John Payne and the Cherokee

John Howard Payne, an actor, poet, playwright, and author, is probably best known for his song “Home Sweet Home” which he wrote in 1822. Following a successful theatrical career in London, he returned to the United States and spent some time with the Cherokee.  

In 1835, Payne was in Georgia gathering materials and subscribers for his new literary magazine. He learned that Charles Hicks, a former Cherokee chief, had written extensively about Cherokee history. Payne was told that when Hicks died he had left his papers with Cherokee chief John Ross. Intrigued with Cherokee history-Payne felt that the Cherokee were one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel-he set out to find Ross.

By 1835 the Cherokee Nation government had moved from Georgia to Tennessee because of the animosity of the State of Georgia toward Indians. Thus Payne found Ross, the Principal Chief of the Cherokee, in Tennessee. Arriving unannounced, Payne found Ross living in a one-room log hut which Payne would later describe as the “humblest dwelling in his nation.” Ross had been evicted from his fine Georgia plantation when the state had given the estate-land, house, crops, livestock, and furnishings-to a non-Indian.

Payne found that Ross did indeed have Hicks’ papers. Ross felt that the papers were sacred as they provided a window into the Cherokee past. Ross was unwilling to give Payne the papers, but offered him free access to them. In addition, Ross offered to let Payne stay with him in his humble cabin.

While Payne had intended to visit the Cherokee for only a short time, having access to an un-mined Cherokee history excited him. He accepted Ross’s hospitality and settled down for a long stay. For several days, Payne sat at the kitchen table in the small house, taking copious notes from the manuscript. He realized that he had before him an amazing story and one that he could tell to a larger audience.

In order to understand the Cherokee and their government better, Payne asked Ross if he could attend a meeting of the National Council. Ross, realizing that Payne could take the story of the Cherokee and their fight to remain in their homeland to a broad audience, agreed. Ross told Payne many stories about broken treaties, trickery, bribery, and the unsavory actions of both the state of Georgia and the federal government.

Payne was impressed with the regal ceremonialism of the council. The council members, dressed in their tunics and turbans, walked solemnly in two lines to the council meeting. He would later write that it reminded him of the “old scripture pictures of patriarchal procession.”

On Saturday evening, November 7, 1835, Payne was transcribing the last of Hicks’s Cherokee history with the help of John Ross when their work was interrupted with a commotion. The door was kicked in and the small cabin was invaded by two dozen armed men. One of them jammed a pistol into Payne’s chest and another one pointed a gun at John Ross. The invaders were members of the Georgia Guard and Ross wisely did not point out that they were in Tennessee.  The Georgia Guard placed both Ross and Payne under arrest.

Ross seemed unflustered by the intrusion as he had suffered this type of harassment before. Payne, on the other hand, unaccustomed to this type of treatment protested and was pistol-whipped. While Payne lay on the floor after his beating, the Guard took the house apart, looking for some kind of papers. Then Payne and Ross were mounted on horses and taken to Georgia.

During the ride, Payne noticed that the leader was humming “Home Sweet Home” and told the man that he had written the song. The leader seemed unimpressed by this.

In Georgia, Payne and Ross were jailed in a small, windowless log hut. Two days later, Wilson Young, the Guard member who had pistol-whipped Payne, came to the cabin bringing some books for Payne and a change of clothes for Ross. He seemed friendly and told Payne that he wanted to subscribe to the new magazine. Young told them that he had heard that Payne had been arrested for suspicion of being an abolitionist (a capital offense in Georgia at this time) and Ross had been accused of interfering with the government census of the Cherokee.

Ross and Payne were not allowed to leave the hut. They were harassed by the guards who forced them off the bunks and made them sit on the floor.

On November 14, John Ridge, a member of the Cherokee Treaty Party and a political adversary of John Ross, learned about the arrest. He rode quickly to the prison and harangued the colonel with threats of war and political backlash unless John Ross was released. Even though Ross and Ridge had strong differences of opinion regarding removal, Ridge understood that Ross was important to the Cherokee people and he did not want Ross to become a martyr by dying at the hands of the Georgia Guard.

Ross spoke to Payne as he was being released and told him to make it clear to the Georgians that he had not written anything about them. Three days later, Payne was also released.

He was incensed by the treatment that he and Ross had received at the hands of the Georgia Guard and he wrote a series of articles on it which was published by several newspapers. His copious notes on Cherokee history, however, were never published. His papers are currently in the Columbia University Libraries Archival Collections.  

