The Cherokee Nation: A History, by Robert J. Conley
In reviewing this book, I feel it necessary to give a little bit of personal disclosure as to my perspective on this book . Among the more decisive aspects of my own personal background insofar as it relates to my view of this book is the fact that I am descended from renegade Cherokee who were so deeply afraid of how the government would act towards them that they hid out in caves and, to this day, carry the scars and consequences of having never come to terms with the government by signing up under the Dawes Act, which is what determines tribal identities even to this day. As both an insider and an outsider to the contents of this book, my viewpoint is likely far different from most people who will read this book, and likely to take the material far more personally than most readers will. This is the sort of book that is likely to be read, though, mostly by people who have some sort of reason to study the history of the Cherokee Nation, and there are fewer better reasons than because it happens to be part of your own background, after all. And if that is true for the reader as well, this book will likely strike the reader rather personally as well.
The contents of this book are somewhat superficial, as the author openly admits that he is not covering all of the material possible and makes several deliberate decisions throughout the book that narrow its scope and focus it on certain aspects that the reader may not find entirely pleasant. The author tackles the subject of Cherokee in a chronological fashion, beginning with an evident desire both to deny the prevailing theory of native settlement of North America via the Bering Strait, and with the extensive citation of a bizarre theory that has the Cherokee speaking an Iroquois language even as they supposedly came to the Appalachian country from South America. The author does immense work in showing the late prehistory and early history of the Cherokee and their class structure at European contact, and their early adoption of Western weapons before their first encounters with the English. The author then narrates their war with land-hungry colonists and early Americans, the legal challenges to Indian removal, the civil war within the Cherokee themselves, the Trail of Tears and its aftermath in Oklahoma, and the omnipresent threat of internal division and landgrabbing that the Cherokee nation has faced throughout its history to the present day, while also showing a certain sense of pride in the fame that Cherokee like Will Rogers and Sequoyah have received, even if there are a lot of myths about history that have been believed, and a complexity to Cherokee society that has not always been recognized, especially since many of the historical accounts come from uncomprehending and often unsympathetic European and American sources.
Despite the considerable virtues of this book in providing a perspective that is nuanced and complex and will likely be of great informational value in what people think and believe even in those areas where the reader may be skeptical, there are some faults that can be found with the author and his approach. For one, the author focuses far too much attention on the Western band of the Cherokee, and nearly entirely neglects the Eastern band Cherokee after the Trail of Tears. Additionally, the author’s focus on high politics and on the endless fights over power and political office among the Cherokee from the “one day chiefs” of the dark days of the early 1990’s to the attempted coups in more recent years and the clear problems of legitimacy within the Cherokee Nation in terms of political succession and regime stability is quite depressing, indicating the deep divides present within Cherokee society and the difficulty of maintaining dignity in the face of continual difficulty. This is not a book that is likely to make one proud of being a Cherokee, indeed one is led to be somewhat embarrassed at the spectacle presented in many of these pages, chiefs being made and unmade by political elites in Britain and the United States, murders and violence, people giving away land that belongs to others or giving into the forces for humiliating peace with the aid of liquor and bribery. The truth is not always a pleasant story, though, and the messy history presented here, as painful as it often is, often has the ring of truth.
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