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  • Writer's pictureDennis McCaslin

Stone Gardens: The life and legacy of a insurgent Cherokee leader from the early 1900's

Redbird Smith (born To-Juwah Sequanitah, was a traditionalist and political activist in the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory. He helped found the Nighthawk Keetoowah Society, whose members revitalized traditional spirituality among the Cherokee from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century.

His father was Pig Redbird Smith, who was given his surname by European Americans, after they noted that he worked as a blacksmith. Redbird Smith's mother was Lizzie (Hildebrand) Smith. His parents had been removed from Georgia to Indian Territory.

Smith was born near Fort Smith in the Indian Territory.

Smith was a political activist and traditionalist who was instrumental in starting the Nighthawk Keetoowah Society. The revival of Cherokee traditional spirituality throughout the mid-19th and early 20th centuries was greatly aided by this society.

His opposition to the Dawes Allotment Act was a particularly noteworthy example of his activism and leadership. Seeing a great danger to his people in acculturation, he spearheaded a political resistance effort to protect Cherokee religious nationalism and values.

A Cherokee organization called the Nighthawk Keetoowah Society was founded in 1900 with the goal of upholding and carrying out the "old ways" of tribal life, which were founded on religious nationalism1. Redbird Smith, a founding member of the Keetoowah Society and a member of the Cherokee National Council, served as its leader.

The group developed as a result of Cherokee leaders' waning will to oppose the Dawes Commission's allotment policy, which sought to give individual ownership of Oklahoma tribal lands in the Indian Territory1. Unwilling to accept the coerced promises made by the Dawes Commission, the so-called "Nighthawks" withdrew to the highlands around Blackgum Mountain in Sequoyah County.

According to published sources, Smith said in the early 1900s:

""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 but we are overlooking the Cherokee mission on earth, for no man nor race is endowed with these qualifications without a designed purpose... Our pride in our ancestral heritage is our great incentive for handing something worthwhile to our posterity. It is this pride in ancestry that makes men strong and loyal for their principal in life. It is this same pride that makes men give up their all for their government.

The Nighthawk Keetoowah Society chose Redbird Smith as their chief for life in 1908, and they worked to protect traditional Cherokee culture. In the early 1900s, the society was referred to be the "spiritual core" of the Cherokee Nation. The Keetoowah Society created a stomp grounds where they would hold council, engage in stickball games and hold their traditional dances. Lighting a ceremonial fire was also a part of the annual summer gathering at the stomp grounds.

The Nighthawk Keetoowah Society's primary activities were firmly based in the preservation of Cherokee customs, ceremonies, and beliefs. Redbird Smith and other Cherokee leaders established the society as a covert organization to fend against cultural deterioration and preserve the traditional Cherokee way of life.

Some of the essential beliefs of the Society included:

-Gatherings and Ceremonies in Secret: The society met in secret to carry out its customs in a setting free from outside interference.

-Preservation of Pre-deportation Culture: Their goal was to protect the Cherokee people's customs, traditions, and beliefs from before their forcible deportation, often known as the Trail of Tears.

-Religious nationalism served as the foundation for the society and emphasized the Cherokee people's spiritual and cultural sovereignty.

More than one of his sons followed in his footsteps and led the Keetoowahs through the years. In the 1950s, it was Stokes Smith who served as Keetoowah chief. They were still gathering for stomp dances at the grounds located between Gore and the little community called Redbird Smith.

Another descendant of Redbird Smith also served as chief of the Cherokee Nation. Chad Smith was Cherokee chief from 1999 to 2011.

A medical clinic established and funded by the Cherokee tribe in Sallisaw is named in his honor. As late as 1932, the Sequoyah County Times was reporting favorably on "stomp dances held at Red Bird Flats", detailing the customs and pageantry of the festive ceremonial dances.

Redbird Smith was buried in 1911 in the Redbird Cemetery in Blackgum along with fifty-two other individuals with the same last name. It's estimated that close to two hundred of his descendants are buried in the hallowed grounds.

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