Nevertheless and Notwithstanding

by Grace-Yvette Gemmell


In the United States Capitol Building’s National Statuary Hall, two statues represent each state. They honor individuals notable for their histories and character. Two celebrated Cherokee citizens appear for Oklahoma.

Will Rogers’ progressive populism lurked in a lot of his signature stock material and was bread and butter for most of his contemporary Oklahomans. Shortly after statehood was granted to Oklahoma by Congress in 1907, Rogers quipped,“We spoiled the best territory in the world to make a state.” Rogers was a staunch proponent of separate statehoods for Oklahoma and Indian territories. His father, Clement Vann Rogers, the namesake of Rogers County in northeast Oklahoma, served five terms in the Cherokee Senate and was a member of the 1905 Sequoyah Convention agitating for separate statehood in Indian Territory. The Cherokee Kid, with his progressive politics, joins another progressive agitator at the nation’s capital.

The statue of Sequoyah was gifted to the collection in 1917, 10 years after Oklahoma received statehood and 10 years after the symbolic marriage of Miss Indian Territory to Mr. Oklahoma, which was a shotgun wedding at best. The two former territories that now compose Oklahoma were frequently referred to by the chummy (read: spurious/half-hearted) moniker of the “Twin Territories.” Now, before you start humming to yourself “Territory folks should stick together, Territory folks should all be pals,” remember that this appellation was largely a strategic political fabrication resulting in an uneasy alliance that many locals, both east and west, viewed with ambivalence, if not outright reluctance. For fraternal twins, the two territories had strikingly different dispositions. Indian territory was by large Democratic, consisted of a mix of settlers from the South, and its political and cultural footing was influenced accordingly. Settlers in Oklahoma Territory came primarily from northern states like Nebraska, Iowa, and Kansas after the 1890 Organic Act, who were largely, though not entirely, sympathetic to Republican policies. On the issue of prohibition: O.T. was wet, I.T. dry. School systems differed drastically, and you couldn’t find two more distinct geographical terrains, with I.T. possessing a wealth of unexploited natural resources and O.T. relying more on agrarian practices for capital.

In light of these profound differences, it comes as no surprise that the road to statehood in 1907 was a protracted and deeply contentious process. Opinions on the matter ran the gamut: settlers in both Indian and Oklahoma territories alternately advocating for single and separate statehood, and a not insignificant chunk crossing their fingers in hopes that the territories would be left alone entirely—a sentiment not uncommon among Oklahomans today. Also belonging to this last category were many American Indians, most notably the Chickasaw, who were still holding onto the pipedream that the federal government would make good on its treaty promises to never subject members of removed tribes to territorial limits or the jurisdiction of any state without their given consent.

Calls for a separate state for Native Americans began as far back as the late 1700s. None were as effectively organized or heatedly debated as the proposed State of Sequoyahin Indian Territory. The Sequoyah Convention, held from August 21 through September 8 in 1905, was initiated by members of the Five Civilized Tribes in I.T. in response to a number of events, including: the buttoning up of the allotment process by the Dawes Commission; the impending closure of tribal governments by the federal government, which would occur March 4, 1906; a failed omnibus bill introduced in early 1902 to admit into the union New Mexico, Arizona, Indian, and Oklahoma territories as a single state, coupled with several other unsuccessful bills; and the convention on single statehood held in Oklahoma City on July 12, 1905. This last event incensed Indian Territory, which was flagrantly left out of having their say in the matter. The Cherokee Advocate, an I.T. newspaper, had it as “…the Indians are wrought up over the discovery that the list of delegates from the Indian Territory to the statehood convention which is to meet in Oklahoma City July 12, fails to disclose the name of a single Indian” and “Congress was willing only a few years ago that justice be done for the Indians and gave its consent for the creation of more than one state in Indian Territory.” Although separate statehood was touted as means of retaining self-governance, agitation for the State of Sequoyah amounted to something of a last gasp for tribes in Indian Territory, in light of impending federal legislation to dissolve tribal governments nationwide that was slated to commence the following year.

On November 7, 1905, the citizens of I.T. ratified a constitution drafted at the Sequoyah Convention. The document, which divided the proposed state into 48 distinct counties, closely followed that of the U.S. Constitution, complete with a Bill of Rights stipulating that all political power be “vested in and derived from the people and dependent upon their will,” and three separate branches of government on equal footing. Among the more progressive rights outlined in the document were regulations pertaining to safety provisions for mining, as well as food and drugs, jurisdiction over land ownership, education, and the oversight of labor imposed on children and women. Additionally, it outlined strict provisions for the establishment of a corporate commission, which would be grated oversight in the prohibition of farmland ownership by corporations or aliens. Suffrage was only extended to men, and the separate-but-equal policy of segregation remained intact. The document demonstrated a profound understanding of U.S. lawmaking and served to cajole Congress, pointing to proof that tribal members in I.T. had achieved a state of advanced assimilation.

The language of the proposed constitution was the principle work of the Creek poet, editor, and essayist Alexander Posey, who served as the commission’s secretary. Posey was the unofficial poet laureate of Indian Territory and the first to suggest that the proposed new state be named after Sequoyah.

Shortly after the Sequoyah Convention ratified its constitution and forwarded it to Congress, President Theodore Roosevelt lent his voice to the issue: “There is no obligation upon us to treat territorial subdivisions, which are matters of convenience only, as binding us on the question of admission to statehood.”The proposal was promptly tabled and never even came to a vote. The Republican-controlled Senate did not want new Democratic U.S. senators, which was what they would have received had O.T. and I.T. entered into the Union as two separate states.

Those who lamented and still lament the defeat of the proposed State of Sequoyah overlook the fact that had it succeeded, tribal members in I.T. would have given official endorsement of and consent to the relinquishment of autonomous governance, as stipulated in treaties between the Five Civilized Tribes and the United States, which, granted, the federal government almost did not honor, once again. Had the proposed separate state been admitted to the Union before Congress passed legislation, which enabled the Five Civilized Tribes Act of 1906 to go into effect, thus granting continued tribal governance in perpetuity, tribal representation in the state would look very different. Moreover, it would have provided the perfect example illustrating the success of the federal government’s assimilation project. Luckily legislative timing, for once, was on the tribes’ side. Turns out that the Chickasaw’s lingering faith that the Feds would stick to their treaty promise proved true, in this instance. Native populations in Oklahoma today have significantly more autonomy than they would ever have had, had Indian Territory become its own state.

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 18. Sept. 15, 2013.