BACK IN THE
GREEN rolling hills of northeastern Oklahoma, in the middle of a deserted
clearing a stone's throw off a rough country road, there is a small family
cemetery. It is bounded by an old wooden fence overgrown with honeysuckle
and wild lavender, and thick with bees from a nearby hive. Most of the
graves are marked with marble headstones, but some have only a tin plate
set in the ground with a name and two dates scratched in by hand. One grave
sits back toward the rear of the cemetery. It is old, the marker weathered
and beginning to chip, the letters smoothing out with age. But if you look
closely, you can trace the name of John Ross, one of the great leaders
of the Cherokee Nation and a man who brought history to this part of the
When Ross became Principal Chief in 1828, the Cherokees -- already known as one of the "civilized tribes" because they had seen that survival depended on adapting to some of the white man's ways -- were not here in Oklahoma. They were back in Georgia where they had always been, and were fighting to keep the U.S. government from moving them west across the Mississippi to what was known as Indian Territory. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Cherokees, but Andrew Jackson dispatched soldiers to herd the Cherokees out of Georgia. The route they took is remembered as the Trail of Tears because 4000 of their people died along the way.
During the next decades, the Cherokee Nation carved a foothold in this wilderness. Under Ross' leadership, they built a self-sufficient government with a model constitution; they had bilingual newspapers and a populace almost totally literate in Cherokee; their sons and daughters returned from white colleges to help create a school system regarded as the finest west of the Mississippi. When John Ross died in 1866, some whites had already infiltrated the Cherokees' lands, and others -- the Sooners and Boomers of a later era -- were beginning to clamor for the opening of its rich bottom lands; but the traditional Cherokee fullbloods still controlled the course of their Nation, and the Nation still owned every inch of these quiet hills.
ABOUT A MILE from
the Ross Family cemetery, there is a reconstruction of an 18th century
Cherokee village which is part of the recently built Cherokee Cultural
Center called Tsa-La-Gi. The tour costs $1.00, and it is led by a local
Cherokee girl with a well-rehearsed monologue on Cherokee history. She
takes you past women sitting cross-legged, stitching skins together with
bone needles or pounding grain in cratered rocks. The men,1
work hollowing dugout canoes or feathering arrows; and the children, big-eyed
and half-naked, look shyly to their parents when the whites, coming through
ask them questions or offer them a handful of coins. The "inhabitants"
of the Village are all Cherokee fullbloods who are provided with buckskins
and cautioned not to speak English inside the compound as they act out
a day in the life of the nation back in the old country.
There is more to the Cultural Center. Across from the Village, laborers are fixing up another of its attractions -- a large, elaborate amphitheater where an outdoor drama called "The Trail of Tears" is performed during the summer by a company of white actors. Chronicling the journey to Indian Territory and the hardships the Cherokees first encountered, the play brings Cherokee history up to the year 1907 and ends with the cast joining in a song praising the progress that would be shared by red man and white alike with the coming of Oklahoma's statehood.
Tsa-La-Gi attracts more customers every year. But the Cherokees down here don't like it. Cherokees are mild and generally keep their opinions to themselves, but if you were to ask one of them about the drama he would probably tell you that his people didn't want Oklahoma citizenship; and that all they've gotten since 1907 was a good view of the white man as he stole hundreds of thousands of acres of their land. As for the Village, he might suggest that you listen closely to some of the comments the whites make and watch the resentment that lashes the faces of the "inhabitants", the fullblood descendants of the men who pioneered this country in the day of John Ross and who now live on welfare for that part of the year they are not playing "Indian".
History has taught the Cherokee, perhaps more than any other American natives, how white power works. And things aren't getting any better. The Cultural Center is an example of their powerlessness. For it was not created by some local Chamber of Commerce or by the Bureau of Ind. affairs. Tsa-La-Gi was built by the Cherokees' own government with their own money. It was the special project of W. W. Keeler, their current Principal Chief, who is one-sixteenth Cherokee and neither speaks the Cherokees' language nor participates in their social life; who was never elected Chief by the Cherokees but rather appointed, as a political favor, by the Secretary of the Interior, and who has used his position in "Ind" affairs to subtly benefit Phillips Petroleum, the giant Oklahoma oil company of which he is chairman, while the Cherokee fullblood lives in poverty.
The small rural
town of Tahlequah, Oklahoma, is filled with scenes that are vintage
Americana; shopkeepers leaning diagonally in their doorways to gossip with
passersby, slapping them roughly on the back at the conclusion of a joke;
grizzled old men in bib overalls and straw hats sitting in rows in the
town park, talking deliberately and occasionally rolling a cud of tobacco
from one side of the mouth to the other; or bending down to shoot a stream
of brown juice onto the ground; kids running through the humid evenings
in pursuit of fireflies.
