Thursday, May 13, 2010

Cherokee Nationalism and the Civil War

“Are you Kituwah’s son?”
Cherokee Nationalism and the Civil War
By Patrick Minges
Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York
© Copyright 1995, 1998, All Rights Reserved

Chaplain Reverend Lewis Downing of the First Cherokee Mounted Rifles awoke at the dawn of a new day, December 9, 1861. He stood amidst officers of the Creek and Cherokee Nations in what was to become the Kansas Indian Regiments of the Army of the United States of America. Among the warriors lie free Africans, maroons, and fugitive slaves from the deep south hoping to move "on to Kansas" and freedom on the border. There were many battles yet to come, but for this morning, Chaplain Downing felt safe.

Across the corn field lie what was left of the First Cherokee Mounted Rifles of the Army of the Confederate States of America under the leadership of Colonel John Drew. Behind Colonel Drew's men lie the seccessionist troops of Albert Pike's "Indian Brigades," including the 1st Choctaw and Chickasaw Regiment, the Choctaw Battallion, the 1st Creek Regiment and the Second Cherokee Mounted Rifles under Colonel Stand Watie. On the other side of the Confederate Army lie Chaplain Downing's home, his family, and the rest of the Cherokee Nation.

It was the issue of slavery that ripped the Cherokee Nation asunder leading up to the Civil War, but it was also something older and much deeper. Yet, for this moment as he looked about him, Chaplain Downing could see only the faces of those about him fleeing the racist slavocracy of the deep South and seeking “the promised land” of freedom and equality in Kansas. African faces fleeing slavery had long ago found refuge and identity among the full-bloods of the “Five Nations” of the Southeastern United States. Though the "underground railroad" which fled North was more famous, the flight South to freedom among the Seminole and Creek Nations was older and played an equally critical role in United States history.

The rich tapestry of colors found amongst those who surrounded him reminded Chaplain Downing of the gospel message of equality brought to him by the missionaries. Chaplain Downing, an ordained Baptist minister, had found confirmation in the gospels for that which the had known all along; all humanity has a common origin and ultimately, a collective responsibility. This was the message that the first missionaries had brought to the Cherokee nation in the middle of the eighteenth century.

Christian Pryber, Jesuit missionary to the Cherokee from 1736-1743 had attempted to establish a "kingdom of paradise" among the Cherokee people. Welcome in this paradise were all runaway slaves, African as well as Native American and "all others who would fly thither Justice or their Masters." It was his pursuit of a vision of a strong and independent Cherokee Nation founded upon the notion of equality that got the visionary Pryber a prison cell and death and the hands of the English governors.

John Marrant, a free African minister, also brought this message of equality to the Cherokee and the Creek Nations in the years preceeding the Revolutionary War. Marrant, converted by the preaching of George Whitefield, had fled to the Cherokee Nation after his family had rejected him and his Christian mission to them. Living among the Cherokee nation, he adopted the social and cultural patterns of the Cherokee. Marrant's story of his life among the Cherokee is one of the enduring stories of colonial history and a critical text in African American literature. Marrant went on to be a prominent member of the African-American Community, served in the Revolutionary War, and was one of the founding members of Prince Hall Grand Lodge Free and Accepted Masons, a militant nationalist/abolitionist organization. Early members of Prince Hall were ministers Richard Allen and Absolum Jones.

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