As Europeans settled into American beginning in the East and then expanding westward, they not only confiscated the territories they worked on assimilating the Native American Indian people into the European culture. The video “We Shall Remain, Episode 3, Trail of Tears”, reveals the extent of the integration and loss of cultural identity of the Cherokee nation. European-Americans not only presented the arrogance that the way their lifestyle was the only civilized way to live, they compelled others to submit to their own principles and ideas. This meant that the Cherokee were encouraged to adopt the European concept of farming, their religion, their eating habits, their dress, and their viewpoint on life. The Cherokee people did not submit to this just to please the Americans but in order to retain the right to live on their own land as they had done for many generations. The ultimate integration were the marriages between the Native American people and the European settlers, leading to the intimate blending of families. This was also part of the objective stated by President Jefferson, as Cherokee Gayle Ross related in the video when he declared that eventually “they could become the equal of white people” (Trial of Tears, 6:19-6:29).
During the final decades of the 18th century, some of the Cherokee people adopted the customs of plantation owners not only by increasing their wealth through the cultivation of the land but also by engaging in the practice of owning slaves, while others tried to retain the freedom of their traditional Indian life eventually losing much of their hunting grounds. This was the ultimate ‘gift’ of the American people, as the assimilated Cherokee reproduced the European culture of class delineation which was formerly foreign to the Native American people. The freedom of using the communal property of the Cherokee nation which had existed for many generations was slowly altered, forever changing the dynamic of their culture and way of life.
The lifestyle and society of the Native American people significantly changed during the second half of the 18th Century. The most notable difference was in the oral traditions and communications of the people when in the 1810s the Cherokee Sequoyah formulated a written language for the Cherokee people, and was, once again, due to American influence. Sequoyah recognized that the written word was a powerful form of communication as it could not only travel but was also a way for his people to maintain the history of their society. Stories passed from generation to generation were preserved, traditions such as healing practices and medicines were documented, as well as the fact that foreign texts could be translated for the Cherokee people to read. This was a cohesive and fundamental basis in building the solidarity of the Cherokee people and their national council. All of these factors provided the basis for major political changes in the Cherokee nation, and it originated in the blending of the European and Native American people which produced John Ross.
John Ross was a man of integrity, honor, and with a strict moral ethic who wanted to ensure the stability, permanence, and authority of the sovereignty of Cherokee nation and their land. To achieve this objective he composed a new constitution for the Cherokee people which not only emulated the process of elections but also the political structure and organization of the American government. Defining their land as the territory of the Cherokee nation resulted in Georgia declaring that Cherokee land was actually the legal property of Georgia and to be dispersed to Americans. Ross as the Principal Chief of the Cherokee nation appealed through the court system and the United States Federal government agreed with him and officially recognized the sovereignty of the Cherokee nation. However, Georgia refused to accept the Supreme Court declaration, President Andrew Jackson also refused to support the Supreme Court decision, and he abandoned the Cherokee people to the illegal dictates of the state of Georgia. While some of the elite Cherokee, The Ridge family, believed in leaving and taking funds offered by the government, John Ross stood by the majority of the Cherokee nation, leading to a major controversy within the Cherokee council. A small faction of Cherokee illegally signed the Treaty of New Echota and a few thousand people followed the Ridge family west, yet the majority of Cherokee stayed to legally fight for their right to remain in their home. However, in 1838 the forced removal began and a heartbroken nation was forced on a journey west that a diseased summer and frozen winter ensured the death march would become known as The Trail of Tears. Nevertheless, the Cherokee people who survived the horrific journey flourished and prospered until the Civil War once again caused a split in the nation.
The Civil War split the North and the South, and once again there was dissension within the Cherokee nation. The Cherokee people divided, just as the states divided, into advocates for the North, some supporting the South, and still others who were advocating neutrality. Ross was still Principal Chief and advocated neutrality, however, when in 1861 the Cherokee National Council declared war against the United States he supported the South, although, in a turn of events Chief Ross transferred his allegiance to the North. This further divided the Cherokee nation as Stand Watie, who had originally signed the Treaty that led to the Trail of Tears, continued to support the South, and this division among the Cherokee people continued until the end of the Civil War when a new treaty was signed with the United States. Despite the betrayal of the U.S. government and the ensuing tragedies, the Cherokee nation has demonstrated its strength, durability, and resilience as it retains its sovereign status that was championed by Principal Chief Ross so long ago.
- Cherokee Nation. (2017). Retrieved October 25, 2017, from http://www.cherokee.org/
- Talbot, S. (2015). Native Nations of North America: An Indigenous Perspective. Boston: Pearson.
- W. (2014, May 16). (3) We Shall Remain – Trail of Tears. Retrieved October 24, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S8o0heHXQF8