As you drive down the main street, it isn't hard to image scenes like these taking place a hundred years ago. But they didn't take place here, for a hundred years ago Tahlequah was the thriving capital of the Cherokee Nation. The county offices in the center of the park where the old men now congregate was the Capitol Building, constructed in 1867, and the two old structures on nearby streets, both still in use, were the Cherokee Supreme Court Building and the National Prison.
The people of this part of Oklahoma do not deny that they stand on a solid stratum of Cherokee culture. Many even claim Cherokee blood to prove that they are not latecomers in the area. They will tell you stories about the Inds. and direct you to landmarks like the new Cherokee Cultural Center a couple of miles outside the town. But if you ask about the Cherokees of today, you are likely to get an evasive reply about everybody being a mixed-blood down here, and a hand might wave vaguely toward the hills as the home of the few stubborn fullbloods who hang on.
BUILT a myth which says that their Native Americans have been successfully
integrated into the general population. For a while they had convinced
not only themselves but almost everyone else as well. Then, in the mid-1960's,
anthropologist Albert Wahrhaftig spent a year taking a census2
and found there were more than 10,000 Cherokees living in small communities
scattered through the northeastern Oklahoma hills, where they had fled
at the turn of the century to preserve their way of life. These are people
who regard English as a language of foreign relations and about 40 per
cent are functionally illiterate in it; they are strongly traditional in
outlook and folkways, and their numbers are periodically augmented by another
2000 who live in nearby towns and small cities like Tahlequah but return
to the hills for their communal life.
The pervasive notion of native assimilation, like other myths, performs a function; it allowed the whites of Oklahoma to avoid coming to terms with the great damage they did to Cherokees in the past, and it allows them to continue that damage today. Thus the Cherokee fullblood, although his numbers are increasing and his communities are still viable, is always slipping farther down. The per family income of the Cherokees living in these hills and hollows average less than $2000 a year. Their homes are typically log cabins or shacks built of odd-sized pieces of lumber sheathed in tarpaper. About 35 per cent of them have electricity; roughly seven percent have inside plumbing and slightly more have supplies of pure water.
But the Cherokees are not only uncomfortable and poor; they are imprisoned in a system that keeps them at the bottom of the social ladder while it insists that they live there by their own choosing. The Cherokee children go to rural public schools which are as bad as the notorious Bureau of Ind. Affairs schools and have an even worse record. Suffering a variety of humiliations, the children leave school early; a recent study by researchers from the University of Kansas shows that Cherokees have an average of about five years in school, which is three years less than their poor white neighbors and five years less than the state average. The economic implications are clear: the Cherokee occupies the lowest niche in his own economically depressed area and has little chance for work; but if he emigrates to a big city like Tulsa, he not only cuts himself off from the subtle life-support system of his community but also finds what urban unemployment is like from the vantage point of the ghetto.
Throughout these small Cherokee communities the Cherokees take whatever work they can find, and it is not uncommon to see Cherokee women doing hard labor for white families at $3.00 a day, and their husbands working in nurseries or chicken-processing-plants for not much more. But gradually the capricious bounty of the welfare worker is beginning to replace the low wages of the rural white employer as the economy of this area. While the Cherokees comprise about 12 percent of the total population of this part of Oklahoma, they now make up more than 35 percent of those on welfare. Better than half of the Cherokee families here are dependent on some kind of government assistance -- old age, aid to dependent children, and the like -- and the figure is rising. The government check has not only created a new economy in the backwoods, but is replacing land as the Cherokees' most easily swindled asset.
None of this should shock anyone familiar with the so-called "plight" of the Ind. in America. What is surprising in Oklahoma is that despite all this evidence, the Cherokee is still socially invisible. Oklahoma whites believe that theirs is a society where people sink or swim on their own merits. What more do you want, they ask, than a place where an Ind. like Bill Keeler can grow up to be head of one of the most powerful corporations in the world?
SITTING BEHIND a desk in a well-furnished
office and periodically checking with the mini-skirted Cherokee secretary
in an outer office, Billy Bob Stopp, general manager of the Cherokee Nation
and recently appointed as deputy chief, says that things are getting better
and better for the Cherokees and that for the first time this year the
nation will be operating out of the red. Noting in passing that his parents
were fullbloods, the young, moon-faced Stopp, a graduate student in business
administration at the University of Missouri when the general manager's
job became vacant, says "Our main goal is to take these people off welfare
and get them into decent jobs".
Stopp's office is in the main building of what they call "The Keeler Complex", a cluster of four buildings on a 40-acre tract the nation owns just outside Tahlequah. In addition to the headquarters of the nation, which leases a portion of its space to the local BIA agency, there is an arts and crafts center selling Cherokee handcrafts, and a restaurant, the Restaurant o' the Cherokees, featuring an expensive menu and a large wood sculpture of W. W. Keeler encircled by the traditional symbolism of Cherokee leadership. The other component of the Keeler Complex is a ..gas station flying the red Phillips 66 shield.
