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

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

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

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

Synopsis

Demanding the Cherokee Nation examines nineteenth-century Cherokee political rhetoric to address an enigma in American Indian history: the contradiction between the sovereignty of Indian nations and the political weakness of Indian communities. Making use of 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, that at best the Indian nation was a transitional state for Native people on the way to assimilation. As Denson shows, however, Cherokee leaders found 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. In particular, Cherokees in several ways found new justification for Indian nationhood in American industrialization.

Excerpt

Andrew Denson's study, based largely on Cherokee memorials to Congress, presents the Cherokee Nation's conception of United States Indian policy in the nineteenth century. The Cherokees recognized that while their sovereignty predated the United States, it also depended on United States policy, so they devised a plan whereby the Cherokees could retain political sovereignty while furthering the pacification and acculturation goals of U.S. policy makers. We do not normally think of “intellectual history” encompassing Indians, but Denson has taken Cherokee arguments seriously, interpreted them as a systematic philosophy of government, and presented them as a viable alternative to the destructive policy of allotment and de-tribalization that the United States ultimately adopted. As he notes in his introduction, he is the first scholar to pay serious attention to the Cherokee position on Reconstruction, economic development, territorialization, and allotment, except as resistance, and in the process he reveals a level of political sophistication that no other scholar has attributed to Native peoples, not even the Cherokees. He admirably contextualizes Cherokee political philosophy, placing it in the broader history of an industrializing America obsessed with political corruption. And he examines its expression in two very different but ultimately connected events, the Okmulgee Council and the International Indian Fairs. Carefully argued and beautifully written, this study is a welcome addition to “Indians of the Southeast.”

Theda Perdue Michael Green . . .

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