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Indian Removal in 1833

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Americans were envisioning a country without Indians, and Thomas Jefferson proposed that the Indians be removed and sent west of the Mississippi River. To help bring this vision into fruition, Jefferson had purchased the rights to govern the Louisiana Territory. While he submitted legislation to Congress which called for Indian removal, Congress failed to pass it.

In 1830, however, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act. The Act passed 28 to 19 in the Senate and 102 to 97 in the House. One of the voices of dissent was that of New Jersey’s Senator Theodore Frelingbuysen who pointed out to the Senate that Europeans had found Indians

“exercising all the rights, and enjoying the privileges, of free and inde¬¨pendent sovereigns of this new world. They were not a wild and lawless horde of banditti, but lived under the restraints of government, patriarchal in its character, and energetic in its influence.”

Another voice of dissent was David Crockett of Tennessee. He said that he could not take land from people who had held it for centuries. His speech would cost him his seat in the House.

In making the case for Indian removal, Lewis Cass, the Secretary of War, wrote in the North American Review:

“A barbarous people, depending for subsistence upon the scanty and precarious supplies furnished by the chase, cannot live in contact with a civilized community.”

In a series of newspaper essays intended to build public support for Indian removal, Baptist missionary Isaac McCoy claimed that Indian tribes were not sovereign nations and that Indians had not really been a party to the treaties in contractual terms. He also defended the Doctrine of Discovery which gives the European nations the ownership of North America. He wrote:

“Civilized nations have long since divided the continent of America among themselves. So the nations have adopted the practice of settling their territories without asking the natives to leave it by the formalities of a treaty.”

Removal did not happen immediately: it took some time to put the infrastructure in place, to hire private companies to conduct the removals, to negotiate new treaties with the tribes, and to secure title to lands west of the Mississippi from the Indian nations occupying this area. By 1833, the mechanisms were in place and the government was exerting political pressure on the tribes to get them to agree with removal.

The President:

In his annual message to Congress, President Andrew Jackson wrote of the Indians that

“They have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire of improvements which are essential to any favorable change in their condition. Established in the midst of another and a superior race, and without appreciating the causes of their inferiority or seeking to control them, they must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear.”

Jackson, who was not known for his empathy for Indians, felt that having Indian nations in the South posed a major threat to the peace and tranquility of the nation. He favored immediate removal.

Supreme Court:

Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story wrote:

“The Indians were a savage race, sunk in the depths of ignorance and heathenism. If they might not be extirpated for their want of religion and just morals, they might be reclaimed from their errors. They were bound to yield to the superior genius of Europe, and in exchanging their wild and debasing habits, for civilization and Christianity they were deemed to gain more than an equivalent for every sacrifice and suffering.”

He also wrote:

“As infidels, heathens, and savages, they were not allowed to possess the prerogatives belonging to completely sovereign, independent nations.”


At the time the Indian Removal Act passed, the Cherokee had a higher literacy rate than non-Indians. However, the Cherokee were literate in Cherokee which didn’t count in the minds of the monolingual Americans. The Cherokee, however, were somewhat prosperous and many owned fine plantations, trading posts, and ferries which were coveted by non-Indians.

John Ross led a Cherokee delegation to Washington, D.C, to protest removal. The delegation asked the Secretary of War to enforce the rights secured them by their treaty and to stop the illegal actions of the state of Georgia. President Andrew Jackson offered the Cherokee $3 million to remove. In response, Ross asked the President how he intended to protect the Cherokee in the West if he could not protect their rights in Georgia.

By 1833, the issue of removal had divided the Cherokee. The Treaty Party, which included Major Ridge, Charles Vann, Elias Boudinot, John Walker, Jr., William Hicks, and William Shorey Coodey, supported removal and saw removal as the only way of retaining an independent, sovereign Cherokee Nation. The National Party, led by John Ross, opposed removal.  Ross refused to concede that all hope was lost and insisted that the Cherokee Nation had more power than it realized.

In 1833 Georgia began a lottery to distribute Cherokee lands and homes to non-Indians. While the more educated Cherokee attempted to fight their evictions with lawsuits, most simply packed up and left when the new “owners” appeared. Nearly 1,200 signed up with the federal government to be removed.

When Chief John Ross returned from Washington, D.C. he found strangers living in his home. They were operating his farm and his ferry, and were selling his produce and animals.

