK.  Missing or empty |title= (help)[page needed]

Further reading[edit]

  • "Oversight Hearing : Serial No. 103-65" (PDF). Justivce.gov. Retrieved 2017-03-09. [non-primary source needed] Book length (292 page) record of testimony given at 1994 oversight meeting that brought together Oklahoma tribal leaders with Oklahoma legislators, and Bill Richardson and representatives of the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. (If used, page numbers must be given to point where information is drawn.)
  • Fitzgerald, David (photogr.); Conley, Robert J. (text) (2002). Cherokee (photographic collection, annotated). Portland, OR: Graphic Arts Center Publishing. ISBN 1558686037. Retrieved March 9, 2017.  Text from renowned Native American writer R.J. Conley, accompanying D. Fitzgerald's photographic work.

External links[edit]