Demanding the Cherokee Nation: Indian Autonomy and American Culture, 1830-1900

Demanding the Cherokee Nation: Indian Autonomy and American Culture, 1830-1900

by Andrew Denson


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Demanding the Cherokee Nation: Indian Autonomy and American Culture, 1830-1900 by Andrew Denson

Demanding the Cherokee Nation examines nineteenth-century Cherokee political rhetoric in reassessing an enigma in American Indian history: the contradiction between the sovereignty of Indian nations and the political weakness of Indian communities. Drawing from a rich collection of petitions, appeals, newspaper editorials, and other public records, Andrew Denson describes the ways in which Cherokees represented their people and their nation to non-Indians after their forced removal to Indian Territory in the 1830s. He argues that Cherokee writings on nationhood document a decades-long effort by tribal leaders to find a new model for American Indian relations in which Indian nations could coexist with a modernizing United States.

Most non-Natives in the nineteenth century assumed that American development and progress necessitated the end of tribal autonomy, and that at best the Indian nation was a transitional state for Native people on the path to assimilation. As Denson shows, however, Cherokee leaders articulated a variety of ways in which the Indian nation, as they defined it, belonged in the modern world. Tribal leaders responded to developments in the United States and adapted their defense of Indian autonomy to the great changes transforming American life in the middle and late nineteenth century, notably also providing cogent new justification for Indian nationhood within the context of emergent American industrialization.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803217263
Publisher: UNP - Nebraska
Publication date: 12/01/2004
Series: Indians of the Southeast Series
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.12(d)

About the Author

Andrew Denson is an associate professor of history at Western Carolina University.

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Demanding the Cherokee Nation

Indian Autonomy and American Culture, 1830-1900
By Andrew Denson

University of Nebraska Press

Copyright © 2004 University of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.


A Cherokee Literature of Indian Nationhood

The future had looked grim for the Cherokees in early 1870 as Congress began a new session. That, at least, was the recollection of William Penn Adair, Cherokee lawyer, politician, and diplomat. Adair spent much of 1870 in Washington working as a tribal delegate, one of five official representatives sent east that year from the Indian Territory (what is today eastern Oklahoma) by the Cherokee government. In September he wrote a detailed account of his activities in the form of an open letter, printed as a pamphlet, to the Cherokee people. He recalled that when he and his fellow delegates had arrived in Washington in January, they had found the Cherokees' interests - and Indian affairs generally - in a terrible state. "Not only were the rights of the Cherokees and other Indians in great uncertainty," he explained, "but the Indian race itself was seriously threatened."

Members of Congress wanted to abolish the practice of making treaties with Indian tribes, this at a time when the Cherokees were trying to win approval for a new agreement. Some insisted that the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified a year and a half earlier, had given the Indians citizenship in the United States and that the tribes fell within state and federal jurisdiction rather than that oftheir own laws as a result. Railroad corporations building lines through the Indian Territory pushed Congress to grant them vast tracts of tribal land in obvious violation of the treaties. And most dangerous from the Cherokees' point of view, there was a developing campaign to reorganize the Indian Territory to make it a full possession of the United States. That action would involve the dismantling of the tribal governments, the extension of American law, and the opening of the territory to American settlement. All told, the advocates of these various measures amounted to what Adair called "the most formidable opposition to the Indians ever heretofore arrayed."

Yet all was not lost, Adair explained. He and the other representatives found that many in Washington were in fact sympathetic to the Indians and wanted to behave properly toward them. American authorities were simply misinformed about the treaties and the Indians' needs and desires. That was a situation that the delegates could rectify. As Adair reported in his letter: "In order to enlighten this friendly influence on the Indian question, so that we might secure its valuable aid in our behalf, (which I am happy to say we did,) our delegation spread broadcast before all branches of the Government and before the people, memorials and documents, which in turn were taken up by the press. We also visited the cities of New York and Baltimore, and delivered addresses before the people, which were kindly noticed by the press." The delegates, in other words, lobbied Congress and the president and mounted a public-relations campaign in favor of maintaining the existing state of Indian affairs. They corrected the opinions of well-meaning whites and by doing so "defeated the many schemes used by our opponents to destroy our existence" - at least for the time being. "The storm that threatened the Indians [during the] last session of Congress has been diverted," Adair concluded, "yet it may probably return again at the next session with increased fury."

