Houston & Native Americans

Native AmericansUse of the words "Native American" is more than a late-20th Century effort at political correctness. That description of the people we have also called "Indians" and "American Indians" was used in 1828 by no less than a Cherokee chief.

Although they have only recently become popular, the words "native Americans" were used by Chief Oo-loo-te-ka to describe the culture that flourished here when America was "discovered" and settled by white immigrants.

Chief Oo-loo-te-ka was also Sam Houston's adoptive father, the man most responsible for Houston's personal traits that we so admire--his bravery, his oratorical skills, and his leadership. These he likely acquired or at least honed in Cherokee communities and at the feet of the wise Cherokee leader.

When the agreement was signed in 1828 to move the Georgia Cherokees to the west, Oo-loo-te-ka urged that they join him and those who had already moved and to become what he hoped would be an independent tribal nation. He wrote:

"Instead of being remnants & scattered we should become the United Tribes of America...(and) preserve the sinking race of native Americans from extinction."

Houston's relationship with Oo-loo-te-ka had begun almost two decades earlier, in an age in which native Americans were treated as sub-humans.

"To kill an Indian was a public-spirited act;" wrote Marquis James in his 1929 biography "The Raven," "to swindle one, the exercise of common sense."

With an independence which would later prompt him to be described as a "statesman," (although some have speculated that as a boy it was laziness), the 16-year-old Houston ran away to live with a band of 300 Cherokees. His own father had died when he was 13. He was adopted by Chief Oo-loo-te-ka and given the Cherokee name "Co-lo-neh"--The Raven.

Different authors have used different spellings for Houston's mentor and his nickname. James wrote them as they have been spelled here. Marshall De Bruhl, in "Sword of San Jacinto," spelled the names "Ooleteka" and "Kalanu." Chief Oo-loo-te-ka was also known as John Jolly.

Later Houston described this period of his life, referring to himself in the third person as native Americans often did:

"Houston has seen nearly all in life there is to live for and yet he has been heard to say that when he looks back over the waste...there's nothing half so sweet to remember as this sojourn he made among the untutored children of the forest."

After Houston's heroic conduct at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, he was named an Indian sub-agent in Tennessee. He accompanied a delegation of Cherokees to Washington in 1818.

Houston was elected U. S. congressman and governor of Tennessee, but his failed first marriage, in 1829, sent him again to the Cherokee Nation, where he was made a Cherokee citizen.

He became influential among the Cherokee, Osage, and Creek. He lobbied the War Department for fairer dealings with those Houston called "the Red People" and simply "Indians." He operated a trading post, married a Cherokee wife, and drank heavily, earning another nickname--Oo-tse-tee Ar-dee-tah-skee, or "Big Drunk."

It was a trip to Washington with a Cherokee delegation that turned Houston's life around. An Ohio congressman accused him of dishonesty. Houston beat him with his cane and was tried for contempt before the House of Representatives. Although reprimanded, Houston was recognized for his magnificent oratory and he considered the event his personal resurrection.

Shortly thereafter he came to Texas, where he continued to remain a friend to native Americans when they could claim few others among white men. His ability to convince the Texas tribes to remain neutral in the Texas war for independence from Mexico was crucial to the Texas army's eventual success at San Jacinto.

Throughout his political career as twice president of the Republic of Texas, as U. S. Senator, and as governor, he took the side of native Americans when other Texas and national leaders would have banished them westward, or worse, had them exterminated.

"...I will punish any man who does injustice to the Indians," he wrote in 1843. "I have known them from my boyhood. They are a brave, honest, upright people."

Text by: Frank Krystyniak