The Keetoowah Society

The Keetoowah Society played a pivotal role in the Cherokee Nation’s resistance to the Dawes Commission Treaty in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. On January 31, 1899, a general election revealed a strong opposition among the Full-blood Cherokees, led by Redbird Smith, against the allotment of lands and the dissolution of their government. Despite the eventual acceptance of change by some members, Smith and his followers remained steadfast in their resistance until about 1910. Redbird Smith’s leadership as Chief of the Nighthawk Keetoowah Society, from 1908 until his death in 1918, focused on preserving Cherokee heritage, fostering unity, and promoting industrial and spiritual strength among his people. His vision for a unified and industrious Cherokee community continued to influence the Society’s direction even after his death.

The derogatory term “Pin Indians” was applied by Treaty Party Cherokees to hostile, pro-Union Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole during the Civil War. The Pins were identified by cross pins worn on their coat lapels or calico shirts. They were disproportionately full bloods, wore turbans, adhered to the long-house culture, and were politically opposed to the frock-coated mixed-bloods who adhered to Southern white cultural norms and belonged to the Knights of the Golden Circle. The “Pins” sprang from a secret society that had formed in the 1850s called the Keetoowah.

The Keetoowah Society
The Keetoowah Society

On January 31st, 1899, a general election was held for the purpose of determining on what is known as the Dawes Commission Treaty. The Full-bloods lost by two thousand fifteen votes. The Keetoowah Society were united in their opposition to the allotment of lands and dissolution of their government, but a part of them saw that the change was inevitably coming and adjusted themselves accordingly.

Redbird Smith, however, took the position that it was grossly unjust for the United States Government, their Trustee, to precipitately plunge a large number of his people into so radically changed conditions, he accordingly advised his following (about 5789 according to the roll of their number at that time) that he reposed confidence in the integrity of the intentions of the Government of the United States to uphold its Treaty Stipulations; that sooner or later the Government would see the injustice to the Full-bloods and would take active measures to make amends. He therefore counseled his people not to participate further in the deliberations of what he termed the majority of the advocates of the change. He and his group stood steadfast in this recalcitrant attitude until about 1910 when he became convinced that it was useless.

In 1908 his position as Chairman was officially changed by the Night­hawk Keetoowah Council to that of Chief. An election was held for this purpose and he was unanimously elected in that capacity for life, which he held and ably filled until his death, November 8th, 1918, after a short illness of forty-eight hours.

The unfortunate thing in the mistakes and errors of leaders or of governments is the penalty the innocent and loyal followers have to pay.

Redbird Smith

Redbird Smith was a man endowed with a great native ability and great enough to admit his own mistakes. In this matter he said: “After my selection as a Chief, I awakened to the grave and great responsibilities of a leader of men. I looked about and saw that I had led my people down a long and steep mountain side, now it was my duty to turn and lead them back upward and save them. The unfortunate thing in the mistakes and errors of leaders or of governments is the penalty the innocent and loyal followers have to pay. My greatest ambition has always been to think right and do right. It is my belief that this is the fulfilling of the law of the Great Creator. In the up-building of my people it is my purpose that we shall be spiritually right and industrially strong.’’

“I have always believed that the Great Creator had a great design for my people, the Cherokees. I have been taught that from my childhood up and now in my mature manhood I recognize it as a great truth. Our forces have been dissipated by the external forces, perhaps it has been just a training, but we must now get together as a race and render our contribution to mankind.”

We are endowed with intelligence, we are industrious, we are loyal, and we are spiritual bet we are overlooking the particular Cherokee mission on earth, no man nor race is endowed with these qualifications without a designed purpose.  Work and right training is the solution of my following.  We as a group are still grouping in darkness in many things, but this we know, we must work.  A kindly man cannot help his neighbor in need unless he have a surplus and he cannot have a surplus unless he works. It is so simple and yet we have to continually remind our people of this.”

“Our Mixed-bloods should not be overlooked in this program of a racial awakening. Our pride in our ancestral heritage is our great incentive for handing something worth while to our posterity. It is this pride in ancestry that makes men strong and loyal for their principle in life. It is this same pride that makes men give up their all for their Government.”

In the last few years of his life Redbird Smith became obsessed with his ambition for his people. He insisted in securing the services of one who was willing to co-operate with him in working some industrial plan for the Night­hawk Keetoowah Society, and he did not give up his program until he secured an agreement with this party to serve with his people for seven years, beginning with January 1st, 1918.

His program covered not only the Nighthawks, but all people of Cherokee blood. His great ambition was to accomplish a united spirit of cooperation among all the factors of the Cherokee people. It was distinctly not his idea to reestablish the old and discarded regime of the Cherokee Government, but to awaken a racial pride, so that the more fortunate of the race may become great factors in helping their less fortunate brethren.

It is this spirit and ambition of his that has prevailed even after his death, and that which his survivors in Office are carrying out in the selection of Levi Gritts as Chief of the Cherokees. It should be understood that it is purely a purpose of unifying the Cherokee people to a grand effort of aggrandizing the race that it may acquit itself as a contributor to a grand race of men in America, as Redbird called it “The Mother of the New World.”


Starr, Emmett. History of the Cherokee Indians and Their Legends and Folk Lore. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: The Warden Company. 1921

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