The Twin Territories and the Election of 1904
Prior to 1890, this whole area had been Indian Territory, but pressure for white settlement in the region resulted in the famous land-runs of 1889, giving away land not used by the tribes. The subsequent creation of Oklahoma Territory in 1890 was out of the western half of Indian Territory. In the following years, more and more Indian land in Oklahoma territory was given away to white settlement at the expense of the Native American inhabitants. The leaders of the “Five Tribes” recognized this pattern and feared it would be repeated in their own territory. They began to discuss different options to preserve their lands and autonomy, coming to the conclusion that they must organize and petition the Federal Government for the creation of their own state. Meetings between the different tribal governments set up the plan for a statehood convention to be held in the town of Muskogee in July 1905.
Out of the hands of these tribal leaders, the Election of 1904 would be critical for their plan to succeed. The Republican Party, which nominated Senator Mark Hannah to succeed the two-term presidency of Republican William McKinley, feared the creation of more Democratic-controlled states, and upsetting the balance of power between Eastern and Western states. When asked about the Oklahoma and Indian territories, most Republicans in Congress supported combining the two territories into a single state. On the other hand, the Democratic Party, which once again nominated William Jennings Bryan as their candidate, supported a two state plan, both liking the idea of giving their party the chance for two new pro-Democratic states and also wanting to protect the rights of Indians and their treaties.
The leaders of Indian Territory got lucky. The later half of William McKinley’s presidency had been rough. Economic problems and several severe labor disputes had made the country wary of many Republicans. To make matters worse, McKinley’s Vice President, Theodore Roosevelt, was outraged that Senator Hannah had prevented him from getting the Republican Party’s nomination. He campaigned as an independent under a loose party he created called the National Party. McKinley’s unpopularity combined with the severe divisions within the Republican Party led to a major sweep for the Democrats. With Bryan’s inauguration in March of 1905, the stage was set for the leaders of Indian Territory to create their own state.
The 1905 Convention
The date for the start of the Indian Territory Statehood Convention was set for Monday, July 31, 1905. The delegates elected William C. Rogers, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, as the President of the Convention, and Green McCurtain, Chief of the Choctaw Nation, as Vice President. The delegates had several issues to overcome. First among them was the status of the tribal governments that were represented. Federal policy was to “Americanize” the Native Indians and according to the Curtis Act of 1896, Washington would no longer recognize tribal governments after 1906. There were many in attendance that wanted to find some way to circumvent this looming deadline.
Chief Rogers introduced a revolutionary plan he hoped would help preserve some of the tribal governments at the state level even when the Federal recognition went away. Rogers proposed that the governments of the Five Tribes be integrated in to the state government. The territory would be divided into counties, which would be grouped under whatever Tribal Nation they happened to be in. Most power would still rest with the state governments, but there would be judicial and representational districts drawn along the old tribal lines. In addition, tribes would have councils to handle issues at a lower level before they had to be addressed at the state level. He also suggested that “tribal” citizenship would be based upon who lives in the boundaries of that tribe, not on who was actually Indian blood. This was quite bold, and definitely a departure from just about every other state government in existence in the whole of the Union at the time.
Despite worry from some, including delegate Charles N. Haskell of the Creek Nation, the delegates decided to base their constitution on this plan. Haskell believed strongly in separate statehood, and so he fought hard to get the language of the proposals changed so as to avoid the potential rejection of the Federal government. In the final document, there is no mention of “tribes” or of the five nations. Instead, these political divisions were called “districts” and were named after cities: Tahlequah for the Cherokee; Okmulgee for the Creek; Wewoka for the Seminole; Tuskahoma for the Choctaw; and Tishomingo for the Chickasaws. These were to serve as an intermediary between the State and county governments, and would primarily serve as judicial districts. Some delegates criticized Haskell, saying that he was weakening the tribes too much. He countered that the Federal government would never approve a constitution with strong Indian governments. He believed that after statehood was achieved, the tribal governments could be reconstituted on some level without interference from Washington. His arguments won over most, and on September 8, the convention adopted the Constitution of the proposed State of Sequoyah. After approval by territorial voters in November, Haskell, Rogers, and several others took their proposal to the national capital to seek Federal approval.
Statehood for Indian Territory
The reaction to the proposed “State of Sequoyah” in Washington was mixed. The Republican minority in the House was mostly against the idea, as expected, and there was some confusion about the “district” structure that was included in the constitution. Some congressmen correctly made the connection to the tribal boundaries and spoke out about this as a way to slip around the Curtis Act. President Bryan met with Haskell about the proposal on January 3, 1906, and seemed amiable to the proposal, promising he would do his best to see it passed. Congress would vote later that month, ultimately approving, by some of the narrowest of margins, the Sequoyah Enabling Act.
