Tuesday, October 18, 2011


In last week's blog, my cousin Jim Phillips mentions that his great grandfather was killed by a white man as he was trying to return to his land after the federal allotment process. This was a terrible tragedy but it wasn't the only time that an Indian was murdered for his land. Almost every family has a story about some sort of conflict with the white man over land. A white guardian was appointed for my grandfather and his brother after their father's death, even though their mother was alive and even though they had many other Chickasaw relatives. By the time they had come of age, the guardian had spent all of their father's money. 

My mother told me that my grandmother always hated one of their neighbors who had married a Chickasaw woman to get Chickasaw citizenship rights. He left her the night of their marriage, and then settled on Indian land. Later he married a white woman.  

There were many abuses of Native Americans around the turn of the nineteenth century. There is certainly nothing unique about the suffering of the Indians in Oklahoma, and I can only touch on a few examples of their struggles. Anyone interested in learning more should read And Still the Waters Run, by Angie Debo. It is the definitive work on the subject. The book is a methodical catalogue of abuses, written in a scholarly, non-sensational way, but even so Ms. Debo was turned down by publishers in the State of Oklahoma. It was ten years before her landmark report was finally published by the Princeton University Press.

After being forced to leave their ancestral homes in the American Southeast, the Five Civilized Tribes settled in Indian Territory, later to become the state of Oklahoma. They settled the land, thought to be worthless at the time, and set up their own governments. The Indian nations' governments were loosely patterned after that of the United States, but each tribe preserved some of their own customs. One custom common to all was the communal ownership of land. Land could be used by any tribal member, as much as he wanted, but at the time of his death, ownership reverted to the tribe.

As it turned out, the land in Indian Territory wasn’t useless after all. There was much fertile farm land, as well as timber and mineral resources, so white men streamed into the Territory, and soon they outnumbered the Native Americans. The Indian governments hospitably passed laws to allow these non-citizens to live and work in the Territory for a nominal fee. Those who married Indian citizens were even adopted into the tribes.

These attempts at accommodation by the Indian governments, led to further problems though. The Indian courts had no jurisdiction over non-citizens, and soon the growing white population was demanding the right to have a voice in the tribal governments. Many Native American citizens, among them my great uncle Tecumseh, favored denying voting rights to whites, even those married to Chickasaws, but my great grandfather Sam Paul disagreed with his half brother, believing that the Indian Nations needed to incorporate whites into their governments in order to survive. (See Sam Paul's Prophesy in the previous post) This conflict led to Sam Paul's death, as I'll explain later.  

In the mean time, the U.S. Government wasn't willing to wait for the Indian nations to find a solution on their own, and in 1887 Congress passed the Dawes Act, which authorized the President to negotiate with tribal governments to assign to tribal members individual allotments, and to make them American citizens. This of course was aimed at dissolving the tribal governments, violating the treaties which the Indians had signed only fifty years before, promising them the land for "as long as the grass grows or the water runs.@
(Indian Removal, by Grant Foreman. P 193)

This would in effect turn the government of the Territory over to whites, since they were in the majority, and create surplus of land for more white settlers. It also provided a solution to the problem the U.S. Government had created for itself during the early 1800's when they confined the "Plains Indians" to reservations. The fate of these Indian tribes is another story, but by the late 19th century these tribes, having no way to support themselves, were starving, and their support was taking a big bite out of the federal budget. Giving them allotments wouldn't relieve the Indians' poverty of course, but it would give the government an excuse to cut off their support.  

But I should get back to the Chickasaws and the other Five Civilized Tribes.

The tribal governments resisted the allotment process. They refused to talk to the Commissioners. They held referendums and voted overwhelmingly against allotment, but the U.S. Government was determined. In 1897 Congress went ahead with the Curtis Act, which abolished the governments of the Five Civilized Tribes and forced the Indians to accept allotments.  

As I've tried to explain before, the Indians had a deep aversion to individual ownership of land. They believed that the land should be free for all to use, like air and water, so when the Dawes Commissioners came to the area and set up camps and to compile rolls to be used to allot land, the Indians simply refused to come in. That's what Jim's great grandfather did. He didn't trust or respect the white man's laws, and he felt that it was morally wrong to own the land.  

This happened to countless Indians. Those like my grandfather, who had been more acculturated into the white society, cooperated and tried to convince his family and friends to do likewise, but many Indians, often the ones in the most need, were not included on the rolls. Many like my grandfather tried to convince their brothers and sisters of the futility of resisting. Alex Posey, the Creek poet, was drowned while attempting to cross a swollen stream on the way to visit a family to convince them to sign the rolls.