If there is a contrast between the luxury of this group of buildings and the poverty of the Cherokees living back in the nearby hills, between its air of industry and their imprisonment in an unrelenting caste system, the Cherokees themselves rarely see it. The people who come to the Keeler Complex are mainly whites -- white tourists paying $10.00 for beaded medallions which took a Cherokee fullblood a whole day to make (and for which he got $3.00) and white officials coming and going from the BIA. Traditional Cherokees have no feeling for this headquarters, although at least it has acquainted them with the fact that there is a chief the white world recognizes as theirs.
WHEN KEELER, then
a rising young executive at Phillips Petroleum, was first appointed Principal
Chief in 1949 by President Truman (the fact the position is appointive
was one of the provisions for the abolition of the Cherokee Nation's formal
government) there wasn't any outcry. The title carried with it no power
and was more ceremonial than anything else. Even though Keeler appointed
an Executive Committee to act as a ruling oligarchy in Cherokee affairs,
it didn't matter, because this committee had no way of affecting the fullbloods.
At the turn of the century, the Cherokees' communal lands had been broken
up into individual allotments, and while the clique of mixed-bloods and
whites of Cherokee descent who had taken control of Cherokee affairs got
the rich agricultural flatlands, the fullbloods had pushed farther back
into the hills. They had no reservation and were therefore not a captive
In 1961, however, an event occurred that changed things. The U.S. Ind. Claims Commission, established to give native tribes and nations compensation for lands stolen over the centuries, awarded the Cherokees $15 million for a strip taken from them in 1893. After attorneys' fees 3 and the BIA "offsets" for the services it had given the Cherokees over the years, a $280 per capita payment was made to the more than 40,000 people, most of them whites, who were either enrolled in 1907, or their descendants. There was still more than $2 million left over because of fractional and unclaimed shares; and this became the "seed money" that Keeler and his Executive Committee needed to make their plans for the Cherokees come true.
First, the past was taken care of. State and Federal funds were obtained to supplement $100,000 in Cherokee funds, and work on the Village and the amphitheater housing the Cherokee drama began. The Cultural Center will ultimately include two more attractions: a museum and a Cherokee national archives. Also in the Nation's plan is the sum of $50,000 for the compilation of an official history of the nation, and one of the members of Keeler's Executive Committee, former State Supreme Court Justice N. B. Johnson (who was impeached for taking bribes) has been doing some preliminary research work.
Keeler's government also has plans for the Cherokees' future, which is to depend on the success of a program of development through private enterprise. The headquarters rang with earnest talk about industry and capital, about contract negotiations and proper worker relations. Billy Bob Stopp is in charge of the day-to-day management of Cherokee money, and he seems his main task as superintending the growth of the local GNP. "We want to do things with the Nation's money" he says, "things that will get the ball rolling and bring industry into the area. One of the things we are willing to do is loan our funds to businesses at the lowest going rate of interest so they'll come here and set up shop. We make a gentleman's agreement that there'll be some Cherokees hired.". He notes that they had recently loaned $60,000 to Stephens Manufacturing Company, a local firm making heating equipment; and $150,000 to Glassmaster Plastics, a company making fiberglass boats in the small town of Grove.
ENTRANCE into the business world is intimately tied to Chief Keeler's own
relationship with Phillips, and it has been carried forward with the assistance
of Marvin Franklin, appointed by Keeler to be Phillips's Director of Special
Projects. Franklin not only helps the Cherokee Nation with its enterprises
but also sits on the board of directors of the Navajo Timber Company and
journeys to reservations all over the country, helping Native Americans
develop economically in partnership with private enterprise.
From his office in Phillips' Bartlesville headquarters, Franklin, talking with the rough geniality of this region, says that Phillips is committed to helping all minorities. "We have the philosophy that we ought to do what we can to bring development to those places that are behind." And as far as the Cherokees are concerned, Franklin feels that the two loans already made to local companies represent a step in the right direction.
But for him the big development is the Cherokee Industries. He draws a small electronic assembly from his desk and holds it god-like in the palm of his hand. "This was the beginning about a year ago," he says, putting it down and producing a bigger one with more complicated wiring. "And now they're making these." He tells how he negotiated a contract for the Cherokee Industries with Western Electric, which is now buying all the assemblies they can make. "Now we've got 80 employees out there, and each one of them gets five shares of stock at Christmas. They own the whole thing. It gives you a real thrill to see how quickly they pick up on business. Anybody who says that Inds. can't do it is all wrong". Franklin, who was elected board chairman of Cherokee Nation Industries, mentions that another contract was recently arranged to do carpet cutting for American Airlines, and that Phillips itself -- through Phillips Products, a subsidiary making plastic pipe -- now has a plant in the nearby town of Pryor where three-quarters of their employees are Cherokee. Passing under the color photograph, just outside his office, of Chief Keeler dressed in a ceremonial headdress and a red-and-white beaded jerkin, Franklin says that this industrial development is the wave of the future for American natives.