Another Cherokee, Joseph Vann, had a large brick home surrounded by 800 acres of planted fields, gardens, and orchards which was claimed by two different Georgia groups who exchanged shots with one another while Vann and his family fled in the winter cold.


In the legal case of Caldwell versus State, the Alabama Supreme Court dismissed Creek law as a “high pretension of savage sovereignty.”


In Mississippi, American settlers began moving into the Chickasaw nation, occupying lands which belonged to the Indians. While the federal government, as a part of its treaty obligations, had promised to prevent trespass, it did not attempt to stop the invasion, nor did it help them find new homes west of the Mississippi.

Being pressured by squatters and the government to relocate, the Chickasaw sent an exploring party to look at lands west of the Mississippi River for potential relocation. Included in the party were Levi Colbert, Pitman Colbert, Henry Love, and William McGilvery.

In Oklahoma, the Chickasaw met with the Choctaw chiefs who had already removed. The Choctaw, however, refused to sell them any land.


In 1833, the United States rounded up the Choctaw in Mississippi for the third removal to Oklahoma. Knowing about the horrors of the first two removals, only 900 Choctaw agreed to remove. Following this, the government declared that no more Choctaw were to be removed.

About 14,000 Choctaw are removed from Mississippi in the three waves and 2,500 die during the trek to Oklahoma. About 6,000 remain in Mississippi. The Choctaw who chose to remain in their homelands were to receive allotments. However, they were discouraged from applying for the allotments and in some cases their allotment applications were simply thrown away by the Indian agent. Only 143 received allotments and almost all lost their lands in a very short time.


The Potawatomi signed the Treaty of Chicago in 1833 in which they gave up their homeland and began a migration westward. The Treaty, negotiated by Potawatomi mixed bloods Billy Caldwell and Alexander Robinson, promised them five million acres in Missouri, covered debts to traders, and provided annuities for 20 years. However, Leopold Pokagon emphatically opposed giving up more land. Pokagon was successful in negotiating an amendment which allowed his band to remain in Michigan. In the negotiations he emphasized that he and his people were Catholics and this helped secure the amendment.

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Doublehead, A Cherokee Traitor

In the world of politics, those who become powerful don’t always have the best interests of their people in their hearts and minds. Sometimes, political leaders are seeking to enhance their own wealth, power, and prestige. One of these leaders was the Cherokee chief Doublehead. Doublehead was one of the most feared men in the Cherokee nation and had killed more people, both Indians and non-Indians, than anyone cared to count. He rose to the position of speaker of the Cherokee council, a position that he won for his ability as a storyteller and as a translator of English messages for the American government.  

In 1791, The Cherokee signed the Treaty of Holston which was intended to end hostilities between the United States and the Cherokee. The treaty gave the United States the exclusive right to trade with the Cherokee and prohibited the Cherokee from entering into diplomatic relations with other foreign powers, individuals, or states. Signing the treaty for the Cherokee were Dragging Canoe, Bloody Fellow, Doublehead, Lying Fawn, John Watts, and Little Turkey.

In 1793, Cherokee warriors Doublehead, Pumpkin Boy, and Bench ambushed two Americans in Kentucky. After scalping them, the Cherokee then stripped the flesh from their bones, roasted it, and ate it.

Later that same year, in Tennessee, a Cherokee war party under the leadership of John Watts attacked the settlement home of Alexander Cavett. The family, three men and ten women and children, barricaded themselves in a blockhouse. Hopelessly outnumbered, they negotiated a truce. However, when Cavett opened the door, Doublehead attacked, killing twelve of the thirteen people in just minutes. While the other warriors begged him to stop, he continued the bloody slaughter with a war ax. The warriors saved only one boy. Major Ridge witnessed the attack and felt that it was not war, but cold-blooded murder. Doublehead claimed that the killings were in revenge for the death of his brother Pumpkin Boy at the hands of Americans earlier that year.

In 1794 a delegation of Cherokee, including Taken Out of Water, Northward, Doublehead, John McLemore, and Arthur Coody, were invited to Philadelphia to reaffirm the Treaty of Holston. Doublehead managed to increase the Cherokee annuity from $1,500 to $5,000.

In 1798, at Tellico, Tennessee the Cherokee signed a new treaty which renewed previous treaties, called for new land cessions, and provided for an additional $1,000 in annuities. Signing the treaty for the Cherokee were Bloody Fellow, Little Turkey, Taken Out of Water, Doublehead, and Tahlonteskee.

