Today is part two of the first chapter of Native Americans: Their Story. Yesterday I published an interview with Patrick G. Barkman, a Cherokee.

Now follows a guest post written by that same Patrick Barkman on an important part of Cherokee history… the (lead up to the) Trail of Tears.

“Therefore, my people will go into exile for lack of understanding; their men of rank will die of hunger and their masses will be parched with thirst. Therefore, the grave enlarges its appetite and opens its mouth without limit; into it will descend their nobles and masses with all their brawlers and revelers.”
–Isaiah 5:13-14

In May of 1838, seven thousand US soldiers (the bulk of the American Army at the time) arrived in New Echota in northwest Georgia under the command of General Winfield Scott. The troops scoured the hills and valleys of Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama, arriving at small log cabins and tidy farms. There, they forced families from their dinner tables at bayonet point, captured children at play and men in the field, separating them and herding them into concentration camps. The prisoners (for that is what they were, even though none had committed a crime) were not allowed any but a few meager possessions, what they could carry on their backs. Behind the soldiers came a drunken mob of looters occasionally called the “militia,” to steal what remained, burn down the cabins, and even dig up the graves of ancestors to strip the corpses of gold and jewelry. In the camps, women, children and the elderly slept on the cold ground. The food was scarce and the water, tainted. Disease soon spread. These refugees, victims of the first, but sadly not the last major ethnic cleansing in American history, were the A Ni Yv Wi Ya, the Principal People, better known as the Tsa La Gi—the Cherokee. They were about to walk Ge Tsi Ka Hv Da A Ne Gv I, the Trail of Tears, solely because they had the temerity to be Indians living on land white people desired.

The Cherokee, along with the Muscogee (Creek), the Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole, other victims of Removal, are sometimes referred to as the “Five Civilized Tribes,” a particularly galling term, given what was done to them. “Civilized,” in this sense meant “acting like white people.” The Cherokee gave up traditional hunting for farming and herding. Some (like James Vann) became wealthy plantation owners and bought and sold black slaves. While they backed Britain during the American Revolution, the Cherokee actually fought for the United States during the War of 1812. Had they listened to the great Shawnee warrior Tecumseh in 1811 and joined his alliance with the English, American history would have been very different. Legend has it that at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814, a Cherokee chief named Junaluska saved the life of an obscure backwoods Tennessee lawyer and politician-general named Andrew Jackson. Junaluska said later that if he had known what Jackson, known as Sharp Knife, would do later, he would have killed him himself. In 1821, the Cherokee genius Sequoyah did what no Indian, indeed no single person in history, had ever done: invent a written language. A written constitution was adopted in 1827, one which required belief in the Christian God as a prerequisite for office, but which was otherwise modeled on the US Constitution, which had in turn been modeled on the Iroquois League, the ancestors of the Cherokee. The first-ever Indian language newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, began publishing in 1828; it is still published today.

Sharp Knife (who was elected President in 1828, thanks to the fame the Cherokee brought him at Horseshoe Bend) and Georgia didn’t care. They wanted the land, especially after gold was found, and they wanted the Indians gone. Georgia in particular was willing to do anything to get it, including abolish democracy. Freedom of speech was done away with; anyone who argued that the Cherokee should be allowed to keep their homes would be imprisoned. Freedom of religion was denied; Samuel Worcester, missionary, was arrested for daring to minister in the Cherokee Nation. Bands of white “surveyors” and bandits roamed freely, dividing off land already owned and occupied to be given away by government lottery to white men. Unlike the Creek and the Seminole, the “civilized” Cherokee did not fight. They did what “civilized” people do; they hired lawyers. William Wirt, former Attorney General of the United States, argued the Cherokee’s case before the US Supreme Court. The Cherokee won; Georgia’s actions, wrote Chief Justice John Marshall, were “repugnant to the Constitution.” It still didn’t matter. For the first time, but unfortunately not the last, a President decided he was above the law. Marshall has made his decision, Jackson said, now let him enforce it. The lawful, duly-elected government of the Cherokee Nation refused to sign a removal treaty, so the government found a group of Cherokee who would, despite their lack of authority. The “Treaty of New Echota” was signed in 1835. Major Ridge, the greatest orator of the tribe, who fought beside Sharp Knife at Horseshoe Bend, and who had insisted on a new Cherokee law that mandated the death penalty for those who gave away tribal land, said at the time that he was signing his own death warrant. He, his son John Ridge, and his nephew Elias Boudinot, editor of the Phoenix, would all be assassinated for their part in the treaty.

