Redbird Smith believed the greatest danger to the survival of the Cherokee as a culture was ‘acculturation.’ He feared the people would be absorbed into the ways of the white people around them and forget their own ways. Many of the ceremonials were already forgotten during Redbird’s childhood. He was born July 19, 1850; his father was Pig Smith, a fullblood Cherokee of a very conservative family which always had a sense of mission regarding the preservation of the ancient Cherokee religion. Pig also served in the Cherokee government as a Senator. The name ‘Smith’ was acquired because he was a blacksmith by trade.
Pig Smith settled in an area of the Cherokee Nation that was mingled with traditional Muscogee (Creek) Indians as well as remnants of the Natchez tribe. The latter were well known for their knowledge of the old religious practices of the Southeastern Indians before contact as well as Removal (Trail of Tears). These religious beliefs and practices brought these groups together, particularly during the dangerous and conflicting times of the Civil War. The conditions for the Cherokee after the Civil War were far worse than when they first arrived after Removal. Approximately eight thousand were refugees in camps and the Nation was flattened with buildings burned, and crops and pastures destroyed. Reconstruction was started when the Treaty of 1866 was signed.
About the same time as the Treaty was signed, there was an important meeting of the Keetowahs in the Saline District near present-day Salina, Oklahoma. John Smith, one of Redbird’s sons, relayed this story as it had been told to him.
". . . All the people camped up there. All the old men were seers. They kept themselves clean with medicine. They could see a long ways ahead. The medicine men investigated the future of the Keetowahs. They saw that Pig Smith’s seed would be the leader of the Keetowahs in the time of their greatest trouble. Pig Smith saw that his life was short and his son was just a boy. He looked for a man to teach his son the ways of the Keetowah and to guide him spiritually. He decided on Creek Sam, a Notchee Indian. He told him he could leave his son in his care and teaching and that he would be his advisor even to the time of his (Pig Smith’s) grandchildren."
Redbird married Lucie Fields, who originated from present-day Braggs, Oklahoma. Her father was Richard Fields who died in Washington, D.C. while serving the Cherokee Nation as Attorney General. The family is of Cherokee / Natchez ancestry. They had ten children named John, Sam, Richard, Thomas, George, Mose, Kiah, Stoke, Ella and Susie.
Since the Keetowah Society had been organized before the Civil War, it had largely been a political organization. Many of the spiritual Keetowahs never became interested or involved with this group. They decided to change the direction of the Society. Because of the two developing factions, the similarities of the old Cherokee White Chief (peace) and Red Chief (war) system began to resurface. The White faction had a meeting at Long Valley, located in the Goingsnake District of the Cherokee Nation in 1859. They drew up an amendment to the Keetowah Society constitution which stated that the Keetowah Society would be religious, as well as political. A church was built at Long Valley so that services could be held during future conventions which were planned for Long Valley.
Redbird was a "Little Captain’ of the Keetowah Society prior to 1889, but after these changes were made and factionalism became more evident, he became more active. Within several years time, he was made ‘Head Captain’ for the Illinois District. The following year, he was elected a member of the Cherokee National Council. He came to develop his spiritual beliefs, which followed the White philosophy. This later became known as the "White Path." During the years that many political changes were happening in the Cherokee Nation, the Keetowahs were still meeting and observing the old ways. Redbird’s sympathetic nature and extensive knowledge of the old ways made him a very influential man among the fullbloods and traditional Cherokees. At Sulphur Springs, in the Illinois District, the Four Mothers Society was formed. Much like the Keetowahs, the society was based on the ancient Southeastern religion. Largely made up of Natchez people, the group also consisted of members of the Cherokee and Muscogee (Creek) nations. These people banded together to fight assimilation into the non-Indian world as well as the breaking up of tribal lands. They turned to the Sacred Fire. Redbird Smith was one of the Keetowah Cherokee who became involved with the Four Mothers. Redbird continued to develop his philosophy and coupled with the Natchez-Creek traditions with the Keetowah. He was active in the Four Mothers for some time, and agreed with their politics but later broke with them because of a disagreement over procedures. The Four Mothers are still active as a religious organization, with their main ceremonial grounds in the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. By this time, Stomp Dancing had basically ceased. The ceremonies of the ancient religion, such as the Green Corn Ceremony, the Friends Made Ceremony, and all the New Moon ceremonies had become extinct. By the middle of the 1890’s, a Stomp Dance was held in the Illinois District with a group of Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek) and Natchez traditionalists. Redbird had often attended ceremonies at the Notchee Town fire on Greenleaf Mountain, near Sulphur Springs. The knowledgeable elders today maintain that the original fire used by Redbird had come from the East during Removal and never died. It was tended by the people of Notchee Town.
