Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Before the South Became the South: Pre-Colonial and Colonial Geographies of Contact in Robert J. Conley's Cherokee Historical Novels

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Before the South Became the South: Pre-Colonial and Colonial Geographies of Contact in Robert J. Conley's Cherokee Historical Novels

Article excerpt

ROBERT J. CONLEY'S CHEROKEE HISTORICAL NOVELS INTERROGATE THE VERY notion of the South from the vantage point of the American Indian peoples living and traveling in that region prior to and since the European colonization of the Americas. Providing a corrective lens by which to reorient our understandings, Conley reminds us that the idea of the South was/is a constructed locus that was forcibly imposed upon the lives, cultures, traditions, and lands of those peoples who lived within and beyond the bounds of that region for tens of thousands of years. Just as the Confederate flag serves as a reminder for many African Americans of slave times in the rural South, the landscape of the South, for Native peoples, is a geographic sign of the erosion of tribal sovereignty and self-determination. Such regional constructs, even when not explicitly defined in political and socioeconomic terms, perpetuate colonial borders established by the European and, later, Euroamerican ruling powers. Even though depictions of the South represent southern agricultural subalterity within a nation whose political and economic power centers have traditionally been in the northeastern and, more recently, western states, the relative positionality of the South has been erected upon the territorial imperatives of conquest: tribal displacement, land appropriation, and the attempted annihilation of regional indigeneity.

Prior to European contact, the Americas were broadly populated by tribal peoples, most of whom lived in and around their traditional homelands. Many communities actively engaged in wide-ranging intertribal and intra-tribal trade with other communities. The extensive trade routes and lines of communication that traversed the Western Hemisphere, at times peaceably, at other times conflictually, were crossed and disrupted by the colonizing arrival of Europeans and later Euroamericans. The colonists established new borders to delineate their land appropriations as owned property, distinct from the Indian lands that were viewed as foreign wilderness to be conquered and settled. The Mason-Dixon line helped to define a region, but for the indigenous peoples whose traditional homelands included parts of "the South," the construction of this region directly contributed to the imperialist and racist tendencies of Manifest Destiny that culminated in the Civil War as colonizers fought other colonizers over the national affiliation and control of Southern lands which were and are traditional homelands for those tribes indigenous to the American Southeast.

As a storytelling corrective to the perceived and historical erasure of southern indigeneity, Conley, a Cherokee, has written twelve historical novels largely situated in what today constitutes the southeastern United States and which retell much of the history of the Cherokee people. In these works, Conley brings to bear a combination of historical study (including research into the written historical record and Cherokee oral tradition) and fictionalized storytelling as a means of relating the ways and events of his people over the course of the past five hundred years. In the Author's Note to Sequoyah (2002), he points out the importance of both traditional scholarship and oral memory to the development of a fleshed-out and accurate story about Sequoyah, the Cherokee who created a syllabic method of writing the Cherokee language: "In addition to academic research, I spent much valuable time talking about Sequoyah with knowledgeable friends, Cherokee and others"--including at least one lineal descendant of Sequoyah (217). In the Introductory Note to Cherokee Dragon, Conley explains the crafting process that translated textual and oral information into story form: "having exhausted the resources for information, I found it necessary to use a considerable amount of imagination to fill in some gaps. Such is always the case with historical fiction, but I hope that where I have done that, the depiction is true to the times and to the people. …

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