In Tennessee in 1805, the Cherokee ceded to the United States the Cumberland Plateau. Under the terms of the treaty, the Cherokee received $17,000 in cash and a promise of $3,000 annually. The Americans got tens of thousands of acres of land, land which had been the Cherokees’ best hunting territory.

Doublehead brokered the treaty. As his reward, the United States gave him a cash bonus and two tracts of land. Doublehead did not keep his involvement with the Americans in this deal a secret: he bragged about it and claimed that he had secured a good deal for his people. Many Cherokees felt that he had betrayed them by giving the Americans this fine hunting territory.

James Vann, a prosperous trader and tavern owner, had opposed the “sale” of the Cumberland Plateau and called Doublehead a traitor for brokering the deal. The exchange quickly became violent as both men drew their knives and attempted to kill the other. Death was prevented only by the bystanders who physically separated the two men. This fight was probably as personal as it was philosophical: Doublehead had married one of Vann’s sisters and beat her to death when she was pregnant. Vann also had a reputation for having a violent temper.

The Americans had an insatiable appetite for Indian land and in 1806, a Cherokee delegation was called to Washington, D.C. where they signed another treaty with the United States. In this treaty, signed by Doublehead, James Vann, Tahlonteskee, John Jolly, and others, the Cherokee gave up more land in Alabama and Tennessee. By secret agreement each of the signing chiefs was given $1,000 and two rifles. In addition, several of the chiefs received private reservation-land within the ceded territory which they could lease to Americans and hold for speculation without further approval by the Cherokee Council.

In 1807, the Cherokee national council declared Doublehead a traitor for selling Cherokee land without council approval. Under Cherokee law this was punishable by death. Major Ridge, James Vann, and Alex Saunders were chosen to carry out the execution.

Doublehead attended the Green Corn Dance at Hiwassee. He had been drinking with Return Meigs, the American Indian agent, and was drunk when the Cherokee war captain Bone Cracker (also known as Bonepolisher) denounced him as a traitor. Like Doublehead, Bone Cracker had been drinking and this probably gave him the courage to confront the notorious chief. He grabbed the bridle on Doublehead’s horse and in response, Doublehead pulled his pistol and shot Bone Cracker at point blank range, killing him. The Indian agent and other Americans watched this incident, amazed that their friend would kill another man as casually as killing a fly and not give it a second thought.  

Following the murder, Doublehead, described as “reeling drunk”, went to the Long Hut tavern owned by his friend McIntosh to continue drinking. There he had words with a non-Indian trader, John Rogers. He told Rogers:

“You live among us by our permission. I have never seen you in council or on the war path. Be silent and interfere with me no more.”

Rogers didn’t move, but continued to insult Doublehead. Unknown to Doublehead and the others in the tavern, Rogers had been sent to distract the chief. Doublehead pulled his pistol, intent on killing the man, but the gun misfired. Rogers continued to stand his ground, confusing the chief.

In the confusion of this tense situation, Major Ridge crept along the wall unnoticed by the others and put the barrel of his pistol against Doublehead’s jaw. Then he quickly blew out the candle and fired the pistol. When the lights come back on, Doublehead had been shot in the jaw and Major Ridge was gone. The others in the tavern had not seen the shooting and did not know that Major Ridge had pulled the trigger.

McIntosh, seeing his friend wounded and on the floor, ordered everyone out of the tavern. He then barred the door and pushed Doublehead out through a back window.

Major Ridge, aided by Bone Cracker’s relatives who were seeking vengeance, looked for the wounded Doublehead. McIntosh first hid Doublehead at his house and then, with the aid of a school teacher, hid him in the loft of the schoolhouse.

In the morning, Major Ridge, a skilled hunter and tracker, saw the trail of blood behind the tavern and followed it to the schoolhouse. He kicked in the door and rushed in, followed by Bone Cracker’s relatives. Awakened by the noise, the wounded Doublehead stood up and pulled out his knife. Both Major Ridge and Alex Saunders attempted to shoot him, but their pistols misfired. Doublehead tackled Major Ridge and attempted to stab him as they rolled on the floor. Saunders, who had re-primed his pistol, then managed to shoot Doublehead.

As Saunders bent down to drive his tomahawk into Doublehead’s skull, the chief grabbed the tomahawk and knocked Saunders backwards. Doublehead then attacked Major Ridge again. Just as Doublehead raised a tomahawk to deliver a death blow to The Ridge, Saunders managed to drive a tomahawk deep into Doublehead’s skull, killing him.