BUT AS IS SO OFTEN
the case where Native Americans are concerned, the reality is far less
rosy than the picture painted. And so, the two operations to which the
Cherokees have loaned a total of $210,000 of Cherokee money now employ
respectively five and 14 Cherokees at an average wage of less than $2.00
an hour. The Cherokee Nation Industries does have a working relationship
with Western Electric, but of the 83 employees Franklin mentions, less
than half are full-time and only 25 are men, the favoring of women disrupting
the ecology of the Cherokee family. As for the contract with American Airlines,
so far seven people are employed cutting carpet, and the operation takes
place behind the Restaurant o' the Cherokees in a large, deserted warehouse
originally built for a South Carolina textile company that was to come
and employ hundreds of Cherokees, but which came and left.
The Phillips Products plant at the small town of Pryor is not much more encouraging. According to O.E. Larsen, plant manager, 40 of the 60 employees are indeed Cherokees, although none are in supervisory positions. But the motives for hiring these Cherokees are far less altruistic than Franklin leads one to believe. "We hire Inds. here because of Mr. Keeler's interest in them," Larsen says. "But also because it makes good economic sense." The Cherokees come to Phillips on the BIA employment assistance program, which means that while they are "learning the trade" for up to 18 months, as m much as one-half of their wages is paid by the government. In addition to this wage subsidy, the Cherokees are a naive and fairly docile labor force. "Your minority people," Larsen notes, "they aren't so transient. There are a lot of Cherokees living in this area with their families and all, and you know they aren't going to pick up and leave. I mean, if you train up a group of them, they aren't likely to go running off to a place like Chicago hunting a better-paying job with the skills you've given them. We hire a lot of them here because we have the kind of jobs they qualify for because of their lack of education. Now if we had a lot of jobs paying $4.00 or so an hour, you'd see our ration of Inds. to white workers flop right on over".
It is not only among the Cherokees that the claim of private enterprise to have a solution for the nation's native peoples' problems has been inflated. There have been an estimated 10,000 jobs created by industries located on reservations, but less than half of them -- and those always the lowest-paying and most menial -- have been filled by Native Americans. Businesses have come to the reservation surrounded by a halo of rhetoric. Often they obtain lucrative employment-training contracts given with the tacit understanding that the business will set up an ongoing operation after the contract is over, but they rarely do. Instead they move on to a new contract at the next reservation, leaving behind them Natives who finally become qualified in several occupations but have nowhere to work. What makes it bad here in Oklahoma is not only that Keeler uses the natives as a public relations lacquer for Phillips, or even that the disappointing relationship with industry is financed with Cherokee money, but that the Cherokees have no opportunity to decide how development of their area should proceed. And as all these quests after industry are taking place -- some of them cynical, others simply quixotic -- the real problem of the native people fester and become worse.
IN FACT, TO AN
uneducated observer it would almost seem that the Cherokee government is
countenancing these problems. There is, for example, its close cooperation
with the Bureau of Ind. Affairs. As Billy Bob Stopp says, "We have a pretty
good relationship with the BIA out here. If we have a gripe, we sit down
with businessmen and talk things over." But while these presumably amiable
discussions are going on, the BIA continues to allow the full-bloods precious
lands -- their only connection with the past and their only hedge against
the future -- to slip away at the rate of over 5000 acres a year. And while
Billy Bob Stopp insists that something must be done to get Cherokees off
welfare, the Cherokee government joins the BIA in watching over the Cherokees,
engaging in threats to declare them incompetent or to send their children
The Cherokee Nation also participates in some programs whose aims are good but whose long-range effect could be damaging. It is, for example, involved with HUD and the BIA in what is called a "mutual help housing program". Under this plan, the Cherokee can apply for a new home, donating one acre of his land for a homesite and 500 hours of his labor to help in the construction. He gets a three-bedroom house valued at $15,000 and a "sweat equity" of $1500. He pays the balance off in monthly payments (although the actual value of the home is about $10,000 and the rest represents "administrative costs"). The title for the home and homesite rests with the housing authority until the balance is paid off, and if the Cherokee doesn't make minimum equity payments as well as take care of upkeep, the housing authority can pay out the money and charge it to his equity account. According to Tom Tribby, Housing Officer for the BIA, "If the equity ever falls below ten percent of the value of the home, it can legally be taken over by the housing authority and sold". There are also pressures in this program to get the Cherokee to sell his allotment in the hills (once valueless but now of increasing importance to the State's plans for artificial lakes and recreational development) and move into tracts near towns. "We encourage them," Tribby says, "to think about coming down closer to town where they can build their home and work into a job."
