The Keetoowah Society and the Avocation of Religious Nationalism in the Cherokee Nation, 1855-1867.


By Patrick Minges
Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York
© Copyright 1994, 1998, All Rights Reserved
Used With Permission

Beginning this work, I am struck with two poignant observations. The first is the observation by Rennard Strickland that the writings about the Cherokee Nation have surpassed in sheer volume those of any other Native American people. [1] The second is Carter G. Woodson's profound truism that "one of the longest unwritten chapters of the history of the United States is that treating of the relations of the negroes and the Indians." [2] It is the sad truth that Professor Woodson's perception could just as easily be applied to the histories written of the Cherokee Nation. In spite of the voluminous writings on Cherokee history, few have taken seriously the presence and activities of what was as much as twenty-five percent of the inhabitants of the Cherokee Nation. A multicultural history of the Cherokee Nation has never been written.

What started me on this journey of recognition were two brief citations in works on the Cherokee Nation. The first was a comment by Wilma Mankiller in her autobiography Mankiller: A Chief and Her People that stated:

It should be remembered that hundreds of people of African ancestry also walked the Trail of Tears with the Cherokee during the forced removal of 1838-1839. Although we know about the terrible human suffering of our native people and the members of other tribes during the removal, we rarely hear of those black people who also suffered. [3]
The second was a notation made by anthropologist James Mooney describing a secret society that had arisen within the Cherokee Nation just before the Civil War:
The Keetoowah society in the Cherokee Nation west was organized shortly before the civil war by John B. Jones, son of the missionary Evan Jones, and an adopted citizen of the Nation, as a secret society for the ostensible purpose of cultivating a national feeling among the full-bloods, in opposition to the innovating tendencies of the mixed-blood element. The real purpose was to counteract the influence of the "Blue Lodge" and other secret secessionist organizations among the wealthier slave-holding classes, made up chiefly of mixed-bloods and whites. [4]
In these two brief citations, a whole new world had opened up to me. Like most whites, I had a static conception of Cherokee culture that was somewhat more advanced than that which Keetoowah Ward Churchill calls the "fantasies of the master race," [5] yet still oblivious to the dynamism and complexity of Cherokee society, culture, and history. I could not yet conceive that within the Cherokee Nation lay a marvelous story of religious patriotism, moral courage, and personal sacrifice that was ever bit as daunting and inspiring as any of those of its sister nation, the United States. Within the history of the Cherokee Nation during the turbulent years leading up to and including the American Civil War, we come to know that element which is quintessential to understanding that which best personifies the Cherokee people; it is the spirit of the beloved community known as the "Kituwah spirit."

Yet, the story is not easily told. Just as the "master narrative" of American history relegates the "other" to the back pages of history, the same holds true in the telling of Native American history. With few notable exceptions, historians have rendered African American members of the Five Nations of the Southeastern United States as passive "objects" swept along in the tides of the great drama which is Native American history. Existing solely as the reason for the struggle that led up to the Civil War in Indian Territory, they are seldom given their proper place as moral guides and political instigators in the struggle which came to define a people. This effort hopes to correct this ahistorical and immoral treatment of history.

At the same time, it seeks to redress one of the gravest errors in African American religious history. "Slave religion" and even the "Afro-Baptist" faith as we have come to know it did not develop solely within the dynamic matrix of the African experience of European/American colonial and ante-bellum culture. "Slave religion," and even Afro-Baptist denominationalism developed in areas where the cultural interactions between African Americans and Native Americans were at their greatest. In addition, for nearly one hundred years African and Native American toiled side by side under the shameful legacy of the "peculiar institution;" the very theology of liberation which is the cornerstone of the Black Church emerged from within the Aframerindian community. [6] From the depths of the African American encounter with the indigenous peoples of the America came an understanding of that "inescapable network of mutuality" [7] which lie at the heart of the "beloved community:"

Just so far as we, as a race, learn that our trials and our difficulties are not wholly exceptional and peculiar to ourselves; that, on the contrary, other peoples have passed through the same tests, we shall cease to feel discouraged and embittered. On the contrary, we shall learn to feel that in our struggles to rise we are carrying the common burden of humanity, and that only in helping others can we help ourselves. It was from my contact with the Indian, as I remember, that I first learned the important lesson that if I permitted myself to hate a man because of his race I was doing a greater wrong to myself than I could possibly do to him. [8]

This work also seeks to express the diversity of religious factors that impacted upon the Cherokee people in their struggle to define what it meant to be a member of the Cherokee Nation at a time when the very Nation, itself, struggled for the continuation of its very existence. The Keetoowah Society, which is the focus of this dissertation, was a religious society that had its roots in the "old ways" of traditional Cherokee culture and spread within the nation through the efforts of the most conservative full blood elements of the Cherokee society. Its goal was to preserve traditional Cherokee culture and society against those "progressive" Cherokee who sought assimilation into and "civilization" by white culture and society. The Fort Smith Times (Arkansas) described the efforts of the Keetoowah Society in the Summer of 1860:

