Skip to main content

Dumping the Confederate Flag: Natives Can Teach America How

The past two weeks has reminded Americans of just hard it is to escape the legacy of the Civil War. The Confederate battle flag—a symbol of racism for millions—appears on everything from license plates to string bikinis. Walk down any major thoroughfare in the South and you’re likely to see monuments dedicated to fallen Southern heroes dotting the urban landscape. 

While some Southern whites struggle to let go of the iconography of the Confederacy, American Indians jettisoned Civil War imagery long ago. Indeed, American Indians provide us with a clear example of how to move past the moribund imagery of the Confederacy.

Take for example the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

One of the first recorded flags in Cherokee history dates to the American Civil War. On 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.

That flag, known as the “Cherokee Brigade Flag,” was based on the design of the first – and now largely forgotten – Confederate flag. Three horizontal stripes of red, white, and blue dominated the flag. 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. 

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. 

Indian Country, however, was 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.

Ultimately, the flag that Albert Pike presented to John Ross came to represent military and political failure; it was also a symbol of wartime divisions that post-war Cherokee leaders were determined to consign to the pages of history. Moreover, many ordinary Cherokees wanted nothing to do with the “Cherokee Brigade Flag.” 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 a deeply traumatizing historical event.

The Civil War also traumatized indigenous communities. The Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory lay virtually in ruins at the end of the war, political divisions remained, and hundreds of Cherokees remained sick and impoverished in refugee camps. Cherokees therefore needed to move beyond their wartime divisions if they wanted to rebuild their nation.

Recognizing the power of symbols to unite as much as divide people, Principal Chief Lewis Downing approved the adoption of the Cherokee Nation’s national seal to figure as the centerpiece of a new Cherokee flag on December 11, 1869. Containing the words “Seal of the Cherokee Nation,” the seal included seven stars. These stars symbolized the seven matrilineal clans that traditionally defined Cherokee identity. 

So what can we learn from Cherokee experiences during the Civil War era? Plenty. In eliminating the symbols of rebellion from public spaces Cherokee leaders recognized that their predecessors had made grievous mistakes. Their errors and exploits, though, were not forgotten. At a reunion of Confederate Cherokees in New Orleans in 1903, surviving veterans posed for a photograph with the confederate battle flag. And Cherokee women, such as Narcissa Owen, were active members of the Daughters of the Confederacy. 

Late-19th-century Cherokee people new 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.” To the contrary, they rebuilt their nation with a symbol of unity that combined tradition with the modernity of their own sovereign nation-state. 

Gregory Smithers is an associate professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University. His most recent book, The Cherokee Diaspora: An Indigenous History of Migration, Resettlement, and Identity, is set for release in September 2015.