Ultimately, the Cherokee government is as insensitive to the Cherokees' needs and desires as the BIA -- seeing them as clock-punching workers, cogs in the wheels of industry, decent citizens or some other Anglo abstraction. The Cherokees have no chance to develop in ways dictated by communal plans and priorities, and for them Keeler's government is just another foe to be wary of. But it is doubtful that the Principal Chief knows of the depth of their suspicion. For not only is he isolated by birth and background from the Cherokees he insists on governing; like all men of power he surrounds himself with people whose only real job is to tell him good news.
C. C. Carshall, Deputy Area Director of the BIA, says of the Chief of the Cherokees: "Mr. Keeler is a very compassionate man. He has more compassion for the common people than anyone I've ever met. And he is doing wonders out there. These Cherokees couldn't have a better man. Not even if they could elect him".
Billy Bob Stopp says with sincere admiration: "I think Mr. Keeler is the man of the century for the Cherokee people. This thing is really getting off the ground now, and by the time it's all over, I think Bill Keeler is going to rank right up there with Will Rogers as one of the great Cherokees".5
NOT EVERYONE bows and scrapes before the Cherokees'
Chief, of course. Armin Saeger, for instance, presently a social worker
in Tulsa, once ran afoul of Keeler when he was working for the U.S. Department
of Public Health's Ind. hospital in Tahlequah. Saeger noticed that the
Cherokees coming out of the hills were suspicious of the hospital and alienated
by some of its routines, so he helped establish a hospital committee comprised
of fullbloods selected by various congregations of the Cherokee Baptist
Church, which functions as the core of the social life in the fullblood
communities. The innovation was very successful and became an example which
Ind. hospitals and health services elsewhere were encouraged to imitate.
But then, with no warning at all, Saeger was informed by his supervisor
that he was to be transferred and had 24 hours to select a new assignment.
"I later found out," he reminisces, "that Keeler felt his authority had been challenged by this hospital committee, small as it was. The director of the hospital admitted to me that Keeler had ordered them not to meet with the committee anymore, but only with the official representatives of the nation, by which he means his representatives. He also made his feelings known to the higher-ups in the public health department." Fingering his luxuriant beard, Saeger adds, "I was still shaving then, and I figured that I wouldn't be able to look myself in the face if I took re-assignment, so I quit altogether. But I've been involved in Ind. affairs since then, and I've never run into anything like this situation with Keeler. He seems to be afraid that these Cherokees will get a chance to make up their own minds about something. Down here the BIA is the same bureaucracy of fear that it is on all reservations, but the difference is that the BIA -- like everything else -- is subject to a higher authority. And that's W. W. Keeler".
But by far the bitterest critic in the small anti-Keeler underground is a doughty 70-year-old woman named Mildred Ballenger who lives in Tahlequah with her husband, a retired professor of history who taught at the local college and whom Keeler once tried to cajole into updating the official Cherokee genealogy. Mrs. Ballenger, who counts herself close to half-Cherokee and has an album of sepiatoned photographs of a grandmother who was six when she came across the Trail of Tears, has been involved in Cherokee affairs for a long time. In 1953, Keeler appointed her to his Executive Committee and she went to its irregular meetings until the claims settlement was made. Then she found herself in violent disagreement with the uses to which the Cherokee money was being put, and quit working with the Principal Chief.
"The Cherokees out there in the hills," she says, "I mean the real Cherokees -- not the white faced Cherokees like me, but the fullbloods who are the only Cherokees left now culturally and socially -- they are the ones who could have used this money. Even if all the things that Keeler and his bunch have done -- building restaurants and Villages and industries and all that -- ever makes any money, which they won't, these fullbloods wouldn't get a dime of it or have any voice in the way it got spent. I know that."
In 1968, when Senator Robert Kennedy's Subcommittee on Ind. Education held field hearings in Oklahoma, Mrs. Ballenger was one of the most impressive witnesses. For a while afterwards she and others hoped something might come of the visit, but now she realizes that Keeler is even more powerful than she had imagined, and that she and her husband are "getting too old". Thus she spends some time helping fullblood friends like Polly Bear, whom she grew up with, work through the obstacle course of regulations and prohibitions the BIA sets up in front of their life and death decisions. Otherwise she doesn't get too involved. "One of the things you've got to say about Keeler" Mrs. Ballenger says, "is that he's real smooth. I remember once after we had an Executive Committee meeting up there in Bartlesville, he said to me about something, "Now, Mildred, you know you can catch a whole lot more flies with honey than you can with vinegar'. So you've got to realize that if things don't look too bad down here, it's probably because you can't see them. Underneath all the sweet talk about development and industry and all, these Cherokees are getting all smothered -- with power, with Oklahoma politics, and with big business. We've tried, but how do you go about fighting a man like W. W. Keeler? How do you fight Phillips Petroleum?"
It is difficult, especially in the heavy political climate of Oklahoma, to imagine anyone even thinking that Keeler's hammerlock on the Cherokees can be broken. But there is one organization for which Mildred Ballenger's questions are practical ones. This is a group of fullbloods called the Original Cherokee Community Organization who have banded together to become the fly in Chief Keeler's ointment.