To the Cherokee, the Sacred Fire is much more than a fire. It is a physical, living manifestation of the Creator. The smoke of the Fire carries prayers to heaven and it is the smoke that carries spiritual messages from place to place around the world. The fire and its smoke can do good or evil, based on how the fire is built and how it is used. The Keetowah have always used the force for good and peace. Redbird taught, "If you are following the White Path, God will give you protection. If you are following the White Path and a man strikes you in the back, do not turn around. If you do, you will be off in the black."
Redbird made a pledge to return to the old ways, and decided that the first step was to locate the Sacred Wampum Belts, which were woven of wampum shells to record the history, tradition and laws of the Keetowah and Cherokees in general. The Wampums are believed to have a special power within themselves, and are guarded very carefully to this day by the Keetowah Society.
Between 1891 and 1901, factionalism once again surfaced amongst the Keetowah Society. The Curtis Act, and the impending allotment of Cherokee land by the Dawes Commission were feverishly spoke against by traditionalists and Keetowahs. These government acts threatened to cease tribal governments for both the Cherokee and Muscogee (Creek). The Keetowahs held another meeting, this one at Moody’s Spring, near present-day Tahlequah. They decided that allotment was the only option they had. Redbird would not give in, so he and his followers withdrew from the Keetowah Society and formed the Nighthawk Keetowah. The Nighthawk Keetowah were determined to not only hold onto what culture and religion remained, but now what land and government, as well. In 1905, the split was even more defined, as the Keetowah Society officially incorporated without the Nighthawks. By 1902, some 5,000 Cherokee had succeeded in resisting enrollment with the U.S. government, and the Indian agents began making arrests of the leaders. Redbird Smith was arrested and taken to Federal jail in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Although he finally enrolled, many others did not. The Dawes Commission took the names of those Cherokee who appeared on the Census of 1896 and enroll them without their knowledge or permission.
Later in 1902, the Nighthawk Keetowah broke from ceremonial affiliation with the Four Mothers. Redbird wanted the Nighthawks to be more Cherokee in tradition, and less Natchez. The main fire of the Nighthawk was first established at Long Valley. Because Long Valley had been the convention ground of the Keetowah before the political schisms started, it was maintained for some time. It was the main fire of the Nighthawk Keetowah until 1906. However, because Long Valley Ceremonial Ground was also affiliated with the Long Valley Baptist Church at that time, Redbird desired to slowly move. He was convinced that it was important for the Cherokee to worship in their traditional way and not the way of the white man. A ceremonial ground on Blackgum Mountain, near Redbird’s home, was slowly designed and laid out in 1902. The fire mound was built, a stickball pole erected, and four arbors placed around the dance ground. Later, Redbird changed the number to seven, one for each Cherokee clan. The council became based on advisors from each of the seven clans, as well.
By 1905, there were 22 fires established within the Cherokee Nation. The fire keepers and spiritual leaders of each ground assembled at a meeting at Sulphur Springs to learn more about the customs and rules pertaining to the fire. They were instructed by Charley Sam, son of Creek Sam.
