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Professor’s book examines Cherokee resilience amid migration and resettlement

Monday, Sept. 28, 2015

Gregory Smithers, Ph.D.
Gregory Smithers, Ph.D.

A new book by a Virginia Commonwealth University history professor reveals how the Cherokee — one of the largest Native American tribes — dispersed around the globe.

In “The Cherokee Diaspora: An Indigenous History of Migration, Resettlement and Identity” (Yale University Press), Gregory Smithers, Ph.D., uncovers the origins of the widely scattered Cherokee people, and tells how they have maintained their heritage and cultural identity, even when far removed from the Cherokee Nation’s headquarters in Oklahoma.

Smithers, an associate professor in the Department of History in the College of Humanities and Sciences, will launch his new book on Sept. 30 from 6 to 7 p.m. at Chop Suey Books, 2913 W. Cary St. in Richmond.

What led to the Cherokee people becoming so dispersed around the world?

That’s a big question with a long and complex answer. The short answer is American colonialism and Cherokee ingenuity. To understanding the origins of the Cherokee diaspora, though, it’s important to recognize that Cherokee Country occupied a vast area of the interior Southeast that white people coveted for its rich and fertile farming land, access to navigable rivers, and mineral wealth. Gold, for example, was discovered in Georgia 1828, sparking the United States’ first gold rush.

To be fair to the Americans, European colonizers (particularly the British) recognized the strategic importance of Cherokee Country long before the American republic became a reality. But it was during the early republic that the Cherokee diaspora began to emerge. As white American settlers began pouring into the Southeast, and pressure from Indian agents (who effectively extorted Cherokee chiefs out of their land) increased, growing numbers of Cherokees fled the Southeast and settled in the Arkansas Valley, or Texas or even Northern Mexico. And then one of the greatest tragedies — and injustices — of American history occurred: the Trail of Tears.

So you could safely say that the Cherokee diaspora came into being in the context of American greed and territorial expansion. That American colonialism did not destroy the Cherokee people is testimony to the strength of will, courage and ingenuity of the Cherokee people to remain connected to family, friends and community members dispersed throughout North America and beyond.

What do you think it means to be Cherokee today, given that the Cherokee people are so widely scattered?

That’s not an easy question to answer, even for Cherokee people. There are just under 1 million people in the United States who self-identify as Cherokee. Chances are you’ll get almost as many answers to this question as there are people who identify themselves as Cherokee. In other words, being Cherokee means different things to different people. For some, it’s as simple as having “Cherokee blood.” For others, it’s about speaking the Cherokee language, practicing Cherokee cultural traditions and knowing Cherokee history. For still others, it’s about being part of a Cherokee community, whether that community happens to be in North Carolina, Oklahoma, California or elsewhere. And, for some, it’s a combination of all of these things. Cherokee identity is both complex and difficult to define. One way people of Cherokee ancestry have dealt with this difficulty is by emphasizing a collective history, a history that gives historical meaning to being Cherokee. In large part, that’s what “The Cherokee Diaspora” is about.

Why is it important for us to understand the history of Cherokee migration and resettlement?

It’s important for several reasons. First, understanding Cherokee migration and resettlement reminds us all of the fact that Cherokee people are still here and living vibrant, creative lives. Cherokee people not only live in Oklahoma or the mountains of North Carolina, they live in New York, Chicago, Toronto, San Francisco, Honolulu and scores of other cities and towns. They’re doctors, lawyers, teachers, clergymen and engineers. This reality of the Cherokee diaspora today is a product of over two centuries of Cherokee history and encounters with colonizers — be they European or white Americans. It’s also a reality that undermines racialized tropes of “authentic Indians,” the types of stereotyped images that Hollywood movies peddled for so long.

The second point I’d make is that understanding the history of Cherokee migration and resettlement highlights just how resilient, how innovative and how courageous multiple generations of Cherokee people were during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries as they nurtured families and endeavored to remain connected to widely dispersed family and friends. One of the more extraordinary, and moving, aspects of studying the history of the Cherokee diaspora is to see how Cherokee people traveled thousands of miles to visit family and friends in the century-and-a-half after the Trail of Tears, or remained vigilant about sending Cherokee kin letters. These may seem like small gestures, but they had enormous implications for Cherokee people and their sense of connectedness to distant friends and family.

What did your research entail as you explored this topic?

This research took me the best part of a decade-and-a-half to complete. I traveled to the United Kingdom, throughout North America and to Australia to research the Cherokee diaspora. I read written archival documents and I listened to the oral histories of Cherokee people. Above all I’d say that this project was the most rewarding scholarship I’ve done because I was looking to recover the stories of people whose personal histories had been forgotten, or worse, had been consigned to the status of “no longer exists.” My hope is that my book will inspire yet more research about the Cherokee diaspora.

Were you surprised by anything that you found?

Yes, I was constantly surprised. I was surprised by the lengths people went to maintain connections to other Cherokees; I was surprised and in awe of the resilience of Cherokee culture; and I was surprised by the efforts people went to prove to Cherokee or American officials (or both) that they were in fact Cherokee. One might live in Hawaii or Arizona, but it was important that people have their Cherokee identity recognized. Scores and scores of people did this during the 19th and 20th centuries. They did it not because they wanted land or money or some abstract benefit, they did it because an important part of who they were as human beings was their pride in being Cherokee. They wanted, in other words, an important piece of their humanity acknowledged.

What led you to investigate the Cherokee diaspora?

I was actually in Australia in the early 2000s doing some research on the forced migrations of Aboriginal children in early 20th-century Australia. As I was conducting that research, I noticed a curious reference to an immigration document that listed “Cherokee Meeks” and her family. It turned out the Meeks family tried to migrate and resettle in Australia during the early-20th century. I asked the archivist if I could see the document. She agreed to retrieve the document but insisted it said nothing about the Cherokee people; it was pure coincidence, I was assured, that the mother of that family happened to be named “Cherokee.” Undeterred, I began analyzing the document and I discovered that the archivist had been mistaken. In actuality, that document said a great deal about a mixed-race Cherokee family and why they made the decision to migrate to a far-flung corner of the earth. I became intrigued by this document and wondered how many other documents like it lay buried or miscataloged in archives throughout the Americas and beyond. I guess you could say that chance discovery was the beginning of a long journey to uncover documents and stories that might shed more light on Cherokee migrations since the 18th century.

What will you be working on next?

I’ve just started researching a project on water and riverine cultures in Cherokee history. It’s a story that’s taking me back to Cherokee oral traditions, colonial America, and into the present.

 

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