YOU CAN'T HELP being struck by the difference in
style between the OCCO and the "official" government. Instead of paneled
offices with secretaries and receptionists, the Original Cherokee Community
Organization rents a cramped two-room storefront off one of Tahlequah's
main streets and has a staff of three, a mimeograph machine, and a white
attorney. The OCCO has no money to loan out to industries, but it manages
to scrape up enough to survive as a legal aid organization for the traditional
Cherokees and as a sort of native government in exile.
George Groundhog, an energetic 57-year-old, was elected chairman in 1968 by the fullbloods living in the hills who make up OCCO's constituency. A veteran of both World War II and Korea, Groundhog spends most of his time on the go, arranging community meetings at congregations of the Cherokee Baptist Church, driving Cherokees to appointments, and hoping for a time when the OCCO will have the leverage to challenge Keeler's government and deal with the rural Oklahoma power structure that causes the Cherokees endless misery.
The Original Cherokee Community Organization is the product of a renaissance that materialized almost overnight in the fullblood communities in the mid-1960's. One impulse was a celebrated case which began when a Cherokee named John Chewie was picked up and jailed in one of the outlying rural towns for shooting a deer out of season. For the Cherokees of Oklahoma (as for those in the State of Washington and elsewhere in the rural United States) the hunting and fishing issue is more than an academic question about whether rights guaranteed in every treaty ever made between the red man and the white government were going to be honored. For people living at a subsistence line, it is more a question of whether or not there will be meat on the table; and so, on the day John Chewie was scheduled to come to trial, the traditionally mild Cherokees sent a shiver of fear through rural Oklahoma by starting to filter into town in their pickups, looking suddenly quite dangerous, armed with the rifles and shotguns they used out of season and without licenses to help feed their families.
At roughly the same time as the Chewie case, another ingredient that was to help produce the OCCO was moving into action. This was a small team of University of Chicago researchers who came to northeastern Oklahoma to test a hypothesis about trying to increase literacy in a people's native language as a way of increasing their literacy in English. They chose the Cherokees for the study because not only had the institutions of the past -- the Cherokee Nation's famous school system and its government -- decayed after statehood, but the once-high literacy in written Cherokee had also shrunk to the point that only ministers in the Cherokee Baptist Church used it; moreover, almost half the adult Cherokees in the area were functionally illiterate in English.
As part of this study, this project set up a new Cherokee newspaper, printed a Cherokee primer and some bilingual reading material and helped initiate a radio program in Cherokee. Their work began to take on an activist quality that caused Keeler and others to fire off angry letters to Washington and had some of the local rednecks grumbling ominously about "Indian-lovers". For as their language suddenly came into play again, it was as if the Cherokees began to think about the days when they had controlled the destiny of the Nation, speaking through John Ross and other great leaders. Soon there were community meetings which had a new tone of militance; and soon some of the Tahlequah merchants were painting signs in Cherokee on their store windows.
In the wake of the Chewie case and the excitement generated by their resurrected language, the OCCO was formed in 1967 with a small continuing grant from the Field Foundation. Stuart Trapp, a white civil rights attorney from Memphis who had come to Oklahoma to consult in Chewie's defense, stayed on as the OCCO's lawyer.
TRAPP AND I TALKED over the din of his old Volkswagen
bus on the way from Tahlequah to the Muskogee law library, a 37-mile trip
he makes several times a month because OCCO cannot afford a basic set of
law reference books.
He mentioned some of the people who come in for help and some of the cases OCCO had gotten involved in, notable the "big" Groundhog vs Keeler suit filed in 1969 to challenge the whole basis of the present "tribal" government, but which was cursorily dismissed by a local judge and is now languishing on appeal. Most cases are much less dramatic but more indicative of the real problem. For instance, Trapp mentioned a case involving welfare checks in a small town. The general store had burned down, and with it the post office branch located inside. The storeowner gave the Cherokees credit at the end of the month at high interest rates. He counted, as they did, on the prompt arrival of the welfare checks in the mail. "So this man", says Trapp, through teeth clenching a big-bowled pipe "gets the postmistress to give him the checks and he goes through the community getting the Cherokees to endorse them over to him. Some of them refuse, and then he goes and gets the local sheriff to drive him around and help enforce his collection".
He talked of the O'Fields case, involving a Cherokee named Joe O'Fields, who had a 160-acre allotment, as well as several children for whom he was getting monthly aid-to-dependent children payments. Using the 40-acre rule (a state law which says that nobody with more than 40 acres can be eligible for assistance), the welfare department had cut him off. Because this law results in the forced sale of much Cherokee land, the OCCO decided to make a test case out of it. "We began by trying to get a hearing at which we could subpoena the area director of the BIA" Trapp says. "We wanted to make him testify about how the Cherokees feel about their land...what it really represents to them....We wanted to make the simple point that Native Americans and whites aren't the same, especially when it comes to land -- that is, that Cherokees don't believe land is something you speculate with, and to apply this 40-acre rule to them the same as to whites was totally arbitrary and wrong".