A few days later Doublehead was buried and many Cherokees noted that no one shed a tear. Following Doublehead’s death, Cherokee society seemed to divide into those who shunned the new ways of the Americans and those who promoted these new ways.  

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The Whoop-Up Trail

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In spite of the opposition of fur traders, in 1832 Congress passed a law stating:

“No ardent spirits shall be hereafter introduced, under any pretence, into the Indian country.”

This total prohibition applied to traders and non-traders and allowed no exception. While it was clear that the law totally banned all alcohol on reservations, this was generally overlooked while negotiating treaties (American officials felt that intoxicated Indians were more likely to sign treaties) and enforcement among fur and hide traders was less than perfect.

For American traders, alcohol was the perfect product for the Indian market: in was consumable and addictive, therefore it was in high demand. The profit margins were outstanding. While the traders often feared drunken Indians, particularly the Blackfoot, they also recognized that it was easier to swindle Indians who were intoxicated. In 1869, the American traders came up with a scheme to evade U.S. law which prohibited from selling alcohol to the Indians: they simply moved across the border into Canada. While the sale of alcohol to Indians was also illegal in Canada, the lack of non-Indian settlement in Alberta meant that there was no effective law enforcement in the area. Here they could continue to think of themselves as law-abiding American citizens in spite of the fact that they were violating numerous Canadian laws.

American traders from Fort Benton, Montana established Fort Hamilton near present-day Lethbridge, Alberta in 1869. The fort was named after the mercantile firm of Hamilton, Healy and Company. The traders, under the command of John Healy, numbered about 20 well-armed men. The establishment of this fort, which quickly became known as Fort Whoop-Up, marked the beginning of an illegal international trade in alcohol to the Indians, particularly the Blackfoot. With this trade, the American traders became very wealthy and the Indians suffered social and mental degradation.

Whoop-Up Bug Juice was one of the kinds of alcohol sold to the Indians. This was created by spiking the alcohol with ginger, molasses, and red pepper. To provide color, black chewing tobacco was added.

Soon there were many “forts”, hastily and crudely constructed trading posts providing Indians with alcohol and rifles in exchange for horses (many liberated from both non-Indians and Indians), buffalo hides, and booty taken from raids on non-Indians attempting to pass through Montana. The “forts” were usually surrounded by a palisade of sharpened logs. Some of the “forts” arrogantly flew the American flag. The trail north across the Canadian border was soon known as the Whoop-Up Trail and the area just north of the boundary in present-day Alberta was known as Whoop-Up Country.  

In 1870, Canadian Prime Minister John A. Macdonald received a letter from Hamilton Fish, the United States Secretary of State, complaining about the Blackfoot. According to Fish, Blackfoot raiding parties were crossing into Montana to steal horses and murder Americans. They would then return to Canada where they would sell their stolen horses for rifles, ammunition, and whiskey. Since the Hudson’s Bay Company did not sell alcohol to Indians, it was apparent to authorities on both sides of the border that American traders had moved north of the border.

The following year, the Canadians sent Lieutenant William F. Butler to investigate the allegations of illegal whiskey trade. He travelled 2,700 miles in 119 days. He reported that the American whiskey traders operating just north of the border were a disruptive influence. The American traders were using alcohol to obtain furs and hides from the Indians, a practice prohibited in the region. In addition, they were actively trying to turn the Natives against the Hudson’s Bay Company by suggesting that the company traders were cheating them.

Butler estimated that there were about 18,000 Natives in the region, including 2,000 Métis. Hostile relations between the Blackfoot and the Cree were a concern and this was being exacerbated by the alcohol trade.

In 1872, Colonel Patrick Robertson-Ross completed a fact-finding mission regarding the illegal trade in whiskey in Alberta. He reported:

“It appears that for some time they have carried on an extensive trade with the Blackfoot Indians, supplying them with rifles, revolvers, whiskey, and other ardent spirits; in direct opposition to the laws of both the United States and the Dominion of Canada, and without paying customs duties for the goods introduced into Canada.”

During 1871-1872, 88 Blackfoot in Alberta were murdered in drunken brawls among themselves. These brawls were fueled by the illegal whiskey forts on the Whoop-Up Trail.

