Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Cherokee Voices: Early Accounts of Cherokee Life in the East

(Image of the cover of Cherokee Voices: Accounts of Cherokee Life before 1900 by Vicki Rozema, published by John F. Blair Publisher)
So there I was, browsing the shelves of a local bookstore, not intending to buy anything in particular, just passing time really, and, as so often happens, I stumble across a tome that demanded my attention, Vicki Rozema's Cherokee Voices: Early Accounts of Cherokee Life in the East. Why did this work grab my attention so absolutely? Let me explain:

So often in our lessons (both taken as students and given as instructors) what we call "history" is hardly history at all. It is selected interpretations of events, emphasizing our someones' (ours included) goals. Inconvenient truths are consciously or unconsciously excised, left behind to emphasize the villainy or innocence of one party or another, minor events swell in their apparent importance with time (and after the "winner's editing"), and so on. Now, I hardly think that every history book writer or teacher, formal or informal, has a conscious political-economic goal set leading them to propagandize (though some certainly do). But between winners' need to justify their win (victory always being the successful domination of one or more parties through coercion, threats of coercion, or bargaining to achieve unequal goods), survivor's desires to both justify their survival and to reiterate their ancestor's value (eg. they lost but only because of rule-violation), and "-ists" of all kinds need to demonstrate the properness of their respective "-isms", well, history tends to become, well, something else.

Thus my attraction to first-materials, both for teaching and for learning. Sure, reading a book about the Constitution is sometimes a good decision, but it is a helluva' more important undertaking to read the thing itself (repeatedly, frankly) . . . not to mention its predecessors, the contemporary arguments of those who made it, and the official justifications of its passage (The Federalist Papers, if you were wondering).

This leads me to my laud for Rozema and others of her ilk. Far to rarely are first materials drawn together for easy consumption of subjects that less popular (or rather have fewer proven markets) than, say, American Constitutionalism, despite their genuine importance. Academics have a tendency to sneer at their peers who focus exclusively on such work (I have heard more than one peer refer to such collections as mere "textbook fodder"), while normal folks are rarely pushed to seek them out (especially since, if they include works in excess of 150 years old, they're generally written off as simply "hard to read," a symptom of our "write to the six-grade level" culture).

Rozema, however has chosen a tremendous subject. She collects works dating back into the early 18th Century. She concentrates on a subject (British-Cherokee and American-Cherokee political, social, and economic discourse and negotiation) that hardly has common appeal (especially since it does not concentrate on the Cherokee people as either a model of utopia or a warrior culture and certainly not as a Romantic epic). She annotates her work, but sparingly, letting it speak for itself - I wish I was half as elegant and precise. And through reading words that she "merely" found and brought together, she outlines the ever greater intersection of British-American culture with that Cherokee (as well as several other peoples), an intersection that yields tremendous truths about acculturation, assimilation, conquest, cultural preservation, and the seeds of the Cherokee people's survival in modern America (a success many, if not most, native American peoples sadly did not achieve). To say I admire this work is an understatement; I wish only that it was longer, that the picture was fuller, rounder. Oh - and I wish it had maps . . . many, many maps.

I don't want to give away too much, because this is a book that deserves to be purchased. I just want to tell you that the exchange of documents regarding the assault of Hanging Maw and his family and friends reads like shortened version of the long relationship between British and American authorities and those of the Cherokee - one of promises from well-meaning parties being unable to prevent the predations of parties damned and determined that cohabitation simply wasn't an option. It is this theme, along with that of a Cherokee people who constantly adapt to British and American political-economics at first as a way of gaining power and influence (as well as certain key goods), but who ultimately become dependent on that political-economy, rendering them essentially conquered long before their lands were entirely seized, but ironically leaving them better prepared to preserve other parts of their culture after conquest. The story, if it can be called that, is in other words complex - - - there are no simple answers, because no matter what the high school history textbooks my tutorees are issued proffer, the conquest of the native American nations cannot be summarized in half-page essays. There are untold lessons our people, our democracy, needs, both moral and practical, in these original documents, hard lessons that sanitized history simple cannot and does not teach.

In summary, this is a damn fine book - a quick read (157 pages, though the official website indicates less) that is so good that should I see an updated, expanded edition (hint hint, wink wink) I won't hesitate to buy it. But I know what you want - - - so here they come.

Publisher's Official Site

Vicki Rozema's home page

Seriously - all fancy words aside, this is a great work, not only for students of the Cherokee people, but for students of intercultural (and inter-systemic) relations in general. And, of course, for us Appalachians, it is a record of one of the most crucial junctures in our region's history.


John L. Kerns said...

Sure is good having Dr. Smith posting frequently like this...

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