At the turn of the century, the Cherokees lost thousands upon thousands of acres through the Curtis Act and the Dawes Commission. This land had been deeded to the Cherokee Nation with the promise that no state or territory would ever impose it's jurisdiction. Allotment changed the structure of Cherokee society; each family was alloted land for individual ownership. Yet, by the 1930's and 40's, many Cherokee families became landless and homeless for different reasons associated with the imposed changes. However, one of the worst was that associated with U.S. Army and Camp Gruber.
Located in the Greenleaf Hills of Cherokee Nation (Northeastern Oklahoma near Braggs) was Camp Gruber. Due to the war and the perceived need for concentration camps to hold American citizens who were of Japanese descent as well as prisoners of war, Indian land was once again taken from its owners. Cherokee families were forced to move with only 45 days notice. Within a fifty square mile area, restricted Cherokee land was condemned. Restricted meant that the land was held in trust by the U.S. government for the Cherokee people it had been alloted to. Even though the Dawes Commission allotted this land for individual ownership, the land was restricted by the government if the individual was more than 1/2 degree of Indian blood.
There were 45 such families in this area, and sixteen were farmers and stockmen by trade. Their personal industry allowed them to be totally self-sufficient. Most of these families had cattle, hogs and poultry as well as good gardens. In fact, the gardens were in the time of their seasonal cycle that it was too late to start new ones should the family move. Therefore, a family would be out of an income; and for those who had kitchen gardens only, they would be without adequate food for the winter.
These Cherokee people were given 45 days to remove from their homes. Their land, homes, crops, animals, community schools, cemeteries, and society would be left behind. Most had no means of travel to find new homes except for horses; only two families had money to use to move. No financial assistance was offered except for a token payment for their land and $25.00 per family. One example of this land payment was Mrs. Jincy Lane, who was offered $300.00 for her land and her house. She often produced up to 40 bushels of corn from her land, and she refused to sign the agreement.
The families who did agree to sell did not know when they would receive their money, and for some, it took years to be paid. In addition, a public auction was held on July 11, 1942, to see off various buildings and items left behind by the families that had moved. It is reported that at one point, the auctioneer held up a fist full of forks and said, "I have here some forks. . . more than 6 and less than 20. I won't tell you the exact number. Bid 'em and take 'em."
"That's kind of the way we are selling our land and crops," said one farmer present at the auction. "We don't know how much more about what we are getting and when we will get it than that guy does who just bought the forks."
Cherokee Principal Chief Bartley Milam knew of the Cherokee traditional view of land and society, but the United States War Department seemed to ignore the Cherokee leadership. He began to research the law and found that during World War I, part of the Nesqually Indian Reservation was condemend through a state court as an addition to Camp Lewis. Compensation in that case was inadequate, as well. the result of that particular case was eventually an appropriation from Congress to recompense the Indians. Even though compensation in and of itself was not a total answer, Milam pursued a legal avenue.
By fall of 1942, many of the restricted Cherokees chose to take their claims into the courts. These people included: Betsy Phillips Whitewater, Viola Woodward, John J. Ballard, John Rattlingourd, Nancy Lyman Teehee, Rachel Raincrow, Dave Birdtail, John Birdtail, Charles Silk, William Ballard, Charley Glass, William Coppinger, Ralph Conrad, Herman Thorton, John Phillips, Charlie Collier, Blue Washington, Peggie Washington, Cherokee Washington, Medley Conrad, Kee Dave, William Young, Jess Hooper, Joe McLemore, John Levett and Lucy Highland. These people settled out of court. However, the following ten took their claims on to a jury trial: Johnson Silk, Jeannie Silk, Mary J. Ballard Glass, Lizzie Glass Cabbage, Will Grease, Ned Crawford, Katie Rainbow, Nancy Taylor Raven, Thomas T. Fletcher, and Cornelius Raincrow.
Through these jury trials, it was found that in all, the Army took 32,000 acres from the Cherokee people. Milam advised the people to take advantage of the court judgments at the time. He had been led to believe that at the end of the war, the land would become 'surplus' and could be returned to their owners. However, the government cited numerous restrictions and policy which prevented the return of the land. He believed that the families should at least be given first option to purchase their former homes. He even asked to purchase the land back on behalf of his people. At a convention for Cherokee in 1948 in Tahlequah, Milam reported that there was some chance of the land being returned to the Cherokees. By the time of his death the matter remained unresolved, and Camp Gruber remains an active military installation to this very day.
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