Sovereign Amonsoquath Band of Cherokee

 Last of the Five Tribes

 

BY GRANT FOREMAN

THE year 1906 marks the last page in the life history of the five civilized tribes of Indians. These once powerful tribes have

abandoned their identity and institutions, and have severed the bonds which for many years have held the individuals together as

tribes. Their condition was not brought about by their own desires; it is but a melancholy repetition of history -- the inevitable

result of close contact of the white man with the red man.

The five civilized tribes are kindred, and their association is of long standing. The beginning of the nineteenth century found

them occupying their own lands, secured to them by treaty in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, the Carolinas and

Florida. After the Revolutionary War, the increase of white settlement in these States led to controversies between the Whites

and the Indians. Settlers with little regard for the rights of the Indians coveted their fine lands, and were continually encroaching

on them. These troubles led to efforts on the part of the Governments of some of the States to exercise legislative control of the

Indians within their boundaries.

The Indians who claimed under the treaties made with the United States the right to legislate for themselves, suffering by harsh

legislation and irritated beyond endurance by the encroachments and abuses of the whites, frequently resented the wrongs put

upon them, and were often involved in contests that left them poorer and weaker than they were before.

The problem growing out of this situation became more vexatious as white settlement increased and expanded, but a solution

was found in the policy of removing all these Indians west of the Mississippi River and locating them upon a domain which, it

was believed, would be ample for the Indians and would never be needed nor coveted by white men.

It was agreed with these Indians that if they would relinquish their lands and remove to this Indian Territory, they should first

be vested with the fee simple title to this great domain; they should ever after make their own laws, never be subject to the laws

of any State nor be made part of any State without their consent, and that they should forever or "as long as grass grows and

water flows," enjoy the possession of the lands to be given them, protected from the intrusions of white men. Upon this

agreement, the Indians ceded their lands east of the Mississippi, and accepted in exchange the lands thereafter known as Indian

Territory. Little did either party to that compact realize how soon civilization and white settlement would overtake them again,

clamoring for their lands and demanding that warrant be found for violating the agreements made with the Indians.

The removal of these Indians was practically accomplished by 1835; though a considerable number of Seminoles refused to

leave Florida and were finally removed by force, the process lasting until the year 1842.

After their arrival in Indian Territory, the tribes re-established their Governments and began life anew, and, reassured by the

promise of the Government of the United States, they believed that they would never again be distressed or disturbed by the

greed of white men and that their simple laws and institutions would suffice them for all time.

The Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek and Seminole tribes of Indians are known as the Five Civilized Tribes because

of their civilized customs and institutions. Their scheme of Government is modeled upon that of the States; each tribe has its

written constitution and code of laws, and its three branches of Government -- legislative, executive and judicial, and the offices

are filled by members of the tribes at popular elections. The laws are crude and not always honestly executed, though in that

respect they do not

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suffer by comparison with their civilized prototypes.

These Indians are a deeply religious people, and the Bible and hymn books have been translated into their tongues. Their

devotion to their schools is quite as marked, and some of their academies would adorn many advanced sections of the States.

The Cherokee nation is distinguished by having its own alphabet, invented by the great Sequoyah, which is used in the printing

of its official newspaper. The occupation of these Indians almost solely is agriculture, though as a rule they are lacking in the skill

and thrift of the white farmer. As hunters, they have little employment, for the invasion of white people has swept away all game

except such as may be found in small quantity in isolated fastnesses.

These tribes passed a tranquil existence until they were harassed and their farms devastated by the Civil War. Upon the

emancipation of their slaves, of which they owned a great many, they were compelled by our Government to divide their lands

with them. The justice that entered into this distinction between these Indians and other slave owners is not obvious; they

contend that their weak and impoverished condition offers the only explanation for this practical confiscation of their lands by

our Government.

After the war, as the West began to be settled up, rumors of the beautiful prairies and fertile valleys in Indian Territory

traveled over the land. White people drifted in and tilled the generous soil with the indulgence of the Indians; others set up

merchandise stores and got rich by selling goods to the Indians at enormous profits. With such possibilities open to them, the

whites continued to crowd into this country until in 1901 the census gave a population for Indian Territory of 391,960, of which

only 90,805 were Indians, including mixed as well as full bloods; the present population is believed to be 750,000.

