In 1906 an eloquent Native American orator embarrassed the U.S. Senate by pointing out the ephemeral nature of Indian treaties: “This was the first agreement that we had with the white man. He said as long as the sun rises it shall last; as long as the waters run it shall last; as long as the grass grows it shall last.”
What a fantastic quote. It sounds like something Chief Dan George might have said in Little Big Man—classical Plains Indian Dialogue right? Even though Chief Dan George was Coastal Salish from B.C. Canada.
The speaker was an Oklahoma Creek named Bill Harjo. He was better known in those days by his traditional name, Chitto Harjo—Crazy Snake (actually Snake Crazy, since Creek sentence structure is similar to Spanish). Harjo literally means recklessly brave,
but who wants a Native American folk hero named Recklessly Brave Snake?
Chitto Harjo failed to convince the U.S. Senate to respect the treaty of 1832. This agreement guaranteed the Creek (and other tribes) specified lands in Oklahoma after they were forcibly removed from their ancestral homes. Oklahoma was about to become a state, and the Wounded Knee massacre (1890, one year after South Dakota Statehood) was still fresh in
everybody’s minds. President Teddy Roosevelt had no intention of bringing another state into the union that had independent tribal governments within its borders.
The Dawes Act created tribal roles and divided Indian land into allotments. This law had been around since 1887, but the tribes of Oklahoma, especially the Creek faction under Chitto Harjo’s leadership, had successfully resisted its implementation for years. Their legal recourse ended in 1898 when congress passed the Curtis Act that eliminated tribal governments.
Harjo was arrested in 1901 along with ninety-five of his supporters. They were sentenced in federal court to two years in Leavenworth but the sentences were immediately suspended on their promise to stop their anti-government activities. Most of the “Snakes” did stop but Harjo kept organizing opposition to allotment. He eluded arrest for ten months, but deputy marshals captured him in the spring of 1902. He and nine others were imprisoned at the Leavenworth federal penitentiary where they served their two-year sentences.
In March of 1909, three years after Harjo’s speech to the U.S. Senate, a large number of “Snakes” gathered at the Hickory Ground Green Corn Ceremony. Much to the displeasure of white citizens, the Creek allowed many displaced Black families from Henryetta to set up a tent camp near the town. Unemployed and landless, the families resorted to stealing meat from white owned smokehouses to feed themselves.
An armed posse from Henryetta rode to the tent camp and killed several Black men. Harjo was not present at the camp, but he was held responsible for what came to be known alternately as the Smoked Meat Rebellion or the Crazy Snake Rebellion.
Four Deputies came to Harjo’s home to arrest him on March 27, 1909. Shots were fired. Two of the Deputies were killed and Crazy Snake took a bullet in the hip. A larger posse returned to Harjo’s home to find him gone. Vigilante groups roamed the vicinity pillaging Snake farms in search of him. Oklahoma Governor George Haskell called out the First Regiment of the Oklahoma National Guard to restore order.
In spite of an intensive search, Chitto Harjo was never found. It is widely believed he died of his gunshot wound and was buried in a secret location by his Choctaw friend, Daniel Bob, but rumors persisted for years that he had fled to Mexico with a number of his followers.
Cultures have been colliding in Oklahoma since long before statehood and they haven’t stopped in recent years. We mostly settle our differences peacefully these days, at least on a geopolitical scale, but those differences still exist and they provide excellent fuel for fiction. I believe Owl Dreams, and my soon to be released novel, Magic Popsicle Sticks illustrate our differences and similarities clearly. We are a real melting pot in Oklahoma; We should expect a few lumps in the gravy.