                                                Alexander Posey

Conservative members of each tribe banded together to resist the abolishment of their governments. The Cherokees formed the Nighthawk Society. The Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee and Creek irreconcilables formed the Four Mothers Society, which at one time had 25,000 members. They hired attorneys and sent representatives to Washington, but to no avail. 

Perhaps the most determined resistance came from the Creek Nation under the leadership of Chitto Harjo, or "Crazy Snake." Harjo had in his youth been a Union loyalist, and a follower of the great Creek warrior Opothleyahola (see post of 11/21/10, Creek Removal). He lived alone in a small cabin, cultivating a small plot of land and hunting for his meat. He served his community by sharpening plowshares and operating a small forge where he fashioned silver ornaments. When the official Creek government signed the allotment treaty, Harjo called a meeting of his followers and voted to depose Pleasant Porter, the current chief. The traditionalists proceded to form an alternate tribal government with Harjo as chief. They adopted laws against taking allotments, and against renting to or hiring non-citizens, and then they proceded to arrest transgressors. Several tribal members were sentenced to whipping. Harjo's police also confiscated allotment certificates.

                                       Chitto Harjo, "Crazy Snake"

Harjo has been portrayed as an eccentric man with radical beliefs, but he was basically fighting to his tribe's rights to remain independent under the terms of their Removal treaties. He was intelligent and eloquent. 

The following is an excerpt from one of Harjo's speeches in which he illustrated the conflict between whites and Indians as an argument between two individuals:  

He told me that as long as the sun shone and the sky is up yonder these agreements will be kept …. He said as long as the sun rises it shall last; as long as the waters run it shall last; as long as the grass grows it shall last …. He said 'just as long as you see light here, just as long as you see this light glimmering over us, shall these agreements be kept, and not until these things cease and pass away shall our agreement pass away.' That is what he said, and we believed it …. We have kept every turn of that agreement. The grass is growing, the waters run, the sun shines, the light is with us, and the agreement is with us yet, for the God that is above us all witnessed that agreement. 

(And Still the Waters Run, by Angie Debo, P 55.) 

Several of Harjo's followers were arrested, and released after promising to cooperate with the allotment process, but not before the movement had spread to other tribes. Conservative members of each tribe refused to accept allotment certificates, mailing them back when they came in the mail. Although in poverty, many also returned annuity checks. 

With the help of some of the more educated tribal leaders, conservatives from the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, and Creek tribes finally came up with a plan to accept their allotments and then sell them and buy land in Mexico where they could establish their own community and be free to follow their traditions. The only obstacle in the way of the movement was the rule included in the allotment treaties that prohibited the alienation (selling) of their allotments, usually for twenty years.  

Jacob Jackson, a full blood Choctaw, wrote a letter to Congress in behalf of the Choctaw and Chickasaw conservatives. This is an excerpt: 

Surely a race of people, desiring to preserve the integrity of that race, who love it by reason of its traditions and their common ancestors and blood, who are proud of the fact that they belong to it, may be permitted to protect themselves, if in no other way but emigration. Our educated people inform us that the white man came to this country to avoid conditions which to him were to him not as bad as the present conditions are to us; that he went across the great ocean and sought new homes in order to avoid things which to him were distasteful and wrong. All we ask is that we may be permitted to exercise the same privilege. We do not ask any aid from the Government of the United States in so doing. We do ask that we may be permitted, in a proper way, by protecting our own, to dispose of that which the government says is ours, and which has been given us over our protest against the distribution, to the end that another home may be furnished, and another nation established…. 

We believe that the great father of all men created the Indian to fill a proper place in this world. That as an Indian he had certain rights, among which is the right to exist as a race, and that in the protection of that right, it is our belief that we are fulfilling the purpose of the Divine Creator of mankind.

(And Still the Waters Run, by Angie Debo, P 59.)  

Jackson's eloquent appeal was received by the Senators with ridicule. The Four Mothers' Society continued to exist well into the twentieth century although they were never able to establish a colony in Mexico. Its members refused to accept allotments or payments from the U.S. Government. Some continued to live on what had been their tribal land and were eventually evicted, jailed, or murdered, as in the case of Jim's great grandfather.  

These people are my heroes. They defended their culture and traditions with courage and dignity, and what eloquence! They certainly left a legacy that should make us, their descendants, proud. It is the stuff of legend.  

Chitto Harjo or Crazy Snake died in 1911. He lived in hiding for the last two years of his life. Some say it was the "Little People" who sustained him.
(See post, Chickasaw Culture and Beliefs, Oct. 18, 2010)   

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