Three Forks History: Keetoowah Society kept ancient traditions alive

Keetoowah is an ancient Cherokee term, variously written as Ki-tuh-wa and Kee-doo-wah through the years. It traces back to the very early Cherokee settlement in the Blue Ridge Mountain area when building mounds was a part of the religion and culture of the early native people. Keetoowah is considered the mother town of the Cherokees.

Remembering this town was a part of the Green Corn dance held at the time of the corn harvest. This ritual continued even after most of the Cherokees were removed to Indian Territory in the 1820s and 1830s.

As some Cherokees assimilated to American culture, the traditionalists among the tribe formed an association known as the Keetoowah Society. In a 1955 Muskogee Times-Democrat article, the term Kee-Doo-Wah was reported to mean “unity.”

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.

When the federal government made allotments its policy to force the Five Tribes to assimilate even further and accept statehood, the Keetoowahs opposed the plan at first. However, by 1900 even many of the Society saw and accepted the inevitability of allotments.

Still a few families held out and refused to enroll with the Dawes Commission or choose their allotment of land. These individuals gathered near the Keetoowah stomp grounds in what would become Sequoyah County. They were organized into a new group by Redbird Smith and called themselves the Nighthawk Keetoowah.

Smith was elected chief of the Nighthawk Keetoowah and helped them form an independent government. Smith had been born to Pig Redbird and Lizzie Hilderbrand in the Cherokee Nation near Fort Smith in 1850. Pig Redbird earned the surname of Smith because he worked as a blacksmith.

Redbird Smith served in the Cherokee National Council in the late 1880s. He continued as chief of the Nighthawk Keetoowahs until his death in 1918.

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.

Reach Jonita Mullins at jonita.mullins@gmail.com.

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