And so the Cherokee were driven like cattle through Tennessee and Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas to the Indian Territory, where land was granted to them “forever” (or until 1907, when the US government would unilaterally abolish the tribal government and give most of their land to white people). Weather, disease and starvation killed at least 4,000, perhaps twice that. The Trail is littered with their unmarked graves. And yet, like the literal translation of Cherokee Phoenix, Tsa-la-gi Tsu-le-hi-sah-nuh-hi, “the Cherokee will rise again.” Today, the Cherokee (in Oklahoma and in the hills of North Carolina, where through the efforts of the white man William H. Thomas, a remnant never left) are the second largest tribe in America. On March 11, my family and I were at Pea Ridge National Military Park in northern Arkansas. There, with maybe 200 others, led by Principal Chief Chad Smith, we walked part of the Trail of Tears. A threatened storm blew in and the rain began to fall on us as we walked the path through the bare trees, gently at first, then more insistently. By the time we reached the park headquarters, rain and hail came in blinding horizontal sheets. The doors blew open and the panoramic window quivered ominously. And then, in an instant, it stopped. The sun shone through for the first time all day. The Cherokee will rise again.

Michael van der Galien
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Copyright 2007 The Moderate Voice
  • Great series, MvdG. I’ll be reading all week (or however long this series is going to be). History is NEVER wrong. But we want to keep repeating it. So sad, man. 🙁

  • I don’t believe nobody is commenting on this. *smh* 🙁

  • No offense to white Americans (some of my best friends are white!) but they generally do not like to talk about Native American history. I think it makes them uncomfortable. And when they do discuss it, many get predictably defensive and use a series of generic arguments to deny that White America owes Indians anything.

  • C.P.: never forget that most people just read posts. The far, far, far majority of readers does NOT comment. The funny thing is… I do get e-mails and…. most e-mails are about posts that do not get a lot of comments. I find it strange but that is life I suppose. Center of Attention: get a lot of e-mails on it, same goes for literary quote of the day and this series is giving me some emails as well.

    Anyway: I agree with Patrick… that also explains why the entire contemporary problem with native americans is still largely being ignored… talking about it confronts one automatically with the ugly truth of history.

  • CStanley

    Very good article, Patrick.

    CP and Local Crank: I just don’t have much to add after our discussion yesterday.

  • Pyst

    Card carrying member of the Echota Cherokee, and glad to see you post this MvdG. Not all of us (Cherokee) were sent West btw, many of my Cherokee relatives remained in Alabama and Mississippi. The Creek, Chotaw, and Chickasaw were removed almost totally though.

  • Sam

    It is a good article, but frankly I view it as I do slavery. It happened a really long time ago and its hard to get worked up about it. Its before my family even got to this country. History is replete with nations screwing other people over, and as far as I can tell all modern nations were founded on blood and conquest. I look at it with the distaste I view the roman slavery and gladiator combats, but that’s about it.

    No one alive has lived thru those events, and it is merely history to me.

  • CP and Local Crank: I just don’t have much to add after our discussion yesterday.

    you needn’t say more, C. you more than said enough! 🙂
    the smokeys would make a good fall trip, IMO (i love the changing tree colors in the fall and the blue ridge parkway…A-1 i hear at that time of year)

  • “No one alive has lived thru those events, and it is merely history to me.”

    Those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it…

  • Sam

    “Those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it…”

    First off, I am not saying we shouldn’t learn about history. I’m a huge fan of it. Second, learning about it doesn’t prevent you from repeating it. Examples:

    – After WWI the French created a trench system so massive it would deter attacks from Germany forever. They used the lessons of the Great War to dictate strategy. This failed to prevent a German attack and caused them to be overrun in short order because it didn’t take into account the change in offensive technologies

    – Conversion from a worldly engaged international policy to a conservative “we know best and work best alone” policy has preceeded the downfall of all great empires. China, Roman, England, you name it. Yet that cycle continues unabated

    – Stone age cultures that sit on land wanted by a more militarily advanced culture are wiped out 100% of the time. This also continues to this day.

    History is just history. The fundamental nature of man, inbred in us by nature itself, assures that we will continue to fight and struggle and grow to the best of our ability even if that leads to catastrophe.

  • “- Stone age cultures that sit on land wanted by a more militarily advanced culture are wiped out 100% of the time. This also continues to this day. ”

    There were no “stone age cultures” in North America in 1492. Just so you know. And bows and arrows had a longer range and were more accurate that the firearms of 1492. If not for smallpox and other diseases, European invaders would likely have been wiped out by the Indians (and they still almost were, even with the diseases).

    And you were the one that dismissed this as “merely history,” not me.

  • Sam

    Stone Age may be incorrect, but primitive. At least 1000 years behind 15th century Europe, often more. Certainly lacking in metal use, specifically in the use of warfare. Disease or not European military was hugely dominant even against much larger forces with home turf advantage. And when it comes down to it is there really any other yardstick in history than military, discovery and economic dominance?

  • “Stone Age may be incorrect, but primitive. At least 1000 years behind 15th century Europe, often more.”

    Really? That’s funny seeing as how North and South America had a larger population than Europe in the 15th Century, the largest cities on Earth were in the Western Hemisphere, the largest land empire on Earth was in the Western Hemisphere, and the Indians ate better, were healthier and lived longer than Europeans at the time. And how exactly was European military “hugely dominant” “disease or not”? Try having 90% of your population killed off and then fight off an invasion. And even then it took Europeans 400 years to subdue all the “primitive” tribes. And, as I pointed out before, the Indians bows and arrows had a better range and were more accurate than comporable hand-held firearms of the time. And the Plains Indians became the greatest horse warriors in human history. Besides which, even if the Indians were all “stone age” buck-naked primitives living in caves, what does that have to with the Europeans taking all their land?

