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4/7/12

The Obituary of Nations

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The Obituary of NationsEthnic Cleansing, Memory, and the Origins of the Old Southby James Taylor Carson

What is history but the obituary of nations? U.S. Representative Richard H. Wilde of Georgia asked, as he added Cherokees and Choctaws to a roster of nationsBabylon, Nineveh, Tyre, and Carthagethat Providence had wiped from the face of the earth. Sadayi (Annie Ax), in 1888, a Cherokee whose peoplealong with the Creek, Choctaw, and Chickasaw nations were expelled and forced

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westward in the 1830s. Photograph by James Mooney, Bureau of American Ethnology, courtesy of the National Anthropological Archives in the Smithsonian Museum Support Center.

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States Congress debated a bill to enable the federal government to undertake the expulsion of thousands of people from their ancestral homes and to resettle them in what came to be called Indian Territory (present-day spring of 8 members of the United n the late winter and early Oklahoma).0At the same time, the governments of three statesGeorgia, Alabama, and Mississippiendeavored, in defiance of federal treaties, to dissolve the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, and Chickasaw nations which existed within their borders in efforts to hasten their departure. The interlocking program that president Andrew Jacksons supporters at the federal and state levels sought to put in place appalled some congress members. Both Theodore Frelinghuysen of New Jersey and William Ellsworth of Connecticut, for example, identified the states abrogation of the federal treaty rights as contrary to the spirit of the Constitution and found the Removal bill itself to be contrary to the word of God. Others worried over how the legislation might reflect on the republics honor. Among the several men who spoke out in favor of the measure, U.S. Representative Richard H. Wilde of Georgia drew together popular notions about progress, history, and civil society to support the proposed bill. History, Wilde argued, flowed from the guiding hand of Providence, and, to his mind, those who had taken the time to study the experience of ages could not help but notice that the progress of civilization had proceeded apace with the creation of private property. To Wilde, ignorant and brutal barbarians who failed to invest the land with their

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labor could not own it. Do not resist the order of Providence, he answered to Ellsworth, Frelinghuysen, and other critics of the Removal bill, for when [the Indian] is gone, a civilized man will step into his place. Science, the arts, industry, and human happiness were inexorable processes that Wilde believed had doomed the Souths First Peoples to extinction. But this was not to be mourned, he assured his audience, for just as history taught that progress was inevitable, so too was the disappearance of entire peoples. What is history but the obituary of nations? Wilde asked, as he added Cherokees and Choctaws to a roster of nationsBabylon, Nineveh, Tyre, and Carthagethat Providence had wiped from the face of the earth. Indeed, Wildes justification and explanation for the expulsion of the Souths First Peoples and his open faith in the power of Progress remain as cornerstones of the Old Souths history. Central themes in southern history aboundfrom slavery to sectionalism and agrarianism to the Celtic hangoverbut such themes, in practice, capture only the barest sliver of the Souths deep history, effectively ignoring its antiquity and tending to find the regions origins in the early nineteenth century. Whichever motif one prefers for the Souths core narrative, none would have been possible without the expulsion of the Souths First Peoples.2 Literary scholar George B. Handley has likened such narrative strategies to aThe Obituary of Nations

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Whichever motif one prefers for the Souths core narrative, none would have been possible without the expulsion of the Souths First Peoples. Choctaw girls, part of a delegation sent to Washington, D.C., thirty-eight years after their nations expulsion, photographed by Antonio Zeno Shindler, Bureau of American Ethnology, courtesy of the National Anthropological Archives in the Smithsonian Museum Support Center.

Page4 politics of oblivion, whereby what has been forgotten shapes the writing of history every bit as much as what has been remembered. This is not to say that students and scholars of southern history have not explored the regions indigenous past. They have, and their work constitutes some of the most inventive and important work in the history of native North America. Nevertheless, the history of the Souths First Peoples has remained on the margins of the mainstream antebellum narratives of westward migration, white freedom, and black slaverynarratives that also continue to reproduce, almost as asides, age-old assumptions about the conflict between whites and Indians. In a way, then, in order to remember obliv-

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ion it is essential to forget all that has happened since, for, as Wilde showed, the disappearance of nations has a funny way of enabling a skewed vision of the past that supplants tragedy with triumph. The descendants of the first southerners are a part of our society today. Cherokees in North Carolina have managed to do an end-run around the Baptists and open casinos, all the while teaching their children their natal tongue. The Lumbees are the largest nation in the United States but still have trouble convincing federal and state governments that they exist. Seminoles have parlayed cement, cattle, and smokes into commercial enterprises that belie the fact they are still at war with the federal government, while Choctaws, too, have seen the production of auto parts and greeting cards underwrite golf courses, resorts, casinos and their emergence as one of Mississippis leading economic engines. And it wont be long until Chickasaws announce Were back as archaeological work knits together places in Mississippi with people in Oklahoma. Houmas in Louisiana fight Texaco for access to oil profits, while a group calling themselves the Cherokees of North Alabama clamor for recognition from someone, anyone, with an official voice. When Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin that made upland cotton a viable cash crop for thousands of small farmers, Georgia and the territory that became the states of Mississippi and Alabama were home to 2,800 Indians, 5 , 00 whites, and 0,000 blacks (largely unreliable racial designations all). Almost a half-century later, when the first post-Removal censuses were taken in 8 0, the same region was home to 922,000 whites and ,000 blacks. Census takers failed to note the presence of any remaining Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, and Chickasaws, though some remained, hiding and waiting until they could safely reassert their public identities once more. Something more than the expansion of the western frontier was at play in the depopulation of the Old South. Between 8 0 and 8 0 the federal and state governments expelled an indigenous population that had grown to nearly 50,000 people. It is tempting to simply say that is what happens when civilization meets Indians. But those Indians were mothers, fathers, children, Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, slave owners, cotton farmers, basket weavers, market vendors, cowboys, preachers, and colonels. They were southerners. And their families had inhabited the land for thousands of years.The Obituary of Nations 9

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By 1840, when the first post-Removal censuses were taken, the region was home to 922,000 whites and 737,000 blacks. Census takers failed to note the presence of any remaining Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, and Chickasaws. This adapted 1990 U.S. Census Bureau map depicts the lasting effects of Removal on the region, showing most of the Southeasts indigenous peoples still residing in Oklahoma, the former Indian Territory, one hundred sixty years later.

To call their expulsion a removal is to sanitize it, to banalize it, to avoid confronting it, for what the citizens of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi in fact undertook was nothing less than the complete dismemberment, the ethnic cleansing, of the society and the place they inhabited. Indeed, the hallmarks of southern historiography follow fairly closely what might be called the model historiography of an ethnic cleanser in which scholars consign victims to an almost primordial past beyond reason, allow them no rightful place in contemporary society, and, in the most extreme cases, sacrifice such people to the fulfillment of a divine mandate. In the South this allowed the expansion of slavery and the defense of the slaveholders freedom and property. Progress underwrote the process, leaving governors, congress members, land speculators, and slave owners to disavow their role in the affair and to load it all onto a set of providential shoulders broa