A sweeping new history of American Indians in the Southeast moves beyond the stereotypes and clichés

At left, a portrait of a man in a white shirt. At left, a book cover reading "native souther...
Gregory Smithers' new book is a sweeping narrative of American Indian history in the Southeast. (Courtesy photos)

In “Native Southerners: Indigenous History from Origins to Removal,” Virginia Commonwealth University historian Gregory D. Smithers, Ph.D., provides a sweeping narrative of American Indian history in the Southeast from the time before European colonialism to the Trail of Tears and beyond.

The book, which will be released March 28, tells the stories of the indigenous people — such as the Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, Chickasaw and Choctaw, as well as smaller Native American communities like the Nottoway, Occaneechi, Haliwa-Saponi, Catawba, Biloxi-Chitimacha, Natchez and Caddo — living in territory reaching from modern-day Louisiana and Arkansas to the Atlantic coast, and from present-day Tennessee and Kentucky through Florida.

Smithers, a professor in the Department of History in the College of Humanities and Sciences, recently discussed his new book with VCU News.

What did you set out to achieve with “Native Southerners”?

“Native Southerners” tells the stories of indigenous communities in what is today the southeastern United States. It’s a history that emerged from previous scholarship and my teaching here at VCU. I teach a class on the Native South and the students who enroll in this course always impress me with their keen insights and engaging discussions. Those conversations revealed to me how students are most engaged when our teaching is directly informed by our research. I’d provide students with archival documents, printed primary sources and the range of materials that professional historians use to craft historical narratives. In doing this, I found students wanting to know more. They asked really smart questions and developed insightful analyses of the material I shared with them. But they also wanted to know more. In a way, the book I wrote was inspired by those conversations and is written for a wider audience craving historical knowledge about southeastern Native American history that moves beyond clichés and pop-culture stereotypes.

The scope of this book is sweeping, covering hundreds of years of history and involving more than a dozen Native communities. What common themes tie together the overarching story you’re telling?

Actually, the book covers tens of thousands of years. That’s what makes Native histories in the Southeast so rich and dynamic. The common thread running through the book is the importance of storytelling in Native communities. This remains true today. Oral narratives, artistic expression, religion and ceremony, and the emergence of literary traditions, connect Native Southerners to a deep history that revolves around kinship and community. And within those kinship communities, Native Southerners nurtured stories about origins, religion and politics, science and medicine, engineering, astronomy, and above all, the importance of community. Western ideas about individualism were (and remain) anathema to Native storytelling traditions that emphasized kinship communities as fundamental to identity and an enriching life.

What are the largest misconceptions that have endured about these Native communities?

Most Americans think that there are no longer indigenous people and communities in the Southeast. That’s wrong. There remain vibrant Native communities across the Southeast. The Eastern Band of Cherokee [Indians] and the Poarch Band of Creek Indians are two examples of how Native Southerners continue to nurture their history, traditions and language. At the same time, Native Southerners don’t refer to themselves in the past tense, as often happens in the broader culture. True to their storytelling traditions, Native Southerners keep their cultures and collective identities alive because they’re constantly innovating those stories and cultural traditions. That’s an indication of the continued vibrancy and creativity that exists in Indian country throughout the Southeast.

What was distinctive about Native communities in the Southeast compared to others in North America?

This is a question I focus on in the book. There are obvious things like geography and being of (and not simply from) a place that anchored Native Southerners to communal identities and helped to define a sense of distinctiveness. But there are other things. Language, kinship ties and diplomatic and trade networks were some of the other facets of life that Native people wove together to give life its meaning. They continued doing this after European invasion; in fact, Native Southerners continue renewing this distinctive sense of place and community in the 21st century.

What sort of research did this book require?

The reason I love researching and teaching the histories of Native Southerners is it allows me to be creative and try new approaches to understanding the past. So while the research for the book involved trips to archives in England and throughout the United States, I recognized a long time ago that the colonial archive is incredibly fragmented. Written sources that mention Native Southerners do so in an incomplete, idiosyncratic, and often biased, fashion. This means you can’t rely on written sources alone if you want to understand the history of the Native South. You have to turn to archaeology, linguistics, art history and anthropology if you want to paint a fuller picture for readers. Above all — and this is critical — you have to talk to Native people. The histories I write about in “Native Southerners” aren’t merely relics of the past or events with no connection to our present; they are essential to understanding the Native South today. History is alive with meaning, so talking with Native people and listening to how they narrate their histories is fundamental to the type of work I do.

In the course, and researching and writing this book, did anything you discovered surprise you?

For me, one of the most important takeaways from the research I did was how Indian removal was never inevitable. I’m always awed by Native Southerners when I go back to the archives and read how indigenous people developed incredibly sophisticated political, legal and cultural arguments against removal. Those arguments frustrated and confounded white Americans. Native Southerners disagreed about the best approach to combating removal policies, but those disagreements reflected the intellectual vitality of the Native South and how the Southeast remained Indian country despite the removal (and in some cases, genocidal) impulses of white Americans.

How does this book fit into your larger body of scholarship?

The common thread running through most of my published scholarship is Cherokee history and culture. For me, then, writing a book about the Native South in its totality was a logical extension of my previous research. This a trajectory I plan to continue with my future research as I work to place Cherokee history into larger histories of the environment and in a book I’m currently writing about two-spirit people. This gets back to what I believe is the importance of research-led teaching. The best, most inspired teaching comes from active and engaged scholarship.