We noticed a week or two ago that there was a secret organization going on in the Cherokee Nation, and that it was among full-blood Indians alone. We are informed by good authority that the organization is growing and expanding daily, and that no half or mixed blood Indian is taken into this organization. The strictest secrecy is observed, and it is death, by the order, to divulge the object of the Society. They hold meetings in the thickets, and in every secret place, to initiate members. We are told that the mixed-bloods are becoming alarmed, and every attempt to find out the object of this secret cabal has thus far proved abortive. The Joneses are said to be the leaders in the work, and what these things are tending to, no one can predict. We fear that something horrible is to be enacted on the frontier, and that this secret work will not stop among the Cherokees, but extend to other tribes on this frontier. [9]
Yet, the Keetoowah Society emerged within the contexts of and was spread through the contacts of the missionaries, churches, and missionary outposts of the nascent Baptist churches within the Indian Territory of what is now the state of Oklahoma. The Keetoowah Society, as it emerged (or reemerged) within Indian Territory, did so within the Peavine Baptist Church of the Flint District in the Cherokee Nation; it spread throughout the Indian Territory through the circuit riders and missionary outposts of the Baptist churches. The Head Captains of the Keetoowah Society -- Levi Gritts, Smith Christie, and Lewis Downing -- were all Baptist ministers; the Keetoowah spread its message and its organization through the Baptist churches in the Cherokee Nation and in the Creek and Seminole Nations as well.

Fullbloods sympathetic to the Keetoowah cause were encouraged to attend the meetings in the churches whether they were Baptists or not; from these organizational meetings Captains and sub-Captains were appointed and Keetoowah meetings scheduled. Trusting their native preachers, the Northern Baptist ministers Evan and John Jones allowed Gritts, Christie, and Downing to spread the Keetoowah message by utilizing Baptist organizational principles, the affinity between traditional meetings and Baptist camp-meetings, and congregational tendencies of the Cherokee society to build a potent force for religious revitalization. [10] With the Baptist churches as its strongest ally, the Keetoowah Society swept through traditional society.

Yet, from their inception within Indian Territory, these Baptist churches were multiracial congregations. Before removal, Africans and Indians worshipped together within a religious community shaped by their common oppression at the hands of the enveloping Euroamerican culture and the prevailing ideology of white supremacy. Once they were in the West, the first Baptist Churches -- Amohee Baptist Church within the Cherokee Nation and Ebenezer Baptist Church within the Creek Nation -- were mixed congregations often led by Black Baptist preachers. Without the Black Baptist preachers who were fluent in both English and Native tongues, the gospel of the Christian faith within Indian Territory would have fallen on deaf ears; without Indian communicants, the traditionally defined historic "Black" congregations would have had much more serious birth pangs. The "beloved community" was much more culturally complex than we have been led to believe.

There was another interesting "religious" institution that had a profound impact upon the historic sequence of events within the Indian Territory leading up to the Civil War. Freemasons came with the Indians upon their removal to the west and when they had arrived in the new territories, they began to set up their lodges and conducted their rituals throughout the Five Nations. Freemasonry within the Indian Territory spread rapidly among both the mixed blood and full blood elements of Native American society. By the time of the Civil War, many of the most important leaders of the Five Nations of Indian Territory had been initiated into the craft.

The very split over slavery itself within the Indian Territory paralleled a common struggle within American Freemasonry over the issue of whether a black man could wear "the stile and tile of Freemasonry." With the onset of difficulties leading up to the Civil War, the lodges that had been a unifying elements within the nations split into disarray over the issue of slavery:

There seems to have developed some misunderstanding between the mother Lodge and Cherokee Lodge at that time, the exact nature of which the records fail to reveal: possibly it was a coolness that had grown out of different attitudes toward the war. The Cherokees were divided, some of them fighting for the North and some for the South. It happened that the leading members of the Lodge sympathized with the North. [11]
When the Nations were ripped apart by the struggle over slavery, the corresponding members of the respective lodges split into two divided and warring secret societies; much of the leadership of these two societies were former members of the lodges of the Indian Territory.

When the war came, it came with a fury. The losses on the fields of battle were great, but the internecine struggle that made no distinctions between combatant and non-combatant tore out the very heart of the Nation leaving the dead on both sides amidst the burned fields and plantations. By the close of the Civil War, seven thousand Cherokee -- at least one quarter of the Nation had lost their lives. [12] Even as early as 1863, one-third of the adult women in the Nation were widows and one-fourth of the children were orphans. A total of 3,530 men from the Indian Territory served in the Union Army, and 1018 died during their enlistment. No state suffered greater losses than did the Indian Territory in the Civil War. [13]

When the Civil War was over, the government used the war as an excuse to claim that the Cherokee had broken the treaty that existed between the Cherokee Nation and the United States. They pitted the former enemies one against the other using the bitter animosity that existed between the sides to wrestle concessions from the Cherokee and pave the way for further decimation of the people who had suffered so much. At one point in the negotiations which dictated the terms of reconstruction, the Cherokee Nation was even threatened with being divided down the middle between the former warring parties. A Nation that had survived for a thousand years, resisted the encroachments of colonial America, removed to the Indian Territory and risen time and again from the ashes was to be undone by government bureaucrats and greedy speculators.

