Friday, May 14, 2010

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

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 1997, 1998, All Rights Reserved


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:"

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Note: This is a lengthy scholarly work consisting of an introductions, five chapters and a conclusion. At the bottom of the introduction and each succeeding section, there is a table of links to all the other sections.

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