Trapp wasn't allowed to force the BIA to testify, and the O'Fields suit was dismissed by the same local judge who had dismissed Groundhog vs Keeler,4 although it too is on appeal. But Trapp brings it up for a different reason. "One night we had this old Cherokee woman out to dinner. She was going to be one of our witnesses in the O'Fields case because she had once been forced to sell 120 of her 160 acres for a very low sum of money and then spend it all before she could get welfare. Anyway, after we'd agreed about her testimony and she was getting ready to leave, she looked up at us and said kind of quietly, "I'll talk for you in court tomorrow, but do you think then they'll take away my $40 a month welfare?" I've gotten hardened, I guess, but my wife just broke out in tears."
Cases like these fill Stuart Trapp's files, and George Groundhog talks to people with similar problems every day. The Original Cherokee Community Organization doesn't have the resources to help all the Cherokees who ask for help or need it. But the organization is still the Cherokees' only protection against the parasites and predators who work all around them. It is also the fragile umbrella under which Cherokee nationalism now huddles. As such, it is vulnerable. As Mildred Ballenger points out: "If Keeler could get rid of Trapp and the OCCO -- and you can bet he's been trying -- then he'd have these Cherokees totally powerless and dependent. Which is the way he wants them".
"OH, I SUPPOSE THIS OCCO group has managed
to mislead a few Indians"" W. W. Keeler shrugs from his executive
suite perched high in Bartlesville's new Phillips Building. "but it doesn't
have but a few people behind it now, this white civil rights man named
Trapp and a few others. Anyway, it is just another case of outsiders trying
to direct things. It first got started when some university people came
down here to teach our Cherokees their language. I was all for that. But
then the first thing you know, I started getting these phone calls saying
that these outsiders were telling Ind. people to be militant and
The 18 floors of the Phillips Building make it the tallest building in town, and from the giant windows that wrap around Bill Keeler's office you can see the whole of Bartlesville Valley, the historic valley where Oklahoma oil was first discovered and where the old wooden derrick of the Nellie Johnstone, the first big well, still sticks up above a line of trees. It is hard to believe that a group of Native Americans could be important to a man in Keeler's place. It is not just the prestige of being the head of Phillips Petroleum and the $280,000 (equal to at least a million, today) a year salary; it is the fact that Keeler sits at the throttle of real power in this office. He owns a beautiful home in town and a large working ranch just outside the city. The street the Phillips Building faces is named after his grandfather, a friend of Jake Bartles, the man who watched the mill he built on the Big Caney River in the 1880's grow into a town.....
Both of Keeler's grandfathers were pioneers in this part of Oklahoma and were intimately involved in its development. His mother's father, Nelson Carr, came here in the 1860's and opened the first trading post in the area, exchanging calico and coffee for furs which he sent to Kansas. In 1867 he married a woman who was one-eighth Cherokee, remarrying her a year later before a justice of the Cherokee Nation so that he too could become a member of the Cherokee nation and obtain an allotment of land. Carr decided to put modern farm techniques to use in the area, and began buying up all the Cherokee land he could get. At one time he had 5000 acres under fence, but after oil was discovered he leased out his land to drillers, having at one time 100 producing wells.
Keelers's paternal grandfather was George Keeler, who also marked a one-eighth Cherokee and was one of the first to pump oil out of Oklahoma. When oil was discovered in the late 1880s, Keeler had decided to form an exploring company and he went to Tahlequah to get the Cherokee Nation to lease him over 200,000 acres. He then went to Washington and got Interior Secretary Hitchcock to agree to his plans for drilling, and then to Nebraska, where he convinced Michael Cudahy, the meat-packing mogul, to provide backing for the enterprise. In 1897 Cudahy hit the first big strike in Oklahoma, a well bringing in 150 barrels a day; six months later they hit the Nellie Johnstone, named after the wife of one of George Keeler's business partners. It was the first big strike in the area.
W. W. Keeler comes from people who built fantastic riches on the exploitation of the Cherokees. It is only in retrospect, and in the wake of a frantic search for a worthy past, that such obsessive greed could be seen as heroic....
SOME OF KEELER'S enemies insist that he has used his identification as an "Indian" as a cover for petty larceny. Rumors circulate persistently about how Phillips has secret leases on Cherokee owned lands which have been found to be rich in oil shale deposits. But this is not the way things work, at least not now that a patina of civilization has been added to the Oklahoma oil industry. And Phillips, with its success on the Alaskan North Slope and its recent strike in the North Sea, hardly needs to work such swindles on the Cherokees.