This is a study of the "memorials and documents" broadcast by Cherokees like Adair in the nineteenth century, an analysis of the public statements that tribal spokesmen produced in their efforts to persuade the "friendly influence" in America. I take up a series of political issues, beginning with the removal crisis of the 1820s and 1830s but emphasizing the period after the Trail of Tears. For each case, I describe the formal messages that tribal leaders directed at the American government and public, explaining what chiefs and delegates said to non-Indians about the Cherokee Nation, Indian people, and American Indian affairs. Cherokee leaders produced a great number of these messages over the course of the century. Each year they presented formal appeals and petitions to Congress and the president. They circulated pamphlets among their allies in the United States and made speeches in American cities. They published letters and editorials in Indian and American newspapers. Some of these documents were little more than brief statements responding to a particular American policy initiative, but others were detailed discussions of Cherokee history and the tribe's dealings with the United States. Still others were extended and often quite cogent analyses not only of Cherokee affairs but of Indian relations in general. Taken together, these statements amount to a Native American political literature, a decades-long Cherokee commentary on the "Indian question."

The purpose of this literature was the defense of Indian nationhood. Cherokees produced the writings I examine as part of the long struggle to preserve their independent tribal government and the barriers between themselves and non-Indian America. Between 1810 and 1830, in one of the more famous episodes in Native American history, the Cherokees remade themselves politically, founding a constitutional republic fashioned after the United States. For the rest of the century, they defended that status against consistent and intensifying attacks by American authorities and an expanding non-Indian population. Beginning with the removal policy, which eventually sent most of the tribe to the Indian Territory, a long series of American actions undermined and finally nullified Cherokee political autonomy. There were efforts to divide the Cherokee Nation in the 1840s; hostile policies connected to the Civil War and Reconstruction; the arrival of American corporations; the campaign to make Oklahoma a United States territory; and finally the formulation and triumph of the allotment policy at the close of the century. In working against these dangers, tribal leaders consistently claimed sovereign nationhood. Even as the United States government disregarded or openly assaulted Cherokee sovereignty, and as the Cherokee country became encapsulated by non-Indian settlement and colonized by American corporations, Cherokee leaders produced formal arguments insisting that their people were citizens of a separate nation and that this was a status that Americans were bound to respect.

Historians of the Cherokees have amply recounted the struggle for sovereignty; however, they have made poor use of the Cherokees' petitions and appeals. Most cite a handful of these documents, with scholars drawing from the memorials examples of tribal leaders' eloquence and evidence of Cherokee opposition to federal initiatives. But few pause to study them in any detail, and the exceptions to the rule focus on a limited period of time, namely the removal era. That neglect is understandable. The memorials did not stop removal in the 1830s or prevent the dismantling of the Cherokee Nation at century's end. Too few Americans paid attention to Cherokee leaders for the writings to have had their intended effect. If one's goal is to examine how and why the nineteenth-century Cherokee Nation fell, the public messages are not terribly helpful. By the same token, the writings offer little in the way of reliable social and cultural information about the Cherokees. Tribal leaders frequently described their people in the memorials, but they created selective, idealized, and at times simply inaccurate pictures designed to support their political positions. The writings are quite barren when it comes to social history.

Yet if the memorials say little about the Cherokees, they deserve attention as a record of what certain Cherokees said. The petitions and appeals represent a Native American contribution to the nineteenth-century debates over Indian affairs. Cherokee leaders closely followed those debates and entered them, forming their own ideas of what constituted proper relations. While their arguments ultimately went unheeded, they belong in our histories of the Indian question no less than do the positions of federal officials and eastern philanthropists (many of whom, after all, knew much less about Indian affairs than did tribal leaders). The historical literature on Indian policy and on Americans' long conversation about the nature and fate of Indian people focuses almost exclusively on what whites had to say. But Cherokees (and members of other tribes, I suspect) analyzed Indian policy for themselves and participated in that conversation. Their petitions and appeals provide an opportunity to return one set of Indian voices to its rightful place.

In addition, the Cherokee memorials, since they deal with nationhood, invite one to explore an important paradox in Native American history - the contradiction between the sovereignty of Indian nations and the political weakness of Indian peoples. This is one of the central issues in the history of American Indian affairs. The United States both recognized Native American peoples as autonomous communities enjoying an existence that predated the republic and identified them as dependent subjects of the federal government. The continent, by right, belonged to the United States, but Native Americans possessed rights as its original occupants. The Indian question in the nineteenth century often amounted to the problem of how to resolve that contradiction. To put it more accurately, how was the United States to gain possession of the continent without resorting to naked conquest and fraud? By the 1890s the answer that American policy makers and "friends of the Indian" had formulated was to eliminate the sovereignty side of the paradox. According to this view, Indian people were not citizens of separate nations but wards of the federal government. The United States's duty toward them was to break up the tribes and draw their members as individuals into the American population. The rights of Native Americans were reduced to the right to be protected and educated by non-Indian guardians until they were ready to merge with the broader populace. This was the solution enshrined in the allotment policy and assimilation campaign.