In response to the lawlessness and violence stemming from the illegal alcohol trade, the North West Mounted Police were formed in 1873 to administer law and order in the Northwest Territories. The Mounties, as they came to be called, used consultation and negotiation to avert conflict rather than to seek it. The Mounties sought fairness in their dealings with the tribes.

In 1874, the North West Mounted Police arrived at Fort Whoop-Up. The fort had a stockade of rough logs and its defenses included two brass canons. The flag flying over the fort bore some resemblance to the American flag, but was in fact a company flag. James Macleod, Assistant Commissioner of the North West Mounted Police, met with the fort’s caretaker who informed him that all of the traders had gone south for the winter. The caretaker insisted that no alcohol was traded from the fort. Macleod then informed him that no alcohol sales would be permitted.

The North West Mounted Police learned from Three Bulls about the location of some whiskey traders. The Mounties found two wagons with cases of alcohol. They confiscated all of the goods, including horses, rifles, pistols, and buffalo robes.

James Macleod soon reported:

“I am happy to be able to report the complete stoppage of the whiskey trade throughout the whole section of this country, and that the drunken riots, which in former years were almost of a daily occurrence are now entirely at an end; in fact, a more peaceable community than this, with very large numbers of Indians camped along the river, could not be found anywhere.”

With the alcohol sale halted, the tribes in the area were able to replace their depleted horse herds and restore order over their lives.

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Fort Whoop-Up National Historic Site is shown above.

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Chase Iron Eyes asks for the End the Cultural Genocide of Lakota People in South Dakota

( – promoted by Meteor Blades)

Chase Iron Eyes needs your support!

We must all demand that the treaties be honored and the Lakota foster children be returned home! “The rate and manner of removal of Indian children is tantamount to genocide; it accomplishes the same results as forced transferal of our children to boarding schools in the past. It leads to the erasure of our dignity as original peoples of this continent.” For a full briefing on the ongoing, de facto genocide against Indian people in South Dakota, visit the Lakota People’s Law Project website.

Read his blog post from Daily Kos here

South Dakota DSS is removing Indian children from Indian parents in violation of federal and international law and placing them into White institutions and homes while Indian homes sit vacant. Every day two of our kids are taken and placed; 740+ every year are subjected to this fate. Further, the state is receiving $56 million per year (roughly 72k per kid) from the federal government to accomplish this. Some are reunited after years of battling with the state, some are kept track of, some are lost and placed in abusive homes like the home of Richard and Wendy Mette.


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Chase Iron Eyes asks for the End the Cultural Genocide of Lakota People in South Dakota

Chase Iron Eyes needs your support!


We must all demand that the treaties be honored and the Lakota foster children be returned home! “The rate and manner of removal of Indian children is tantamount to genocide; it accomplishes the same results as forced transferal of our children to boarding schools in the past. It leads to the erasure of our dignity as original peoples of this continent.” For a full briefing on the ongoing, de facto genocide against Indian people in South Dakota, visit the Lakota People’s Law Project website.

Read his blog post from Daily Kos here

South Dakota DSS is removing Indian children from Indian parents in violation of federal and international law and placing them into White institutions and homes while Indian homes sit vacant. Every day two of our kids are taken and placed; 740+ every year are subjected to this fate. Further, the state is receiving $56 million per year (roughly 72k per kid) from the federal government to accomplish this. Some are reunited after years of battling with the state, some are kept track of, some are lost and placed in abusive homes like the home of Richard and Wendy Mette.


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Sacred Landscape

All humans have a cognitive map which provides them with a spatial analysis of their world, both natural and human-made. Traditionally, the cognitive maps of American Indians have been carried in the stories. Indian stories, particularly the spiritual stories and the stories of creation, focus on geography, telling what happened where and describing different places and their associations with each other. When one knows the stories, then one has a map of the traditional tribal territory. Traditionally, this meant that a person could go someplace new and know, because of the stories, not only the route, but also the different geographic features which would be encountered on the trip.  

The European cultures which first encountered American Indians were accustomed to delineating sacred places with some type of structure or monument which would then be consecrated as sacred. These structures-churches, cemeteries, altars, etc.-were considered to be self-contained, that is, their sacred nature was contained within the space designated as sacred.

American Indians, on the other hand, tended to be animists who viewed the world around them as a living thing. Sacred places were not created by humans. While the people would sometimes designate a sacred place with a structure of some type-a pile of stones, a circle of stones, a mound or earthwork, or a chamber-often places with great sacred power did not have any human-created indications that they were sacred. People know about these places because of the stories and the songs rather than because of the structures which they had constructed.

