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Closing the Cherokee Chapter
How exploring the tribe's story broadened my view of Native Americans and our country
Last fall, I kicked off a series reflecting on the Cherokee tribe’s deportation from present-day Northwest Georgia, the same place I grew up 150 years later. For most of my life, the Cherokee story symbolized a tragic footnote in my understanding of Georgia’s history. The Trail of Tears felt like a distant tragedy, an event perpetrated by evil men generations ago that had little relevance to me today.
My first article shared the overarching Cherokee expulsion story, including how tribal leaders assimilated aspects of white settler culture in hopes of maintaining their land, only to meet the same fate as other tribes that fought for their land. This greed for land and control even led Georgia’s governor, George Gilmer, to imprison white American missionaries to the Cherokee, resulting in a U.S. Supreme Court case where a majority of the court ruled in favor of the Cherokee. But President Jackson and Gilmer’s successor, Wilson Lumpkin, ignored the decision and deported the Cherokees to present-day Oklahoma anyway.
Then, we fast-forwarded to 1962 when Georgia leaders held a grand opening ceremony for the New Echota State Historic Site, the former Cherokee capital. We sought to understand how they could apologize for their forefathers’ injustices against the Cherokee while at the same time ignoring injustices against black Georgians amidst the civil rights movement.
The next three articles focused on how Georgia places were named and why names matter. As it turns out, many county names in former Cherokee territory were named for men who were instrumental in the tribe’s removal, even while the rivers that traverse those counties retained some form of their indigenous names. And finally, we wrestled with what we should do about place names that no longer reflect society’s values, landing on five questions to ask ourselves when deciding whether to change a name.
Though months have passed since those articles, I couldn’t shake the feeling that one more article was needed to close that chapter. Today’s article will do that.
The more I learned about the Cherokee story, the less qualified I felt to write about it. I would peel back one layer of history and find many other strands that I never knew existed, like how the federal government split up tribal lands into private land through apportionment or how it used boarding schools to re-educate Native American children away from their families. Perhaps I’ll circle back to those themes in future articles, but today I’ll focus on my main takeaways to date.
When we step back and take a longer view of history, Native American expulsion could be viewed as the latest iteration of people groups and nations fighting each other over land, control, and supremacy. Conquest and expansion have been part of humankind since the beginning. People groups with more advanced weaponry, manpower, or luck conquered others’ land—until the day they too succumbed to another group.
Prior to European arrival on the American continent, tribes fought amongst each other, sometimes with brutal cruelty and torture, to settle conflicts, obtain food, or gain land or control. To be sure, the colonists’ arrival heightened conflict as resources became more scarce, and European nations allied with different tribes and pitted them against each other. But European arrival didn’t spark it all.
What makes the United States different from most of history is that the victors set up a republic based upon a bedrock principle that all men were created equal. They set up a playbook, the Constitution, to restrain tyrannical urges and foster ordered liberty. But, for much of our nation’s history, white citizens circumvented this principle by redefining non-white residents as a lower class—at times even subhuman—and therefore not worthy of equality. From their vantage point, indigenous people and imported Africans were either incapable of being civilized or required significant tutelage to attain white American culture. Even the Declaration of Independence follows its statement that “all men are created equal” with a passage denigrating Native Americans as “merciless Indian Savages.”
As our nation marched forward, prophetic voices like Frederick Douglass and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. cited these founding documents to confront the hypocrisy of state-sponsored racial injustice. Even before them, Cherokees like Elias Boudinot and John Ridge sought the same path to gain legitimacy for their tribe, only to fall flat in the face of state and federal governments bent on stealing their land.
From white leaders’ perspective at the time, treaties provided a more humane way for a nation to overtake lesser people groups—a compassionate imperialism that avoided bloody battles, burnt villages, and enslavement of the losing side. In addition, it provided tribes with land, albeit far away, and resources to start their new lives. From a legal perspective, tribal leaders’ signatures on the document demonstrated mutual agreement rather than forced domination. In short, American leaders could achieve the same goal of land control while minimizing bloodshed and congratulating their own “Christian” morality.
This perspective, though, ignores the reality of treaty negotiations and the subsequent treatment of Native Americans. Ongoing white settler violence and encroachment on tribal land went unpunished, leading outnumbered tribes to choose between starvation or the hope of a new land they hadn’t seen. And, government officials often bribed treaty signers with money or favorable treatment amidst their tribe’s removal. In cases where prior treaties promised U.S. government payments to the tribe, federal officials sometimes withheld disbursements as leverage to gain compliance for yet another land cession.
American expansionism didn’t stop at the Mississippi River, so moving tribes westward only kicked the can down the road for future leaders to handle. Instead of avoiding genocide, American leaders made it intergenerational.
Today, our country has progressed from the worst of its past, but the residue of that history still remains. For many of us, though, it is pushed westward to reservations, overlooked through willful ignorance, and contained to debates over whether certain sports teams should change their names. The resulting disentanglement from our lives provides fertile ground for convenient stereotypes that rob Native Americans of their dignity and inoculate us from the need to wrestle with the extent to which centuries of American anti-indigenous policies undercut them.
In my case, I’ve learned much of the Cherokee story, but there are 573 other tribes with their own stories of disease, coercion, expulsion, or separation. There are 368 treaties between the federal government and tribes, many of which are riddled with broken promises, outright bribery, and coerced signatures. The well of American injustice toward Native Americans is deep.
As I reflect on where this journey has brought me, it first forced me to lament our nation’s past, elevating the Cherokee story from a tragic footnote to a necessary building block in my understanding of Georgia’s history. And, it has elevated the Cherokee people from an abstraction of the past to a living nation of 430,000 people in present-day Oklahoma.
It also led me to gratitude for Cherokee leaders like John Ridge, Elias Boudinot, and John Ross, who called upon the founding ideals of our country to defend the rights of their people, ultimately demonstrating the hypocrisy of early American leaders. Their prophetic example and the sacrifices they made are worth remembering alongside Douglass and King.
I’m also thankful for the faith of indigenous Christians, such as Richard Twiss, Siouxsan Robinson, and Terry Wildman, who found a way to see past the polluted, white supremacist version of colonial Christianity to follow a Jesus who actually has more in common with them than their ancestors’ conquerors. They have enriched my faith journey.
The lament and gratitude shifted my attention toward Native American causes I previously ignored. Now, when I see headlines about the Cherokee Nation requesting Congress to honor the Treaty of New Echota’s promise of a non-voting Cherokee delegate, I’m disgusted that we still can’t seem to keep that promise. When I read about the current Supreme Court case on the constitutionality of the Indian Child Welfare Act, I understand the implications of whether the court views tribes as racial groups or sovereign nations. And, when I’m confronted with the challenges facing Native Americans today, I’m curious to learn from indigenous leaders creating solutions instead of assuming that I might know better.
And finally, this process has led me to wrestle with what healthy patriotism looks like—a patriotism that replaces blind loyalty with one that loves our country enough to confront its shortcomings and build a future where we live up to our founding ideals. More on that to come.
This article closes out my seven-part series about the Cherokee tribe’s expulsion from Georgia. I’d love to hear your reflections on the series—please leave a comment or send me an email. If you think others would enjoy reading along, please forward this email or share via social media. Personal recommendations are the best way to widen who reads Southbound.
On a personal note, you may have noticed a slower pace of writing over the last few months. My wife and I have started the adoption process for a third child, likely receiving him/her at some point in 2023. The adoption home study process, along with a busy season at my day job, has limited my writing time. As the unpredictability of adoption plays out next year, there may be more gaps between articles. Thank you for your continued support!