Original Keetoowah Society

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. According to the historian Allogan Slagle of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, the Original Keetoowah Society is the surviving core of the Cherokee religious movement originally led by Redbird Smith in the nineteenth century to preserve the culture and teachings of the Keetoowah in Oklahoma. In 1993, Slagle confirmed that "The Original Keetoowah Society" evolved from the group known as "The Nighthawk Keetoowahs."[1]

Keetoowah Society beliefs, history, and spirituality

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

In 1861 the Keetoowah Society enacted a provision, which stated:

"...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."

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

Influenced by white missionaries, the members of the different denominations became strictly sectarian in their practice. 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. From this time to 1900, the following of Redbird Smith were designated universally as the “Nighthawk Keetoowahs” because of their vigilance in their activities.

The Keetoowah Constitution and Laws of Government was amended in 1889, making it a political organization in character. From this period, the differences between the Christian Keetoowah and the Ancient Keetoowah (or traditionalists) became more marked. They disagreed on political issues as well.

In November 1899, the Keetoowah Society convened in Tahlequah to pass resolutions critical of the Cherokee Council and the Dawes Commission. They particularly opposed of plans to divide and distribute Cherokee land in individual allotments, as the government intended to declare any "remainder" as surplus and sell it to European-American settlers. They also opposed the government plans to take a roll of members of the Cherokee Nation without their review, approval or consent. They challenged amendments to the Constitution, and resolved to enroll (register with the Dawes group) only under protest. When the Keetoowah in convention at Big Tucker Springs on 6 September 1901 decided to enroll with the Dawes Commission, the final schism occurred: Redbird Smith left the meeting with eleven of his traditionalist supporters to resist enrollment actively, and they formed the Nighthawk Keetoowah.

Several hundred Keetoowah, including several groups whose members had begun as part 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 Keetoowah as a body officially acquiesced under protest to 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 ... 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 of Cherokee lands. See Cherokee Nation v. Southern Kansas R. R. 135 U. S. 641 (1890) and Cherokee Nation v. Journeycake, 155 U. S. 196 (1894).

Keetoowah Society deterioration

John Smith, the most influential Nighthawk leader among Redbird Smith's sons, had lost virtually all credibility among Keetoowahs by the 1930s due to his support of Chester Polk Cornelius,[2] an Oneida who developed speculative schemes. Cornelius nearly destroyed the Nighthawk organization with failed development schemes that resulted in many members being left landless and destitute. Some Nighthawk spokesmen and leaders now claim the UKB is a splinter of their religious cult. 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. Factions included two groups of Redbird Smith's family, who ran ceremonies 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.

Keetoowah Society divergence

Other Cherokee political factions arose among the Keetoowah, partly due to concerns about potential land claims, partly to organize formally as a federally recognized Tribe: the Cherokee Immigrant Indians, and the Eastern Emigrant and Western Cherokee Association. These factions of Oklahoma Keetoowah Cherokee 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 Cherokee by Blood out of the body of the Keetoowah Society, Inc. During the 1930s, the majority of Keetoowah factions supported the idea of reorganizing all the Keetoowah Cherokee 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 only the Keetoowah, failed in 1932 to obtain standing as a party to the Cherokee claims litigation.

Christianity and its effects on the Keetoowah Society

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. Stokes Smith rejected this position in 1955. This was documented in The Burning Phoenix (1993) by Allogan Slagle, historian of the United Keetoowah Band:

"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.(Leeds 1992: 60).[3][4] Some Keetoowah elders's say it was actually an adoption of Jesus into the Society and not an edict for the worship of Jesus.

Documentary of Keetoowah Society

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

"Legends of the ki-tu'-wa people say that the name was given after seven of the wisest men (the seven priests of the ah-ni-ku-ta-ni) 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 ki-tu'-wa (the spiritual center of the Cherokee People)." - Benny Smith, The Keetoowah Society of Cherokee Indians, Masters Thesis, Northwestern State College, (Alva, OK: Northwestern State College, 1967)

Many Cherokee groups still call themselves the "Keetoowah (ki-tu'-wa) people."[5] Originally the Cherokee People called themselves Aniyvwiyai, which means the principal people. "Back in Georgia from whence the Cherokees originally migrated to the Indian Territory in 1838 and 1839, the old Keetoowah group (City of Keetoowah) was dying out as early as 1835," stated John L. Springston, Tulsa Tribune, Dec. 28, 1928). Springston had served as a clerk and court reporter in the Saline District before Oklahoma statehood and was a Keetoowah Society Member.


  1. Oral History of Nighthawk Keetoowah Society by historian Allogan Slagle
  2. http://www.justice.gov/jmd/ls/legislative_histories/pl103-412/hear-103-65-1994.pdf
  3. Burning Phoenix, Slagle, Allogan for the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, 1993.
  4. http://www.keetoowahsociety.org/BurningPhoenix.htm
  5. James Mooney, Myths of the Cherokees, 19th Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Washington Government Printing Office, 1900, p. 15: "In the early 1900s, anthropologists noted that on ceremonial occasions, Cherokees frequently speak of themselves as Ki-tu-wa-gi."

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