Beginning with the treaty of 1830 made with the Choctaws and Chickasaws and known as the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit

Creek, down to the treaty of 1866, as if to accentuate the promises made to the Indians of the Five Tribes to induce them to

remove west of the Mississippi, repeated assurances were made to them in the most solemn manner in which our Government

can bind itself that they should have unrestricted self-government and full jurisdiction over persons and property within their

respective limits; that we would protect them against intrusion of white people, and that we would not incorporate them in a

political organization without their consent.

But these promises were made before it was known to Congress what a beautiful domain had been set apart to these Indians.

This region was then practically an unknown land, and in fact the old geographies described it as part of a great desert. So that

it could not then be anticipated that before the end of the century it would be over-run with white men creating a condition

demanding, if not justifying, an entirely different method of control of this country.

The land was held in fee in common occupancy by the Indians, and no title could be acquired by the whites. The latter, while

owning not a foot of land in Indian Territory, and being there only by the sufferance of the Indians declared themselves not

amenable to the laws of the Indian tribes. To cope with this peculiar situation, Congress was compelled to extend the

jurisdiction of the United States courts over this country, first extending over the whites and gradually taking the jurisdiction

over the Indians previously exercised by their courts.

Congress did nothing to stem the tide of white immigration into this fertile country, but in order to establish a system of law

and order throughout Indian Territory in harmony with that of the States, agents and commissions have been sent to negotiate

treaties and agreements with these Indians, constantly diminishing their integrity as tribes. These treaties and agreements were

reluctantly ratified by the Indians who knew that without such ratification the all-powerful Congress would reach the same end

by legislation in which they would have no voice.

As a result of these agreements the tribes have sold the sites upon which towns have been built, to the owners thereof, vesting

good titles in the lot holders. The other lands of the Indians have been allotted to them in severalty, each Indian being permitted

to select land

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containing his home and improvements, and securing a fee simple title to his allotment. A part of the allotment designated as the

homestead, is inalienable for twenty-one years, and the remainder in most cases can be sold under certain restrictions.

By the successive treaties, piece by piece the Indians have gradually yielded up the jurisdiction and exercise of authority of

the branches of their governments until at last they have found themselves possessed of tribal Governments only in name. But

the last and crowning act of this policy patiently but relentlessly enforced by the Government, was the agreement secured from

the Indians that all their tribal Governments should be dissolved on March 4, 1906. A scheme of statehood for Indian Territory,

concerning which the Indians have not been permitted to be heard and to which they are opposed, has been adopted by

Congress, which accentuates and completes the long chapter of our broken promises to these wards of our Government.

Anticipating the failure of the passage by March 4, 1906, of the Curtis Bill -- an act providing the machinery for the winding

up of the affairs of the Five Tribes -- on February 28, 1906, the Senate adopted a resolution which was later concurred in by

the House, and signed by the President, extending the life of the tribal Governments of the Five Tribes to March 4, 1907. As a

concession to the tribes, this act was a matter of form rather than of substance. It continues the tenure of office of the chiefs of

the tribes for the purpose of signing deeds, and is intended to facilitate the work of the Interior Department.

After this year there will be no Five Civilized Tribes to counsel for their common good. Congress will know them no more,

for there will be no tribes to negotiate with. It is planned that after this year the affairs of these Indians shall be in the hands of

the Secretary of the Interior, who shall complete the rolls of citizenship, the allotment of land and the division of the tribal funds

without consulting the wishes of the Indians, nominally or otherwise.

Thus is completely wiped out each of the Five Civilized Tribes. Their Legislatures, their chiefs and their courts are no longer in

existence. Their schools will pass under the control of the State, which shall take the place of this so-called Indian Territory.

The Indians, outnumbered ten to one by the whites, will be absorbed and lost. A generation or two, and few will remember that

we are in possession of the heritage of a people who were too weak to defend it. Few will know or care that this garden spot

we have appropriated, was safeguarded to forgotten tribes of Indians by the solemn promises of our Government for a valuable

consideration, promises that were ruthlessly put aside that we might adjust ourselves to an exigency that was not foreseen when

they were made.

As our Government is not Utopian, any other result was, perhaps, inevitable; it is only another illustration of the operation of

the law of the survival of the fittest. A greater law than that of Congress has controlled the destinies of these Indians; had that

law been considered, we might have promised less and done more for them, though at most we would have only postponed the

inevitable, unjust as it is.

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