A history scholar collects first-person accounts of the history of the Cherokee people, revealing a troubled but proud history through the eyes of its women.
In her spirited and well-sourced collection, Johnston (History and American Studies/Eckerd Coll.; My Father’s War: Fighting with the Buffalo Soldiers in World War II, 2012, etc.) unfolds history through the voices of people who remembered terrible events ranging from the cataclysmic effects of legislation like the Dawes Act to the ethnic cleansing of the Trail of Tears to the bloody cost of the American Civil War, finally reaching the rejuvenation of these proud people under the leadership of great chiefs like Wilma Mankiller. Beginning with the Cherokee creation myths, the book moves quickly to examine the flawed observations of Western explorers starting in the early 17th century. The great crisis arrived in the form of the United States government’s “civilization program,” as captured by the Cherokee woman Wahnenauhi (“Over-There-They-Just-Arrived-With-It”): “They could almost hear the reproaches and wailings of the dear dead as they were leaving. How must these Chiefs decide for their people? No wonder it seemed that Despair in its thickest blackness had settled down and unfolded in gloom this assemblage of brave and true hearted Patriots.” Johnston excerpts some of the accounts from a Works Projects Administration program in the 1920s to capture the history of the Native American people of North America. In one, a woman remembers her mother telling her the story of a soldier who murdered a baby who wouldn’t stop crying. The book also reveals how the rather warped European attitudes about topics like sex, power and responsibility changed the Cherokee people, deeply diminishing the power of women under challenges from a white, patriarchal society. Only in the 20th century have women finally been able to reassert themselves and take their fair and equal role as leaders of their culture.
An academic account that respectfully resurrects long-dead voices from a people who still have a lot to tell us.