A number of the larger tribes had adopted republican forms of government, modeled after ours in their leading features. On the first day of July, 1839, the wise men of the Cherokee nation assembled in convention, or council, to frame an organic law, or constitution, for the government of the nation. After patient and mature deliberation, they adopted a constitution essentially republican, which has now been in force for a score of years. Their government consists of the executive, legislative, and judicial departments. The executive power is lodged in a chief, an assistant-chief, and a council of five, all of whom are chosen by the people for a term of four years. The chief, under certain restrictions, may exercise a veto power. The legislature consists of a senate, composed of at least sixteen members, and an assembly of not less than twenty-four members, all to be chosen by ballot, from districts the boundaries of which are defined by law. The sessions of the legislature open annually on the first Monday of October, when each house is organized by the election of presiding officers, the necessary number of clerks and under officers. Bills are introduced and passed through both branches in parliamentary form.
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The judiciary consists of the supreme and circuit courts, and the ordinary justices of the peace. The common law of England is recognized as in the States, and the right of trial by jury is secured to every citizen.
Religious toleration is established, but no man is competent to testify as a witness in a court, or to hold a civil office, who denies the existence of God or a future state of rewards and punishments.
After the adoption of the constitution the several officers were elected by the people, and the new government went into immediate and successful operation. It is proper to state, however, that a government embracing the leading features of the present, but less perfect in its details, had been adopted by the Cherokees in the old nation east of the Mississippi.
The Choctaws soon adopted a constitution quite similar to that of the Cherokees, except that the executive power was vested in a council of chiefs, one being chosen by each district. The chiefs were equal in power, and during the sessions of the legislature, they jointly performed the duties devolving upon the executive, and, under proper restrictions, they exercised the veto power. The Choctaw capital, or grand council, was located on the Kiemichi river, above Fort Towson, south and west of the geographical center of their territory. Each district had, also, a council ground, at which elections and courts were held and other local business was transacted. The sheriffs or marshals were styled ” light-horse-men,” and to then, were committed numerous and responsible duties. They are the acting police, whose duty it is to execute the laws, arrest offenders, and execute the decrees of the courts. The chiefs serve for a term of four years; all are elected by the people viva voce.
The constitution and laws of the Choctaws are printed in both the English and native languages. In 1845 they were all contained in a single duodecimo volume of less than three hundred pages. The government is by no means complete and perfect, yet it is quite efficient in its operations. The laws are executed with a good degree of promptness. The punishments, at the time of which we write, consisted of fines, whipping, and death; and, as there were no prisons in which to confine culprits, it was a matter of honor with accused persons to appear in court and answer to charges. If a man were charged with crime, and failed to come to court, lie was stigmatized as a coward. To the high-minded Indian cowardice is worse than death. It is affirmed that a full-blooded Choctaw was never known to abscond or secrete himself to evade the sentence of the law. Even when the sentence is death he will not flee, but will stand forth and present his breast to receive the fatal balls from the rifles of the light-horsemen. A circumstance was related to us which will serve to illustrate this trait of character. Two brothers were living together, one of whom had been charged with crime, convicted, and sentenced to be executed. When the morning came on which the sentence should be carried into effect, the condemned man manifested some reluctance in meeting the light-horsemen.
The brother was both surprised and indignant. “My brother,” said he, “ you ‘fraid to die; you no good Indian; you coward; you no plenty brave. You live, take care my woman and child; I die; I no ‘fraid die; much brave!” The exchange was accordingly made; the innocent brother died while the guilty was permitted to live. This was said to have occurred before they emigrated west. In an earlier period of their history substitutes were frequently accepted, and when the guilty was not found any member of his family was liable to be arrested and made to suffer the penalty which should have been inflicted upon the criminal. The law required “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, blood for blood; but they would not execute two men for the murder of one. Two or more might be implicated, yet the death of one malefactor satisfied the demands of justice. Before the adoption of their present constitution, the injured or aggrieved party was permitted to take the case into his own hands, and to administer justice in the most summary manner; but since the organization of the new government every charge must take the form of a regular indictment, be carefully investigated, and decided in legal form.