Cherokee leaders understood their people's contradictory position. They recognized that the survival of the Cherokee Nation required the cooperation of the United States - a situation that can hardly be said to have represented full sovereignty. But they rejected for their people the role of government wards. Even as American policy reduced them to the status of federal stepchildren, Cherokee leaders labored to convince white Americans that there could be a better answer to the Indian question. Their writings on nationhood document an effort to find an alternative to wardship as the basis for Indian-American relations.

Finally, the memorials are fascinating as the product of a Cherokee analysis of non-Indian America. In demanding the nation, Cherokees not only reminded their neighbors of tribal rights and treaty promises but tried to explain to them that the Indian nation was compatible with an expanding modern United States. Most of their audience assumed that American development and progress necessitated the end of tribal autonomy. At best, the Indian nation was a transitional state, a stopover for Native people on the way to assimilation. Tribal leaders, however, found a variety of ways in which Indian autonomy, as they defined it, belonged in the world that Americans were creating. In particular, they found new reasons for Indian nationhood in the industrialization of the American economy. While many in the United States saw the Indian nation as a doomed relic, Cherokee leaders were able to imagine a modern future for it. Some, in fact, suggested that the nation was the key to modernity for Native people, the thing that would allow Indians to reap the benefits of the late nineteenth century's tumultuous change while protecting them from its perils. Anything but an anachronism, the nation would make it possible for Cherokees and other Native people to participate in modern life, because it would give them the power to choose the terms of their participation.

One way to read this book is as a study of resistance, one of the central topics of the literature on the Native American past. The memorials, after all, were meant to keep the government and people of the United States at bay. They reflect a century of opposition to federal policy and American expansion. But the writings also form a record of Cherokee engagement with non-Indian America, and this, I think, is their more interesting and vital aspect. As a matter of political survival, tribal leaders continually observed and listened to Americans. They scrutinized their powerful neighbors' politics and culture for arguments in favor of Indian nationhood. They not only opposed American initiatives but attempted to make policy, to imagine a more acceptable version of American Indian affairs. Resistance, in this case, involved an ongoing process of interpretation of the people and forces opposed. It is that process, and not simply resistance in and of itself, that I want to examine.

I begin with a review of Cherokee removal. Historians have explained the policy and the Cherokees' response many times, so I do not attempt an exhaustive account here. In fighting removal, however, tribal leaders adopted some of the basic themes that, in one form or another, would recur in Cherokee writings throughout the rest of the century. In the first chapter I identify those themes and then discuss continuity and change in Cherokee political language between the 1830s and the years immediately following the Trail of Tears. The study then jumps forward to examine several issues in the post - Civil War period: the Reconstruction process in the Indian Territory, in which Cherokee leaders worked to reestablish their people as a sovereign nation; the rise and fall of the "peace policy," now a mostly forgotten initiative, but a policy that loomed large in the thinking of Cherokee leaders; and the penetration of the Indian Territory by American railroads, a source of much anxiety in the 1870s and 1880s and a topic that inspired some of the most interesting Cherokee writing. Along the way, there are chapters on the General Council of the Indian Territory and the Indian International Fair, institutions through which (as I argue) Cherokees and other Native people acted out their conceptions of proper Indian relations. The book concludes with a chapter on allotment - its rise to become the dominant Indian policy, and the Cherokees' effort to find an alternative to it. Together, these cases allow me to describe Cherokee messages to America over a long period of time and in a number of different contexts.

At various points in these chapters, my focus shifts from the Cherokee Nation to developments in the United States that were not directly related to Indian affairs. I use elements of American studies literature on modernization to draw connections between Cherokee political language and broader issues in nineteenth-century American culture. In particular, these sections show the influence of scholars like Alan Trachtenberg, who explores the cultural rifts and anxieties brought by the rise of the modern corporation. To some, these shifts may seem like digressions. My intent, however, is to examine the ways in which Cherokees' political discourse responded to the changes occurring within the culture of their audience. Moreover, making these connections allows me to bring a set of Native American subjects and stories into several of the larger narratives of nineteenth-century United States history.


Excerpted from Demanding the Cherokee Nation by Andrew Denson Copyright © 2004 by University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission.
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