As Cities Remove Confederate Monuments, Cherokees Grapple With Civil War Past

Aug 31, 2017

Catherine Gray walks up to a big, grey stone monument, standing tall under a lush magnolia tree on the grounds of the Cherokee Nation Courthouse in Tahlequah.

It’s monument to General Stand Watie, the last Confederate general to surrender at the end of the Civil War.

Watie was a Cherokee, and the only Native American general on either side of the war. He was a leader on the Cherokee council. But he was also a slave owner, and he was among the signees of a treaty that led to the removal of Cherokees from their ancestral homeland in the southeast United States.

Gray, a historian for the Cherokee Nation, says this monument doesn’t mention any of that.

“The only reason that this monument stands here is because it's to honor him as a Confederate general,” Gray said.

The monument to Stand Watie at the Cherokee Nation Courthouse in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.
Credit Jacob McCleland / Jacob McCleland

Gray says Cherokees either love or hate Stand Watie. She feels some sympathy for him because his uncle, brother and cousin were all murdered after they signed the treaty for removal. But on the other hand, Watie’s men often torched the homes of his enemies during the Civil War.

“There's definitely some things that he did well and he was a member of the Cherokee National Council,” Gray said. “However, I think that stain of being a treaty party signer and then also a Confederate general has kind of overshadowed some of the other things that he did.”

There are actually two Confederate monuments are here at Capitol Square--the other one is dedicated to fallen Cherokee Confederate soldiers. Now, as many cities across the United States are scrutinizing their monuments, some Cherokees are trying to figure out what to do with theirs.

“It's all kind of coming here to the Cherokee Nation at this point and I don't think a lot of us have really given much thought to these monuments before,” Gray said.

A monument to fallen Confederate soldiers stands in front of the Cherokee Nation Courthouse in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.
Credit Jacob McCleland / KGOU

Like many Confederate monuments in the southern United States, the two Cherokee Nation Courthouse monuments were erected in the 1910s and 1920s by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. At the time, the courthouse was owned by the state of Oklahoma, not the tribe.

Now, the question is: Should the monuments stay, or move elsewhere?

“It seems to me that people are pretty split on this issue right now,” Gray said.

Deb Proctor, a healthcare professional and chair of the Cherokee County Democratic Party, says the monuments give the appearance that Stand Watie and other Confederates are revered in the Cherokee Nation, when that’s not really the intent. Proctor doesn’t want to topple the monuments, but she thinks there’s probably a more respectful place for them.

“I don't see any problem in the nation right now by removing any monuments that support inequality or racism or owning people,” Proctor said.

But some people in Tahlequah, like Ty Wilson, think the monuments should stay exactly where they are. Wilson is the president of the Cherokees for Black Indian History Preservation Foundation.

“I think that time and effort and money could be better spent doing other things. I mean, you can't erase history,” Wilson said.

The focus of Wilson’s organization is to teach people the history of Black Indians like himself, who are of mixed Native American and African descent. He says Black Indians have been overlooked, and you can’t teach only the good parts of history.

“Throughout history we've been left out of it. Most people don't know that Black Indians walked the Trail of Tears. Erasing something don't make it not exist,” Wilson said.

Cherokee Nation spokesperson Amanda Clinton says she hopes the Cherokees will be given the time and respect to make their own decisions about the monuments.

“If these monuments were to be removed, that doesn't erase our history. That doesn't change our history. History is not dependent on stone tablets,” Clinton said.

Historian Catherine Gray doesn’t want the monuments to be destroyed, but she thinks they need additional context.

“I think there needs to be the appropriate location for it to possibly be relocated, and some interpretation, some additional texts to talk about some more about the role of Stand Watie instead of just being a Confederate general,” Gray said.

The monuments are currently under the jurisdiction of the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court. The justices are moving to a new facility later this fall, and the old courthouse will be converted into a museum and turned over to the Cherokee Nation administration. Then, the nation’s council would have the voice to decide whether or not the monuments should stay or go.

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