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Reflecting on recognition: Columbia’s Indigenous preserve their history

Missourian file photo
A woman participates in a gourd dancing ceremony at the For the People PowWow at the Boone County Fairgrounds in May 2009. The powwow events ended when the fairgrounds closed in 2012.

Growing up in the 1970s, Brent Cook would walk through fields of Columbia’s farmland after strong rainstorms in search of pieces from his Native American ancestors. This was a way for him to learn about and connect to his roots. Today, many of these artifacts and other traditions are lost to urban development and elders passing away.

“We had dancers and people came from all over to come and participate in a powwow,” Beverly Baker Northup, a relative of Cook’s, said. “Then when the older people could no longer attend or participate, it finally just died out.”

While Cook and other Columbians of Native descent have tried to keep their traditions alive, they have not had a powwow since 2012 when the state fairgrounds got moved to Sturgeon and elders passed away throughout the years.

“[Continuing our traditions] gives me a sense of connection with the heritage and the earth,” Cook said.

Cook continues to reflect on his individual history. He continues to smoke out of his handcrafted peace pipe, wear his Native jewelry and smudge, a ceremony performed as a way to cleanse the body and the home by burning bundles of cedar.

“First, we cleanse our body with it and then we give a tobacco offering to the Creator and Mother Earth,” Cook said. “Then we give a tobacco offering to the four winds, and then we sit down and pray. We cleanse and keep the cedar burning the whole time we pray.”

Cook is a member of the Northern Cherokee of the Old Louisiana Territory. This is a former nonprofit group of Columbia residents of Northern Cherokee descent who moved into Missouri and further west throughout the 16th century. Baker Northup is the former chief of the tribe.

“First, we cleanse our body with it and then we give a tobacco offering to the Creator and Mother Earth,” Cook said. “Then we give a tobacco offering to the four winds, and then we sit down and pray. We cleanse and keep the cedar burning the whole time we pray.”

Missouri does not have a formal legislative process for state recognition of tribes. However, Baker Northup and the organization received informal recognition in the form of a proclamation of the tribe’s historical contributions by Governor Mel Carnahan on June 20, 1996. He proclaimed June 22 as Northern Cherokee Recognition Day.

In 1999, the group received the same recognition from the Boone County Commission.

The Northern Cherokee of the Old Louisiana Territory is one of 24 Cherokee-descendant groups in Missouri, 3 of which are fighting for federal recognition.

Missouri does not house any federally recognized tribes, but Baker Northup was in a fight to change that even if it was unsuccessful.

“I had all my history; I think we met every criteria,” Baker Northup said. “They said we were not turned down, we just needed to get our enrollments in better shape and we didn’t have a regular paid person to help with this.”

With time, resources, money and Baker Northup’s spirits dwindling, recognition was never achieved.

She said she’s tired of fighting for the recognition she and her community deserve. Federal recognition would acknowledge them as Natives of the land and also give them access to federal benefits and self-sovereignty.

Baker Northup’s hopes for the continuation of this process are low. She sees younger generations do not possess the weight and importance federal recognition holds — the ability to reclaim land that was once theirs.

“The younger generation just didn’t seem to have the attitude,” Baker Northup said. “I don’t think they quite understood what it meant and then pretty soon you lose the people helping you.”

The Cherokee Nation, a federally recognized tribe in Oklahoma, doesn’t attribute the Northern Cherokee of Old Louisiana Territory as Cherokee. However, historian Greg Olson said he believes it is very likely there were Native people in Missouri who had diverted from a tribe.

“I think legitimately there were Cherokees that moved into Eastern, and especially Northeastern Missouri like in the 1700s maybe,” Olson said.

Olson said federal recognition is based on Dawes Rolls, a result of the Dawes Allotment Act in 1887 that made tribes create lists of all the people they recognized as being a part of their tribe. Missouri Cherokee would not have been able to be added to the rolls.

“If you were living in Missouri, you would’ve had to go back to Oklahoma and sign up to be on the roll and a lot of them just didn’t because they were afraid of being forced to leave Missouri and their homes or they were afraid of persecution,” Olson said.

He said it is highly possible that is also the case for Baker Northup’s tribe. Today, these rolls are used to grant people with an identity of a certain tribe only if their ancestors appear on one of these rolls, making Baker Northup’s fight for recognition more challenging.

The Indian Removal Act of 1830, which made it illegal for Native Americans to be in Missouri, further displaced tribes native to Missouri like the Osages and Missourias. The act forced those who wished to stay in the state to assimilate and become farmers to avoid being driven out. This included Cook’s family. There were once 23 tribes in total that lived in or moved through Missouri. Due to this act, their history is difficult to track.

“This is kind of the other problem Natives have is that any history that is written about Missouri or Columbia stops talking about Native people when the settlers come,” Olson said. “It’s an interesting thing about how something like a law that was made a 100 years ago based on [...] processes that were set in motion as long as we’ve been a country are still affecting Natives today.”

Columbia’s Stephens Lake Park to the Business Loop was once known as Happy Hollow. This was farmland the Northern Cherokee turned to when they started to assimilate after the Indian Removal Act. Happy Hollow was not developed until the 1920s where Columbia’s Country Club resides now. Neither Columbia City Community Development Department nor the Boone County Historical Society had any information regarding the history of Happy Hollow.

With Native areas like Happy Hollow gone, traces of the tribes still remain in the form of artifacts often scattered throughout the areas buried in the earth and washed up in creeks after rain.

Cook spends ample time hunting for artifacts himself in nearby creeks and has carried on this legacy to his children. He has learned to use the same techniques his ancestors did to recreate some himself. He collects and uses them as a way of educating others about the history that has been lost throughout the years.

“It goes back so deep,” Cook said. “I think it would be great for the people of Columbia to know the true history of everything.”

Candance Sall is the director of the Museum of Anthropology and American Archaeology Division at MU that exhibits artifacts from a multitude of tribes. She said the museum is actively working on communicating with tribes to include the most relevant information in exhibits.

“I'm also working to get some modern Native American art in the museum as well, so that we can see the tribes are not just the past, they're here today,” Sall said. “This is a survival story. They live, they're here.”

The State Historical Society of Missouri in Columbia is displaying its “Cultural Crossroads: Missouri in the Era of Statehood” exhibit in honor of the state bicentennial, which includes mentions of Indigenous residents of the time, from Aug. 3 through Feb. 11, 2022. They also include a digital Native research guide on their website.

“It goes back so deep,” Cook said. “I think it would be great for the people of Columbia to know the true history of everything.”

Missouri saw more controversies in Native history. Columbia’s own Boone County Courthouse was questioned over murals depicting violent images of Native Americans at the beginning of September, while the Osage’s Picture Cave in Warrenton was auctioned off Sept. 14.

Cook has also seen a lack of acknowledgment when it comes to the natural landscape of the city and the state, which Cook believes to be credited to the Natives of the land.

“Columbia does take pride in their environment, but they need to take pride in their heritage too,” Cook said.

Cook hopes to keep younger generations involved in passing down the knowledge, history and tradition of their heritage. Cook feels the history is slowly fading away, making preservation of it that much more important.