One example of the interrelationship of sacred space, cognitive maps, and oral tradition can be seen in the Salt Trail Songs of the Nuwuvi (Southern Paiute) which describe both a physical and spiritual landscape. This includes physical features such as oceans and deserts, and spiritual features including life and death. The songs describe ancient village sites, gathering sites for medicinal plants and salt, historic events, trade routes, and sacred areas. The 142-song cycle assists the deceased in their sacred journey.

For American Indians sacred places do not exist in isolation: they are connected to other sacred places and these connections enhance the spiritual power of an area. The connections between sacred places are explained in the stories and in the songs.

It is not just “places” that are spiritually connected, but also the “people” who are associated with the places: the plants, the animals, the rocks. Again, the stories, songs, and ceremonies explain the nature and meaning of these connections.

Beginning in the nineteenth century, archaeologists began their scientific attempts to recreate and understand American Indian past. With regard to spiritual sites, they brought with them a European bias based in classical archaeology: they looked for sacred sites in structures created by humans and they considered these sites as self-contained, that is, not connected with other human-made or natural features in the area. The archaeologists did not know the native stories and often dismissed them as meaningless with regard to their work as archaeologists.

One of the places where archaeologists have become more aware of the larger sacred landscape is in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. There are eight major sites here-very large apartment-type complexes known as pueblos, each with several hundred rooms-which can be studied independently. However, the discovery of the ancient road system connecting the Chaco Canyon pueblos with other sites outside of the canyon shows that Chaco must be understood as a larger complex. Furthermore, the discovery that the sites in the region often have an astronomical orientation adds an additional dimension to the picture: Chaco represents a very large ritual landscape.

The astronomical orientation found at Chaco Canyon can also be seen in other sites around North America, including Woodhenge at Cahokia, Illinois, the many medicine wheels found on the northern Plains, and the stone chambers found in New England. As with Chaco Canyon, these sites may be studied alone, but they are best understood as a part of a larger spiritual and ritual landscape. Unfortunately, many of the oral traditions (stories and songs) which could provide a better explanation of these landscapes have been lost. Archaeologists, however, must pay attention to the larger landscape in order to understand the role which these sites played in the ancient world. Archaeologists must get past their Eurocentric bias regarding sacred sites and attempt to look at them through Native American and animistic eyes.

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Shown above is the reconstructed Woodhenge at Cahokia.  

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Alexander Culberson, Indian Trader

Alexander Culbertson joined the American Fur Company in 1833 and for the next 30 years served as the company’s principal trader with the Blackfoot. His success in dealing with the Blackfoot was due in part to the fact that he had married Natawista, the daughter of a prominent Blood chief (the Blood are a part of the Blackfoot Confederacy).  

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His first post was at Fort MacKenzie on the Missouri River in Montana. It was here that he married his first Indian wife, the daughter of White Buffalo, a Piegan Blackfoot chief. The marriage, witnesses by Prince Maximillian, involved the exchange of horses, a rifle, and other goods. The marriage, however, did not work well and Culbertson is reported to have sent his wife back to her people.

In 1845, he established Fort Lewis (named for Meriwether Lewis) as a trading post for the Blackfoot on the Upper Missouri. Soon, however, the Blackfoot informed him that it would be better if he relocated the trading post to the other side of the river.

In 1847, the log palisades of Fort Lewis were dismantled and float to the new post on the north side of the river. No sooner was the new fort, still known as Fort Lewis completed, than Culbertson ordered the men to start making adobe bricks. A new two-story house was erected for him and the fort was gradually rebuilt out of adobe.

In 1850, Culbertson officially named the trading post Fort Benton in honor of Senator Thomas Hart Benton who had saved the company’s license following a dispute with the federal government over illegal whiskey trade with the Indians.

Alexander Culbertson and his Blood Indian wife Natawista were the first family of Fort Benton. Natawista wore dresses such as those worn by Eastern women for parties. She preferred gowns for festive occasions at the fort. Culbertson would wear a black cutaway formal coat with tales and a vest, a black beaver top hot, and a ruffled shirt front with tie for festive occasions and when entertaining important guests.

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While trading posts, such as Fort Benton, were located far from American cities, the traders lived in a highly structured society. The Agent-In-Charge or Bourgeois ruled as a king: Culbertson was often called the King of the Upper Missouri. His family lived as well as anyone in high society in the East. His quarters had windows and a mantled fireplace with mirrors. Their custom-made furniture was as fine as that of any home in the East.

