February 8 marked the 125th anniversary of the notorious Dawes Act. This is part two of a three-part series on this devastating bit of legislation. Check back here Wednesday, February 15, for part three. Click here if you missed part one, and click here if you missed part three.
The Dawes Act provoked a campaign of resistance known as the Snake Rebellion, which was led by Chitto Harjo, a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. The Snake Rebellion ultimately failed to stop the dispossession of Indian lands, but it forged a “spirit of collective political activism” that still inspires Indigenous Peoples today.
From around 1898 until 1909, Harjo led a group of dissident Creeks who opposed the allotment of Creek land, insisting that the federal government honor the original removal treaties made between the United States and the Creeks in the 1830s. The federal government signed those treaties in response to pressure from white European settlers moving into the South who were eager to acquire Indian lands.
Most of the treaties were drawn up under the guidance of Andrew Jackson, America’s seventh president and its most famous Indian fighter (and killer). As a result of the treaties, the United States gained control over three quarters of Alabama and Florida, as well as parts of Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Kentucky and North Carolina. The area was home to the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole nations, who were known as the Five Civilized Tribes. This was a period of voluntary Indian migration, but only a small number of Creeks, Cherokee and Choctaws actually moved to the new lands. But when the Southeastern nations resisted, Jackson forced them to leave. Jackson created the Indian Removal Act of 1830, America’s legalized form of ethnic cleansing. Within seven years the Indian Removal Act had relocated 46,000 Indigenous Peoples from the lands east of the Mississippi and opened up 25 million acres of land “to white settlement and to slavery,” according to a PBS Resource Bank on the companion website for the series Africans in America. The Cherokee people called their relocation journey the Trail of Tears, because it took a devastating toll on them. The refugees faced hunger, disease and exhaustion on this forced march and more than 4,000 of 15,000 Cherokees died.
The Indian Removal Act stemmed in part from the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823), a ruling based on the 15th century Christian Doctrine of Discovery that allowed European nations to subjugate or kill non-Christian populations in lands the Europeans “discovered.” The high-court ruling said that the title of land, which had been “discovered and conquered,” belonged to the conquering nation and the Indigenous Peoples of the land had only a “right of occupancy.”
In an 1832 treaty, which Harjo insisted be honored, the leadership of the Muscogee Confederacy exchanged the last of its ancestral homelands in the present states of Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina for new lands in Indian Territory, in what is now Oklahoma. “But for the majority of Muscogee people the process of severing ties to a land they felt so much a part of proved impossible. The U.S. Army enforced the removal of more than 20,000 Muscogee to Indian Territory in 1836 and 1837,” the PBS site reports.
When Congress passed an amendment to the Dawes Act in 1898 to mandate allotments of the collectively held lands to which the Creeks and other tribes had been moved, Harjo took action and organized opposition among members of the Five Civilized Tribes to allotment and the dissolution of traditional tribal governments.
Members of the resistance movement were called Crazy Snakes after a mistranslation of Harjo’s name, according to Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee. “Hajo or Harjo is the title of a Muscogee Warrior Society,” Suzan Shown Harjo said. “Harjo is wrongly translated as ‘crazy,’ when it really is a combination name—Magic (Enchanted, Fixated) in Battle and Brave Beyond Words—much as the Crazy in Crazy Horse’s name doesn’t mean crazy. The reason there are so many people named Harjo is that many warriors and many other Muscogee and other people of the Muscogee Confederacy took Harjo as a personal name and as a sign of resistance during removal.” Asked if she is a relation of Chitto Harjo, Suzan Shown Harjo replied, “We all usually say yes to the relative question, and Chitto Harjo certainly is the political ancestor of most Muscogee peoples.”
Beginning in 1900, Chitto Harjo tried various strategies to stop the allotment process. He led a delegation to Washington, D.C. to lobby the president to uphold the 1832 treaty. He led a rebellion of dissident Hickory Ground [a Creek town in Alabama] Creeks to establish an independent government. He was also elected Creek chief and made an eloquent speech before a select Senate committee in 1906. “My ancestors and my people were the inhabitants of this great country from 1492,” he said. “I mean by that from the [time the] white man first came to this country until now. It was my home and the home of my people from time immemorial and is today, I think, the home of my people.… Away back in that time—1492—there was a man by the name of Columbus came from across the great ocean, and he discovered this country for white man—this country which was at that time the home of my people. What did he find when he first arrived here? Did he find a white man standing on this continent then, or did he find a white man or a black man standing on this continent? I stood here first and Columbus first discovered me.”
There are various accounts of an incident known as the Smoked Meat Rebellion in 1909 when Chitto Harjo was wounded. By that time the rebellion against allotment that he led had been defeated by the U.S. military. Chitto Harjo’s wound eventually led to his death two years later.
There is no disputing the devastating effect of removal on Indigenous Peoples. The Cheyenne and Muscogee Nations lost tens of thousands of acres of land by way of the Dawes Act, Suzan Shown Harjo said. “Like other nations, the insidious act stole land in two ways. First, it detribalized tribal treaty lands, turning less than one-third over to individual tribal people and giving away much of the rest to non-Native land-rushers. Second, it let the federal and state governments and private banks and other vulture capitalists pick off lands from Native allottees, who did not know they had to pay land taxes, for nonpayment of taxes.” These actions were almost as devastating for the people as being wrenched from their homelands, she said: “Removal and Dawes were born of greed and intended to break the spirit of Native peoples. While they caused incalculable damage, the miracle is that they didn’t break our spirit.”