Tuesday, December 2, 2014
December 2, 2014: AmericanWinters: The Trail of Tears
[As we get closer to what some are predicting will be another rough winter, a series AmericanStudying significant winter events from our history. Leading up to a special weekend post on Pearl Harbor!]
On ways to remember, and ways to move beyond, a horrific winter tragedy.
Compared to their coverage of virtually any other source of national shame, I would say that educational textbooks and materials devote quite a bit of specific attention to the Trail of Tears. As usual, a claim like this is based on my dim and fading memories of history texts from (say) middle school, but then again that only adds to the point—in the late 1980s, at a relatively early point in the multicultural revisions of the teaching of American history and culture, my textbooks dwelt at length and in depth on the tragic and destructive effects of Jackson’s Indian Removal policies on the Cherokee. More than slavery (which in my recollection, at that level, was dealt with in general but relatively vague ways that didn’t do nearly enough to capture the realities of that multi-century American tragedy), and much more than shameful episodes like the lynching epidemic or the Japanese Internment (which I’m pretty sure weren’t included at all), the section on the Trail included specific numbers and evocative details, really driving home the brutality and horror of this 800-mile forced winter march from Georgia to Oklahoma, by the end of which nearly a quarter of the more than 16,000 Cherokee had died.
Anyone familiar with the rhythms of my posts can probably sense the “but” coming, and there is one, or actually two. But first let me stress that if indeed the majority of American schoolchildren have for at least a couple decades been reading about the Trail of Tears from a relatively early point in their educations, then that’s a positive and meaningful thing. I do think, though, that an emphasis on the Trail itself (while understandable given its extreme and tragic, and thus very compelling, nature) elides two complex and important contexts for the event, both of which would add even more to our individual and communal understandings of it and our history overall. For one thing, it would be crucial to stress just how fully the Cherokee had worked by the early 19th century to combine their traditional identities and practices with more modern and (in the dominant American narratives) “civilized” ones. This was a nation that, among many other things, had developed a written alphabet and was by the 1820s publishing its own newspaper and translation of the Bible; that had developed a multi-faceted representative form of government, including a two-tiered legislature that held regular meetings; that had since the Revolutionary era been practicing subsistence farming on individually operated plots of land; and that had sent a number of warriors to fight for Andrew Jackson (!) in his critical War of 1812 victory at New Orleans. Certainly many Cherokee leaders and activists (and tribal members generally) disagreed with some or all of these efforts, and that only adds to the complexity and significance of this context: this was a nation actively engaged with the questions of what their relationship to broader American identities entailed and what that would mean for their communal future.
While knowing those details would complicate any simplistic categorization of the Cherokee as either Vanishing Americans or noble savages (two of the less bigoted but still entirely mythic and elegiac images of Native Americans that were present in the era and have continued to an extent into our own), they might still lead to an emphasis on the nation as solely or centrally victims. But the second complex context, the Memorials that the Cherokee Council prepared for Congress in protest of the Removal policy, makes clear just how strong and impressive their voices and arguments were throughout these years. The Memorials were most certainly written with their specific audience in mind, and so they pay the necessary deference to the power of the US government and “the virtuous, intelligent, and Christian nation” that it represents. Yet they also make clear just how fully and successfully the Cherokee had come by this moment to an identity that was at one and the same time deeply tied to their traditions and history and profoundly modern and forward-thinking; both of those characteristics are highlighted by two sentences from the linked Memorial’s final paragraph: “To the land of which we are now in possession we are attached—it is our fathers’ gift—it contains their ashes—it is the land of our nativity, and the land of our intellectual birth. … We do moreover protest against the arbitrary measures of our neighbor, the state of Georgia, in her attempt to extend her laws over us, in surveying our lands without our consent and in direct opposition to treaties and the intercourse law of the United States, and interfering with our municipal regulations in such a manner as to derange the regular operations of our own laws.”
The Memorials did not prevent Jackson and his successor Van Buren from carrying out the policy of Removal, although they may well have contributed to the Supreme Court’s (under Chief Justice John Marshall) strong endorsement of the Cherokee’s position and rights. Nor did the Cherokee’s transformed and hybrid identity and community make the Trail of Tears any less horrific or tragic. We should thus most certainly continue to learn from an early age about Removal’s shameful and brutal effects. But if we learn at the same time about this very complex early 19th century American community, and about the inspiring documents through which they voiced their perspectives and identities, we’d have a much more rich and meaningful picture not only of the tragedy, but of the Americans to whom it happened and what we can learn from them. Next AmericanWinter tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other winter events you’d highlight?