While most of the people at the trading post ate at the company mess, seated in tables according to social class, the Bourgeois and his family took their meals in their quarters. The meal was served by cook’s helpers and eaten from china plates, with silverware and wine from glasses. Important guests would dine with the Bourgeois and his family.

The Living Quarters:

Shown below are photographs of the reconstructed agent’s living quarters at Old Fort Benton. The family lived in a single room.

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The Office:

The Choteau and Company Office in Fort Benton was the place where all the important records of the fur trade were kept. About 40,000 buffalo robes were sent each year down the Missouri River, initially by mackinaw and keelboat, and then after 1859, by steamboat.

Also kept in this office were items to be used as gifts for the chiefs. These included special blankets, fancy military uniforms, top hats, and two-gallon cans of the 170 proof “high wine” which was used to make trade whiskey. Adding Missouri River water to the “high wine” made it go as much as 200 times further.

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Shown below are photographs of The Company office at the reconstructed Old Fort Benton.

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On display in the office area is a cannon similar to that positioned in the fort’s blockhouse for defense.

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Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Ceremonies

While the common stereotype of Plains Indians brings up images of tipis and horse-mounted warriors hunting buffalo, not all of the Plains tribes fit this image. The Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara, whose home is on the Missouri River in what is now North Dakota, were a farming people who lived in permanent villages with substantial houses. Ceremonies are an important part of spirituality and ceremonies symbolically integrate religion with other aspects of daily life.

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Shown above is a painting of a Mandan village by George Catlin.  

While the Mandan were farmers, raising corn, beans, and squash, they also sent out hunting parties to harvest buffalo on the Great Plains. The Okipa was a four-day Mandan ceremony to ensure that the buffalo would remain plentiful and that catastrophes could be averted; it reinforced the relationship between the supernatural and the people. The ceremony reenacted the creation of the earth and the history of the Mandan people. In this ceremony the Mandan recognized their responsibilities to maintain the covenant of generosity at the sacred center of creation.

During this ceremony, some of the men fasted and were then suspended from the poles in the Okipa lodge by thongs which were fastened under the skin of the chest.

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Shown above is a painting of the Okipa by artist George Catlin.

Among the Okipa dancers was The Foolish One, a male clown who was painted black with white spots and other designs. The Foolish One wore a carved wooden phallus which represented those who do not respect sacred things. Two pumpkins would hang below the giant fake penis. A thin piece of sinew connected the eight-foot-long rod carried by the dancer to the penis. The dancer would use the rod to raise and lower the penis. When The Foolish One approached the sacred cedar post, he would be driven off by the pipe of Lone Man and he would then be  driven from the village by the women. His genitalia would be wrapped like a doll and paraded around the plaza.

All of the farming tribes of the northern Missouri River-Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara-also had a Buffalo Calling Ceremony to insure a good buffalo hunt. As a part of the ceremony, the wives of the younger hunters would court and have sexual intercourse with the older men. These sexual relations were seen as a kind of conduit which could transfer buffalo hunting medicine (the spiritual power which made one a good hunter) from older experienced hunters to the younger hunters. In some instances, the distinguished hunters would invite some of the married women to join them in a special lodge covered with jerked meat. Each would offer a fine horse to the woman, and then have sex with her  in the presence of everyone. Following this ritual, the women would return to their husbands with some of the spiritual power of the older men.

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Shown above is a painting of the Buffalo Dance among the Mandan by artist Karl Bodmer.

Among the Arikara, the Mother Corn Ceremony centered on the theme of renewal and linked the universe, through Mother Corn, to the keepers of the sacred bundles and to their kin. In the ceremony, Mother Corn was represented by a cedar tree. During the ceremony, the women imitated the process of planting and harvesting crops.

All of the farming tribes along the Missouri also served as trading centers for the more nomadic Northern Plains tribes. As with other Indian nations, trade was about relationships and people usually traded with their relatives. The Adoption Pipe Ceremony provided a way for people to acquire relatives (and trading partners) through adoption. Most frequently this ceremony was conducted by a man with a sacred pipe who wished to adopt a son. After a day-long ceremony with ritual exchanges, the new son would pledge to treat his ceremonial father with respect and reverence. The ceremony was used to help build peaceful trading relationships among other nations.  

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