The bill recognized the constitution adopted by the Convention held the previous summer, stated that all tribal governments within the new state would be dissolved upon statehood, and recommended that Sequoyah be recognized as a state on March 1, 1906. President Bryan signed the bill on Tuesday, January 30, 1906, after which things began to move very fast. Elections for the governorship and legislature were scheduled for February 20th, and the politicians went to work trying to secure votes. Haskell announced his candidacy as soon as he got back, as did Chief Rogers. Voter turnout was high, and Haskell was elected as first governor. As predicted, the Democratic Party controlled the new state legislature. Everything was now set for statehood.
On March 1, 1906, thousands of Sequoyahns gathered at the local courthouse in the new state capital of Muskogee, where at the stroke of noon Charles N. Haskell would be sworn in as the first governor of the new state of Sequoyah. The people were ecstatic, many waving around the new state flag (consisting of three equal stripes, blue, white, and red, with a yellow 5-pointed star in the center that was upside down just like in the new state seal), ready for their state to join the Union.
From Chapter 8: Final Devolution in the tumult of the 1950s
Native Rights Movement and Devolution
The 1950s were a tumultuous time throughout the United States. In the South, African Americas were clamoring for real equality. In the West, the Asian communities wanted equality before the law and also compensation for their poor treatment during the Second World War. Throughout the West and Midwest, Native Americans wanted true equality and restoration of their old tribal organizations. In this, the States of Sequoyah and Oklahoma led the fight.
Thanks to the planning of Sequoyah’s first governor Charles N. Haskell, the governments of the Five Civilized Tribes were gradually reconstituted over the intervening four decades. By 1950, the so-called “judicial districts” had been renamed as the original Indian nation that they represented (1919). Those nations had elected legislatures called Councils (1930), and the state legislature had gradually granted more and more authority to those councils. In 1939, the nations elected “Executive Chiefs” who would sit on the Governor’s cabinet to represent the interests of the 5 Tribes. When the Great Equal Rights campaign erupted, the State of Sequoyah, led by its governor, Samuel Rogers, soon found itself at the forefront.
In the State of Oklahoma, things had taken a little longer to get off the ground after statehood in 1908. Many Native American’s who had means to do so moved to Sequoyah. Those who stayed did not have much in the way of representation until the 1930s, when a significant number of native representatives were elected to the state legislature in Guthrie for the first time. They began to advocate for the same kind of recognition for their tribes as what existed in Sequoyah. The first tribe to receive this was the Comanche Nation, followed by the Cheyenne and Arapaho Nation in 1948. These administrative districts were much weaker versions of what existed in Sequoyah, but were considered a “good start” by the locals.
Sequoyah’s example to other tribes across the nation caused quite a stir, with native people’s demanding legal recognition from the Dakotas to New Mexico and even back east in New England. This would become even louder in 1952. That year, as the country decided whether pro-segregationist Democrat Michael Thompson would remain in the White House or if pro-equality Nationalist-Republican Richard Morris would take office, the citizens of Sequoyah were presented with nearly a dozen changes to their constitution. They called for a level of devolution to the Five Nations that had been unprecedented at statehood forty-six years prior. State taxes would be determined by each nation, police would be handled primarily at the tribal level, as would the courts, with the Supreme Court of Sequoyah becoming the only non-tribal court. The only things remaining under the State’s control would be the National Guard, education, intra-state trade, and the state highway network. On every other issue, power would be vested in the administrative zones of the Five Nations. In addition, the constitutional changes referred to the tribal organizations not as tribes, but as “First Nations,” a term that gained wide popularity in the Equal Rights Movement. An equal rights amendment was also on the ballot, ending racial segregation.
When citizens of the state went to the polls on November 4th, 1952, the amendments were overwhelmingly approved, making Sequoyah the most devolved state in the Union. Over the next decade, other tribes would pressure their states to give similar concessions, with varying degrees of success. It is widely accepted that the actions of Sequoyahns helped frame the section of the All are Created Equal Act of 1963 dealing with native peoples, which officially adopted the term “First Nations,” and saw the creation of dozens of tribal administrative districts throughout the country by the end of the 1970s.
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Zach Anderson is studying to become a history teacher in Oklahoma. When he's not working on his studies, he likes to think about what might have been in years past, and when he gets a particularly good idea going, it will end up on his blog, the Weekly Chrononaut. You can find his biggest work, The Airship President and Legacy, a world where the airship survives, Hitler never comes to power, and where the Soviet Union crumbles in the 1970s, on that blog in addition to several other stories. He also posts on alternatehistory.com under the username Eckener.