.....:There are intangibles. Over the years, Phillips has entered the foreign wars over oil with the advantage of having an important executive who could go abroad, not as one of the whites who exploited native peoples, but as a native exploited somewhat by his own country, as a native who understood the aspirations of Third World people and could be trusted more than the average American businessman. Keeler helped design Phillips' international department in the '50s, when the corporation was makings its giant leap forward into foreign markets. And it was a program more sensitive to Third World feelings than were those of bluebloods of the oil industry like Standard, who were uncompromising over the issue of control. For Phillips had gladly given away majority interest to foreign partners in their operations abroad, and it is a technique that has paid off handsomely. As Keeler says, "We've always done good business in the Middle East. I've always felt that those Arabs could relate to me because they saw me in some way as being like them. That is, I was a chief and I had a tribe. And we haven't had too much trouble over there, outside of Algeria. Take Nasser. When the war with Israel came along, we were only out six days because Nasser owned better than half of our operation was interested in the profits. You've got to give them part of it so it doesn't look like you're just milking their country. It makes good political and economic sense."
THE CHEROKEES are like other Native Americans elsewhere
in that they haven't yet disentangled themselves from the white man and
his history. Over a hundred years ago they made a conscious decision to
become "civilized" so that their white brothers would leave them alone;
but this didn't save them. When they came here to Oklahoma they decided
to withdraw to the remote hill areas; but the whites followed them. And
thus today they live under the thumb of rural white Oklahoma and beneath
the shadow of the Phillips 66 shield.
The question of whether or not the Cherokees will outlast Bill Keeler and the others who use them was on my mind as I stopped at a cleared-off place in a field several miles outside Tahlequah. It was the Redbird Smith stomp-grounds, named after a fullblood patriarch of the 1900's. It was empty now, the circle of old log buildings totally deserted and nobody for miles around. Later in the summer there will be Cherokees here from all around this part of the country; there will be cars parked everywhere and the smell of frying food in the air. Cherokee women will strap shakers on their legs made of the shells of the small terrapins infesting this region, and they will do an old dance.
The culture this dance helps renew has been under attack for a long time. It is hard for any white really to appreciate what makes it so valuable. But I remembered Al Wahrhaftig's definition of the difference between the whites down here and the Cherokee fullbloods: the one, he says, lives for himself, the other lives for his community.
1. At first they bought black wigs for the men with braids down the sides, because even the fullblood Cherokees (who think they are the REAL Cherokees) had forgotten their own customs, dress, etc. The Oukah and Anna Kilpatrick, in Texas, objected, and this later was changed.
2. W. W. Keeler told Dr. and Mrs. Jack Kilpatrick, living then in Dallas,TX, that these professors from Chicago were communists stirring up trouble.
3. By what authority Keeler and attorney Earl Boyd Pierce filed and settled this suit has never been explained. Certainly the Cherokee people did not authorize it, but it was done and the legal matter closed forever. It made Earl Boyd Pierce a rich man, but the 280 to each Cherokee registered in 1907 was divided up amongst their descendants. Some with few relatives got 60 bucks, and some got less than 10. Big deal!
4. The OCCO filed "Groundhog vs Keeler" after receiving a message from the current Oukah, after he inherited the "Oukah" title in 1968. The Oukah pointed out that the abolishment of the Cherokee government in 1907 was illegal; that every treaty the Cherokees had ever signed read that the Cherokees would NEVER be subject to a state or territory; and that the practice of the President appointing the Principal Chiefs of the "Five Civilized Tribes" (all of which are NATIONS, not tribes) was also unconstitutional. The appeals worked, the OCCO won the case, new governments were guaranteed to all the native groups in Oklahoma, and elections ordered. Keeler, of course, called an "election" to elect himself so fast that it was over before anyone else knew there had been an election, and the OCCO building was firebombed and they were so threatened that they went out of business. The Oukah, in Texas, was fired from a clerical job with a US government office, forced to go through a physical and mental examination (they had tried to force him into a mental institution in 1963) but as a result he is the only person we know who has been declared mentally sane. With the guts of a warrior, and an IQ of 145, at nearly 70 years old he continues to be a threat through his writing. He undoubtedly knows more about Cherokee history than anyone alive today -- in fact, many of his family made that history.
More of our Oukah can be learned at: http://www.cowtown.net/users/cherokeelee/
5. Today, we think Keeler is the stinker of the century. Almost all the "businesses" started up with Cherokee money, have become defunct, including the nursery (plants, trees) and the restaurant. And, about a dozen years ago, the Cherokee Nation Industries was paying Keeler's replacement, Ross Swimmer, nearly a million dollars a year. The Cherokee Nation got even less than that, and of course the Cherokee people, individually, got nothing at all.
CHEROKEES OF NORTH TEXAS, INC.
(A 501c3 non-profit educational institution)
PO Box 190313, Dallas, Tx 75219
For more Cherokee information, visit our web site at: http://www.cowtown.net/users/cherokeelee/