When I say “Trail of Tears,” can you name where the forced march began & ended? I couldn’t.
This is a two-parter. Tomorrow: white women organized against Indian removal in the 1830s. But first, Native women’s objections. They’ve been defending the land a long time.
First, the present. Rep. Deb Haaland is Laguna Pueblo and thus a 35th-generation New Mexican. She should soon be confirmed as Secretary of the Interior, making her the first Native Cabinet secretary and providing a tiny sliver of poetic justice for Native people.
But this story is about the Cherokee nation, not about the Pueblo. It is about one of many, many injustices Native people endured, and the women who objected.
Very basic background: it’s the 1810s. Cherokee and Muscogee/Creek nations have been steadily stripped of their land in the southeast. Rising cotton prices are fueling the expansion of slavery and the theft of Native land.
Some Cherokee people were slaveholders. History has no simple heroes and villains. From today’s paper.
Cherokees were under constant pressure to leave their land in Georgia and accept territory in Oklahoma as a substitute. This was a horrifying choice. Internal conflict ensued: many Cherokee leaders refused to cede land; other leaders urged moving west as the least terrible option that would preserve tribal sovereignty.
Still others thought if the tribe assimilated enough, they could hope to stay.
Cherokee culture was matrilineal & matrilocal--husbands joined their wives’ households. Women had significant political influence. In 1775 a European trader snidely observed that Cherokees “have been a long while under a petti-coat government.”
But as tribes assimilated to try and survive, they adopted white patriarchal culture. Native women’s power waned. But the tribes found that no amount of assimilation could prevent their dispossession.
In 1816, Andrew Jackson--then a military general, not yet President--pressured Cherokee men (who did not have proper consent from the tribal leadership) to sign agreements ceding 2.2 million acres of land in Alabama.
Two scholars, @Tiya Miles and Theda Perdue, describe how Cherokee women intervened to try and stop Cherokee men from relinquishing land and accepting removal proposals.
The women were led by the most revered Cherokee woman of the day.
Nancy Ward, Nanye’hi, was a revered War Mother and Beloved Mother of the tribe. In 1775 she had helped the Cherokee defeat the Creeks in battle, and subsequently led the influential Cherokee Woman’s Council. In 1817 she was in her 80s. She still had clout.
Shortly before the National Council was to convene, a group of senior women gathered with her. The petition they drafted was a message from Nancy Ward to her children--the men of the tribe. It describes accepting removal as “like destroying your mothers.” The women wrote: “Your mother and sisters ask and beg of you not to part with any more of our lands.”
It worked. Two weeks later, the Council rejected the proposed removal plan.
Still, the white state and federal governments relentlessly pressured Cherokees to give up their land. The coercion took many forms, from restrictions on how the land could be used to outright theft. Another form was pressure to accept “allotment.” What?
i.e., divvying up the land, erasing communal ownership and replacing it with individual ownership. The US government urged the Cherokee nation to accept it - private property was “civilized.” Women recognized that this was a disaster for the tribe as a whole, and women in particular.
Individual ownership would erase the property rights of married women under state law. So they objected. In 1818, Cherokee women again petitioned the National Council. “The land was given to us by the Great Spirit above as our common right…We therefore humbly petition our beloved children, the head men and warriors, to hold out to the last in support of our common rights…”
Women couldn’t ultimately prevent the loss of ancestral Cherokee land. But their objections helped slow the process.
Once Andrew Jackson became President, he forced Native people from their homes at gunpoint.