Yet, it would no be so. Like the fabled tsu'lehisanun'hi (phoenix) of Cherokee mythology, the Nation healed its tattered soul and arose from the catastrophe of the Civil War as a unified political entity. Former enemies put aside their ancient hatreds that the Nation might once again stand tall in the face of continued aggression by the forces of mercantilism and cultural deconstruction. Though the unity was only paper thin and beneath the calm waters of the surface lies turbulent and threatening undercurrents, the people believed that a new day had dawned. The new Federal agent, John Humphreys, wrote at the beginning of 1867 of the new spirit that had seemed to take hold of the Nation; he found a remarkable "disposition to forget the past and unite as one people." [14]

At the center of the rebirth of the Cherokee Nation following the Civil War was the Keetoowah Society, a society which had been founded on the principal of the unifying effect of the "Kituwah spirit" that promoted a people who "loved one another for they were just like one family, just as if they had been raised from one family. They all came as a unit to their fire to smoke, to aid one another and to protect their government with what little powder and lead they had to use in protecting it." [15] Throughout the history of the Cherokee Nation during the turbulent years of the mid-nineteenth century, the Keetoowah Society fought for the preservation of the "old ways" and the perpetuation of a national unity rooted in traditional culture. When others about them lost their souls to the false idolatry of race, of class, and of a foreign culture, the Keetoowah clung to the "Kituwah spirit" that granted them freedom and transcendence. This is their story.


[1] Rennard Strickland in Morris Wardell, A Political History of the Cherokee Nation 1838-1907 (Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1977).

[2] Carter G. Woodson, "The Relations of Negroes and Indians in Massachusetts" Journal of Negro History 5 (1920): 45.

[3] Wilma Mankiller and Michael Wallis, Mankiller, A Chief and her People (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993), 94.

[4] James Mooney, Myths of the Cherokees (Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1900), 225.

[5] Ward Churchill, "Fantasies of the Master Race" in From a Native Son: Selected Essays on Indigenism, 1985-1995 (Boston: South End Press, 1996), 409-419.

[6] "Thus we observe that relations between Negroes and Indians have been of significance historically, through influencing on occasion the Indian relations of the United States government, and to a much larger extent biologically, through modifying the racial make-up of both the races and even, as some believe, creating a new race which might, perhaps, for want of better term, be called "Aframerindian." Kenneth Wiggins Porter, "Notes Supplementary to "Relations between Negroes and Indians" in The Journal of Negro History XVIII (January, 1933, No. 1): 321.

[7] Martin Luther King, Jr. "Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution" in James M. Washington, ed. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986), 269.

[8] Booker T. Washington, The Story of the Negro: The Rise of the Race from Slavery Vol. 1 (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1909), 139.

[9] Fort Smith Times, quoted in Annie Abel, The American Indian as Slaveholder and Secessionist (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992), 293.

[10] William G. Mc Loughlin, Champions of the Cherokees:Evan and John B. Jones (Princeton: Princeton University Press,1990), 346; Daniel Littlefield, The Cherokee Freedmen: from Emancipation to American Citizenship (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1978), 8.

[11] T.L. Ballenger, History of Cherokee Lodge #10, T.L. Ballenger Papers, Ayer Collection, Newberry Library, Chicago, IL., 12; "Pin Indians" in Robert Wright, Indian Masonry, (n.p., 1905) Ayer Collection, Newberry Library, Chicago, IL., 105.

[12] Mankiller, 128.

[13] W. Craig Gaines, The Confederate Cherokees: John Drew's Regiment of Mounted Rifles (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 124.

[14] John Humphreys to William Byers, January 18, 1867, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Record Group 75, Reel M-234, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

[15]"Keetoowah Laws - April 29, 1859" in Howard Tyner, The Keetoowah Society in Cherokee History, (MA, University of Tulsa, 1949), Appendix A. In the long run, it would be the fact that the Keetoowah Society was able to come out of secret and become a public phenomenon that would lead to a split between the Baptists and the Keetoowah. The competition between the public services of the Baptists and the public services of the Keetoowah would create somewhat of a conflict between the traditionalists and the Christians. Emmet Starr described the split thus: "In all this period the Keetoowahs were either Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and a few Quakers, and a part of them worshipped according to the rituals of the ancient Keetoowah, but all got along harmoniously. Dissensions came only after the White Missionaries objected to and condemned what they termed "the Pagan Form of worship" of the ancient Keetoowahs, and designated it as "The work of the Devil." A split occurred between the Christian Keetoowahs and the Ancient Keetoowahs. However, this scenario would not play out until the latter half of the nineteenth century following the death of Evan and John Jones. Today, this split is roughly between the Nighthawk Keetoowahs and the United Keetoowah Band. (Emmett Starr, History of the Cherokee Indians. (Oklahoma City: Ok: 1921), 480)

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Beneath the Underdog
Are You Kituwah’s Son?
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five

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