The following year, a convention was held at Long Valley, and Redbird Smith was named Chief of the Nighthawk Keetowah. Shortly after this, the fire on Blackgum Mountain became the main fire of the Nighthawk. Redbird began traveling back and forth between all 22 grounds in the Cherokee Nation to give teachings of the old ways from the Wampum Belts.
By 1910, Redbird delivered the following speech to the Council of the Nighthawk Keetowahs.
"After my selection as chief, I awakened to the grave and great responsibilities of the leader of men. I looked about and saw that I had led my people down a long and steep mountainside, now it was my duty to turn and lead them back upward to save them. The unfortunate thing in the mistakes and errors of leaders or of governments is the penalty the innocent and loyal followers have to pay. My greatest ambition has always been to think right and do right. It is my belief that this is the law of the Great Creator. In the upbuilding of my people, it is my purpose that we shall be spiritually right and industriously strong.
"Our pride in our ancestral heritage is our great incentive for handing something worthwhile to our posterity. It is this pride in ancestry that makes men strong and loyal for their principle in life. It is this same pride that makes men give up their all for their government."
In July, 1914 Redbird traveled to Washington, D.C. with his son John and a Nighthawk officer, Ocie Hogshooter. They appealed to President Woodrow Wilson. Senator Lane advised Redbird, through his interpreter, that the fullbloods and traditionalists must accept their allotments and learn to be happy in the system. Redbird was understandably disappointed, and returned home where he turned to the Sacred Fire. Medicine men from each of the clans met with him, and they prayed for spiritual information. The enlightenment they received was that the Nighthawk Keetowah should only be a religious organization, and they should leave political matters alone. A Nighthawk Constitution was drawn which was based on the ancient forms of the Keetowah. At a convention in 1915, the rule was adopted that all members must know their clans. This was as important of an event as the reinstatement of the Stomp Dance. Many Cherokees did not know their clans, and had to ask the elders if they could recall the clan of the grandmothers. This became known as "The time we found our clans." The ceremonial fires began to flourish within the Cherokee Nation. Stomp Dances at individual fires were held every two weeks, and the lighting as well as feeding (sacrifice made to) the fire was carefully observed by all grounds. In addition, two general meetings were held during the year. In September, a three- or four-day meeting was held at Long Valley Ceremonial Grounds and the Keetowah business was transacted there. There was a bar-b-cue, hog fry, stickball games, and general fellowship. People came from miles around and each night of the meeting a Stomp Dance was held around the ceremonial Fire.
On Redbird’s birthday, July 19, people would come from miles to Redbird’s home and bring food and pay their respects. The celebration eventually became so large that it was moved to the ceremonial grounds near his home. This tradition continues today.
Around 1916, membership in the Nighthawks and Keetowah societies began to decline. With the loss of tribal land and attempted loss of tribal government, people became more and more disenchanted and acculturated with non-Indian society. However, those Keetowahs who gained spiritual strength from the Fire remained faithful As World War I progressed, many young Cherokees enlisted. A special ceremony was held each month for the protection of the young soldiers, and all of them came home. In 1917, the Nighthawk Keetowahs made a first of several community investments for their membership. Two hundred head of Aberdeen Angus cattle were bought.
The following year, in November of 1918, Redbird Smith passed away. He was buried with the death ceremony of the Keetowah. About a year earlier, he had wrote the following words, "I have endeavored in my efforts. . . for my people to remember that any religion must be an unselfish one. That even though condemned, falsely accused and misunderstood by both officials and my own people, I must press on and do the work of my convictions. This religion as revealed to me is larger than any man. It is beyond man’s understanding. It shall prevail after I am gone. It is growth like the child, it is growth eternal. This religion does not teach me to concern myself of the life that shall be after this, but it does teach me to be concerned with what my everyday life should be. The Fires kept burning are merely the greater Fire, the greater Light, the Great Spirit. I realize now as never before it is not only for the Cherokees but for all mankind. . ."