Chitto Harjo was born as Bill Harjo in 1846 near present-day Boley, Oklahoma, in what was then exclusively the Muscogee (Creek) nation after the removal of his parents with the Muscogee people from their Georgia and Alabama homelands beginning in 1832. Harjo's name derives from the Muscogee words for "snake" (pronounced "chit-toe") and a word often used as a title for Creek war leaders that translates loosely to "recklessly brave" or "brave beyond discretion" (pronounced "hah-joe"). His followers came to be called the Crazy Snakes, members of the Crazy Snake Movement (McIntosh, 1993).
Beyond his service on the federal side during the Civil War, little is known of Harjo's life until 1899 when he was selected as the speaker of the traditional ceremonial town known as Hickory Ground, a Creek ceremonial center still active in the early twenty-first century. Muscogee tradition dictates that a town's chief (or meeko) not speak for himself, but designate someone of status who has the oratorical skills to explain what the chief is thinking or feeling. This status as speaker both confirmed and heightened his status as a leader of, and speaker for, traditional people.
After the 1898 passage of the Curtis Act, which vastly magnified the powers of the federal government over American Indian affairs, Harjo vocalized the sentiment of many traditional Muscogee people that the U.S. government should uphold the 1832 treaty with the Creeks, which provided the terms for removal and also guaranteed the Creeks eternal sovereignty over their nation. The Curtis Act, however, enacted the process by which the tribe's government and courts would be abolished, as well as distributing the collective Creek land holdings to individual tribal members and then opening up the surplus land for sale.
After Hickory Ground's meeko became ill during a trip to Washington, D.C., Harjo assumed a leadership role and urged resistance to allotment and Muscogee national dissolution. As the Muscogee (Creek) Web site noted in 2005, Harjo's efforts "epitomized the view of all Muscogee people that they possessed an inherent right to govern themselves," and for Harjo "it was unimaginable that the Nation could be dissolved by a foreign government" (Muscogee (Creek) Nation, 2005, 38). In 1900, Harjo began traveling to ceremonial grounds throughout the Creek nation, openly advocating the formation of a new government and establishing new laws, some of which included the prohibition of commerce of any kind with European-Americans. Violators were subject to physical punishment by Snake enforcers.
Alarmed by the rebellious faction, the principal chief of the Creek nation, Pleasant Porter, alerted the federal government to the Crazy Snake movement and its anarchic implications. Subsequently, Harjo and about 100 of his followers were arrested by federal troops in January 1901 and imprisoned in Muskogee, but they were freed by a judge who cautioned the Snakes to cease their activities. Harjo continued his outward opposition to allotment, however, and was arrested again in 1902 with nine other Snake leaders. The group was promptly sent to federal prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
After finishing his two-year sentence, Harjo returned to Indian Territory where he reiterated, "We do not want our lands divided and each one given one hundred and sixty acres. This is the only land left to the Indians, and once he gives up this small strip of fertile land he will be no more" (1904). In 1905, Harjo traveled to Washington to meet with President Theodore Roosevelt but had no success in convincing Roosevelt to stop allotment. By 1906, a select U.S. Senate committee arrived in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to hear how the Creeks and Cherokees felt about allotment. Harjo made an eloquent but unheeded plea to the Senators, urging that the federal government not carve up the earth that was paid for by the relinquishment of Creek lands in Georgia and Alabama (Mann, 2001, 228).
Oklahoma statehood in 1907 ended any hope that the Crazy Snake movement would have any lasting effect on Creek politics, because its government was officially abolished upon creation of the forty-sixth state. Continuing to oppose the entire process of allotment, by 1909 Harjo and the Crazy Snakes created such fright throughout the lower Creek nation that all sorts of crimes were being attributed to them. In March of that year, Harjo was wounded in a shootout with law officers who had come to arrest him at his home. He escaped, however, and his disappearance led to disagreement about his final resting place. Of several reports, consensus seems to exist that he made it to the Choctaw nation, where he either died soon thereafter from his wounds or lived for about two more years before being buried in the mountains of southeastern Oklahoma.
Hugh W. Foley, Jr.
1904. "Won't Take Any Part in Matter: Interior Department Not Interested in Election of Chief of the Snake Indians." The Oklahoman, January 3.; Mann, Barbara Alice, ed. 2001. "'A Man of Misery': Chitto Harjo and the Senate Select Committee on Oklahoma Statehood," in Mann, ed. Native American Speakers of the Eastern Woodlands, 197–228. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.; McIntosh, Kenneth Waldo. 1993. Chitto Harjo, the Crazy Snakes and the Birth of Indian Political Activism in the Twentieth Century. Ph.D. dissertation, Texas Christian University.; Muscogee (Creek) Nation. "History," Available at: http://www.muscogeenation-nsn.gov. Accessed May 30, 2005.