  • Sam

    “And how exactly was European military “hugely dominantâ€? “disease or notâ€?”

    Well, one of many many examples is Hernado Cortes’ capture of the Aztec capital with 600 men. He was to put it lightly, very outnumbered. This was before disease had ravaged them. Later, after splitting his forces to put off a spanish force sent to arrest him for exceeding his orders, he was forced out of Tenochtitlan only to return with 1000 men and complete his conquering of a nation of 5 million.

    I’ll certainly admit that native americans lived cleaner happier lives than europeans, but they also led cleaner happier lives than industrial age England. I don’t think that makes them more advanced. And there are some other things I usually attribute to a less advanced culture, like human sacrifice and mistaking foreigners for gods or spirits. Also, I’m pretty sure the mongols were the best horse warriors the world has ever known.

    All this has to do with human nature. Those who can take resources they feel they need do so when the opportunity presents itself. I’m speaking in terms of nations here. If you are unable to stop them, you enter the history books. Its just what happens.

  • “I’ll certainly admit that native americans lived cleaner happier lives than europeans, but they also led cleaner happier lives than industrial age England.”

    Uhm, I was talking about Europe in the 1500’s, hardly the “industrial age.”

    “I don’t think that makes them more advanced.”

    Right, because only guns make you “more advanced.”

    “And there are some other things I usually attribute to a less advanced culture, like human sacrifice and mistaking foreigners for gods or spirits.”

    Well, sure, since ALL Indian tribes practiced human sacrifice, every single solitary one of them. Mel Gibson said so. And who was burning widowed old women at the stake for being witches around this time? But I think I understand your definition of “advanced” now; anything white people did in 1492 was “advanced”; anything Indians did was “Stone Age”. Of course, I still have no idea what this has to do with the ethical or moral justification for taking all of the Indians land…
    “Also, I’m pretty sure the mongols were the best horse warriors the world has ever known.”

    Tell you what, get me an equal number of Mongols vs. an equal number of Comanche or Lakota. See who walks away.

    “If you are unable to stop them, you enter the history books. Its just what happens.”

    Soooo…what here? Indians should just shut up their whining and become extinct? The US government is under no obligation to keep its treaty obligations? What precisely is your point here?

  • Sam

    Well my first point about cleanliness was to prove that it by itself is not a standard of advancement. You seem to think that because they were cleaner and happier, they were more advanced. I used an obviously more advanced age as an example to point out that cleanliness is a poor yardstick. Advancement comes in the form of inventions, exploration, and yes, military.

    And while not all indian cultures took part in human sacrifice, I used the Aztecs as an example. They are regarded as one of the most advanced native american cultures, well beyond those in North America in terms of accomplishments and structure. And I refer to indians as “Stone Age” because their tools were made of stone, bone and wood, not metal.

    Burning women for witches and human sacrifice are not the same. One is an execution for a crime, albeit a stupid superstitious one, the other is a purely religous act. Europeans by that time were well past sacrificing to the gods for a good harvest. Live sacrifices is regarded just about everywhere as an early stage of religon common to primitive cultures.

    We’ll never know for sure if the Mongols can beat the Lakota, but given the empire they set up and the quality of the opposition they overcame, and the fact they used METAL, my money is on Genghis Khan.

    And my overall point is that while its very tragic, I can only get so worked up over something that happened before ancestors I’m too young to have met were even born. I can learn about it and I do, but that’s all.

  • “Advancement comes in the form of inventions, exploration, and yes, military.”

    Indians invented agriculture (including selective breeding, crop rotation and fertilizer), writing and mathematics (including zero, the basis for all math). For every one pyramid the Egyptians built, the Maya built 15. Indians explored the and settled the entire continents of North and South America during the same period of time in which Europeans were essentially confined to Europe. As for the military, Indians (despite losing 90% of their population to disease) still held off the European conquest for 400 years. The Mongols didn’t start out with metall, either; they got it from the Chinese.

    “Burning women for witches and human sacrifice are not the same.”

    I see. So when white europeans torture someone to death because “God demands it” that is far more advanced than if some Indians torture someone to death because “God demands it.” Your ethnocentric definition of “advanced” puts me in mind of a Douglas Adams quote, “Man has always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much…the wheel, New York, wars and so on…But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man…for precisely the same reason.â€?

    “And my overall point is that while its very tragic, I can only get so worked up over something that happened before ancestors I’m too young to have met were even born. I can learn about it and I do, but that’s all.”

    Which leads back to your initial statement that all this is “merely history” to you and my response that those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it, a point I think should be particularly well-taken given (no offense intended) your rather spotty knowledge of history (for example, confusing the Aztecs with a neolithic culture).