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Americans are realizing just how hard it is to escape the legacy of hate that was the Civil War. Front and center in this is “The Confederate battle flag”. A flag that is the very symbol of racism for millions. A flag which appears on everything from towels to string bikinis.

While some Southern whites struggle to let go of this icon of the Confederacy, an icon of hate and intolerance. American Indians jettisoned the imagery of the Civil War long ago. Indeed, American Indians provide us with a clear example of how to move past the imagery of slavery, hate and intolerance the Confederacy actually stood for.

Make no mistake the south seceded from the north over the right to own human beings as cattle or worse.

Take for example the Cherokee Nation. (I love the Cherokee this week can you tell?)

October 7, 1861

The Confederate Indian Commissioner, Albert Pike, presented John Ross, the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, with a flag that symbolized the Cherokee Nation’s recently agreed upon alliance with the Confederacy. This was one of the first recorded flags in Cherokee nation history dating back to the American Civil War.

That flag was known as the “Cherokee Brigade Flag,” and was based on the design of the first – and now mostly forgotten – Confederate flag. The three horizontal stripes of red and white, and a blue rectangle dominated the flag and the words “Cherokee Braves” ran through the white horizontal stripe at the center of the flag. In the upper right hand corner of the flag a blue rectangle contained eleven white stars. To symbolize the Cherokee Nation’s alliance with the confederate states, the Cherokees added a large red star at the center of that blue canton and surrounded it with four smaller red stars.

cherokeebraves

The red stars that the Cherokees inserted onto the flag were designed to highlight the alliance that the Cherokees and their pro-slavery, pro-Confederate allies among the Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole Indians had formed with the South.

Indians within these nations, however, were deeply divided during the Civil War. While many prominent Native American leaders in Indian Territory – such as the Cherokee general Stand Watie – fought for, and shared the racial views of Southerners on issues such as slavery, many of the people they claimed to represent did not.

For most Cherokees and other Native American living in and around Indian Territory and the borderlands with Arkansas, the Civil War was a foreign war that they wanted no part of. Thousands fled the encroaching violence by fleeing to refugee camps in Kansas and Missouri. Some joined runaway slaves and followed the Creek leader Opothleyohola into refuge, while still others joined the so-called “Pin Indians” and attempted to sabotage Confederate war efforts in Indian Territory.

For the Cherokee it almost became their own civil war. Most Cherokee did not support slavery but understood what war with the whites would mean to their people. Therefore many reluctantly went along with their leaders in hopes of avoiding such a fate.

Ultimately, the Cherokee Brigade flag came to represent military and political failure, hatred and slavery. It was also a symbol of wartime that divided the Cherokee and caused much pain to it’s nation. Post-war Cherokee leaders were determined to consign the hate and division to the pages of history.

As many ordinary Cherokees wanted nothing to do with the “Cherokee Brigade Flag,” they instead, they turned to the “Cherokee peace flag,” a white flag emblazoned with seven red stars in the form of the big dipper that was said to have accompanied their ancestors along the Trail of Tears.

For many Cherokees in the years immediately after the Civil War, that white flag represented the unity required of Cherokee people in overcoming this deeply traumatizing historical event. It represented peace, perseverance, and most of all hope.

The Civil War also traumatized the Cherokee and its indigenous communities. The Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory lay in ruins at the end of the war, political divisions remained, and hundreds of Cherokees who fled the war in protest remained sick and impoverished in refugee camps. The Cherokees needed to move beyond their wartime divisions and the stigma of pro-slavery if they wanted to ever rebuild their nation.

September 6, 1863

The Cherokee nation created the seal of the Cherokee.

Great_seal_of_the_cherokee_nation.svg

December 11, 1869

In the years following the civil war a new chief was elected and tasked with uniting a greatly divided people. Principal Chief Lewis Downing recognized the power of symbols, both to unite as much as divide his people. Chief Lewis Downing therefore approved the adoption of the Cherokee Nation’s national seal to figure as the centerpiece of a new Cherokee flag. Containing the words “Seal of the Cherokee Nation,” around the the seal included seven stars. These stars symbolized the seven matrilineal clans that traditionally defined Cherokee identity. A final star was added in 1989 to symbolize the light that died with the terrible death toll on the trail of tears.

The flag of the Cherokee Nation consists of an orange field with the Great Seal of the Cherokee Nation in the center. The seal is surrounded by seven yellow stars with seven points. Each of these stars points toward the star in the center of the seal. The seven pointed stars represent the seven clans of the Cherokee, as well as other symbolisms of the number seven in Cherokee tradition. In 1989 an additional star was added to the upper right hand corner of the flag. It is black, and represents the light that went out with the deaths of those who perished on the Trail of Tears. The flag has a green and black rope edging.

The flag of the Cherokee Nation consists of an orange field with the Great Seal of the Cherokee Nation in the center. The seal is surrounded by seven yellow stars with seven points. Each of these stars points toward the star in the center of the seal. The seven pointed stars represent the seven clans of the Cherokee, as well as other symbolisms of the number seven in Cherokee tradition. In 1989 an additional star was added to the upper right hand corner of the flag. It is black, and represents the light that went out with the deaths of those who perished on the Trail of Tears. The flag has a green and black rope edging.

So what can we learn from Cherokee experiences during the Civil War era?

If we open our eyes we can learn plenty. By eliminating the symbols of rebellion from public spaces the Cherokee leaders recognized that their predecessors had made grievous mistakes and divided her great people. Their errors and exploits, were not forgotten.

Late-19th-century Cherokee people knew they could not escape their immediate past, but they could acknowledge mistakes and missteps. In discarding the imagery of the Civil War the leaders of the Cherokee Nation of Indian Territory did not turn their backs on “heritage.” No, to the contrary, they rebuilt their nation with a new symbol of unity that combined tradition with the modernity of their own sovereign nation-state.

We could learn a lot from the Cherokee in healing the wounds of the civil war. Why is it the United States is still a century and a half behind when the Cherokee lite the way so brilliantly in discarding the flags of hatred and division and united once more in peace. One more example of your backward savages it seems being so far ahead of the enlightened civilized European/Christian nation known as the United States of America.

~Kuwa Sumanitu Taka (pursuing wolf) aka Michelle Styles