Monuments to Absence: Cherokee Removal and the Contest over Southern Memory

Monuments to Absence: Cherokee Removal and the Contest over Southern Memory

Monuments to Absence: Cherokee Removal and the Contest over Southern Memory

Monuments to Absence: Cherokee Removal and the Contest over Southern Memory

Synopsis

The 1830s forced removal of Cherokees from their southeastern homeland became the most famous event in the Indian history of the American South, an episode taken to exemplify a broader experience of injustice suffered by Native peoples. In this book, Andrew Denson explores the public memory of Cherokee removal through an examination of memorials, historic sites, and tourist attractions dating from the early twentieth century to the present. White southerners, Denson argues, embraced the Trail of Tears as a story of Indian disappearance. Commemorating Cherokee removal affirmed white possession of southern places, while granting them the moral satisfaction of acknowledging past wrongs. During segregation and the struggle over black civil rights, removal memorials reinforced whites' authority to define the South's past and present. Cherokees, however, proved capable of repossessing the removal memory, using it for their own purposes during a time of crucial transformation in tribal politics and U.S. Indian policy. In considering these representations of removal, Denson brings commemoration of the Indian past into the broader discussion of race and memory in the South.

Excerpt

This book began with tourism. In the summer of 1994, a friend and I drove from Bloomington, Indiana, where I attended graduate school, to Florida for a short vacation. As we sped along Interstate 75 through northern Georgia, I spotted a brown roadside sign announcing that, at the next exit, we would find New Echota, a state historic site interpreting the history of the Cherokee Nation. For a brief time in the early nineteenth century, New Echota was the Cherokee capital, the seat of the national government created by tribal leaders in the 1820s. The Cherokee National Council met at New Echota in the years prior to removal, and it was the site of the Cherokee Supreme Court. During a time when the United States and the state of Georgia pressured Cherokees to emigrate to the West, the new capital represented the Cherokees’ determination to remain in their homeland. It was also the place where, in late 1835, a small group of tribal leaders signed the treaty under which the United States forced the Cherokee Nation to remove. I had recently become interested in the history of Cherokee sovereignty and nationhood, and I concluded that I should probably know about this heritage attraction. We pulled off the highway and followed the signs to the site.

New Echota turned out to be an elaborate reconstruction of the antebellum Cherokee town, spread across a wide meadow near the Coosawatee River. Touring the site, we visited buildings representing the Cherokee Council House and Supreme Court, as well as a model Cherokee farmstead. New Echota included a reconstruction of the office of the Nation’s bilingual newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, complete with a period printing press. It also contained two original structures, a tavern that once belonged to the Cherokee Vann family and the home of Samuel Worcester, a missionary who operated out of New Echota and helped to establish the Phoenix. Finally, there was a small museum where exhibits explained the history of the site and recounted the story of Cherokee removal.

Earlier that year, in a seminar on public history, I had first encountered literature on southern memory, academic work that explored the social and political uses of commemoration in the American South. As we toured New Echota I wondered about the context for the creation of the site. Who came . . .

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