Demanding the Cherokee Nation : Indian Autonomy and American Culture, 1830-1900

Here is an excerpt from Andrew Denson’s 2004 book on the Cherokee Nation.  I also want to find John Finger’s couple of books on the Eastern Band of Cherokees.  But for now, this is what was available online.  Denson’s main analysis focuses on the concept of Cherokee nationhood in terms of sovereignty, identity and also legal autonomy and the various stances which the American government has taken vis-a-vis the Cherokee Nation.

The passage I’m quoting below describes a period of relative cultural flourishing and political stability for the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation in the wake of the Indian Removal some sixteen years previous.  In particular, the effects of this stability on the Cherokee education system are brought forward:

The period immediately preceding the Civil War is sometimes remembered as the Cherokees’ “golden age.”  When the factional violence ended in 1846, the Cherokees at last had th opportunity to rebuild the nation and reestablish the institutions they had begun in the East.  By most standards, their efforts were successful.  Relative normalcy returned to Cherokee politics, with the factions remaining content to fight most of their battles within the tribe’s constitutional system.  John Ross was still principal chief, and his supporters continued to dominate the tribal government; however, members of the Treaty Party, along with Old Settlers, won election to political office and exerted a measure of influence over the nation’s affairs.  Economically, the Cherokees enjoyed a decade of prosperity.  The bi-cultural elite rebuilt their plantations and businesses, while according to missionaries and federal agents the more numerous class of subsistence farmers maintained at least a decent standard of living.  Most impressive, the Cherokee government used its treaty funds to create a public education system equal to or better than those of neighboring states.  More than one hundred primary schools were operating by the early 1850s, along with the Cherokee Male and Female Seminaries– high schools founded with the intent of training better Cherokee teachers.  All this occurred within the context of comparatively settled relations between the Cherokee Nation and the United States.  There was talk in the 1850s of extending American territorial law over the Indian country, but for the most part the federal government refrained from mounting assaults on the tribal autonomy such as the Cherokees had faced in the removal era.


I want to take a step back here and address what I mean by “Cherokee Education.”  It is all too clear that the U.S. government, State governments as well as religious missionary organizations like the Moravian Church have been responsible for a certain kind of “Cherokee Education.”  This is education in the most deeply colonial sense of education for civilization– teaching Cherokee people how to behave like good European and eventually join American society.  (Also, note I am using the term “colonial” here to designate not merely the 13 British Colonies which revolted against England in 1776, but in the broader sense of an external power and resource grab, squashing the autonomy of indigenous peoples.)

But there are some other senses of the phrase “Cherokee Education, which I am interested in as well.  Denson addresses these different types of education in the following passage:

Equally important was the other kind of education that Adair mentioned in his address.  As I have discussed in previous chapters, tribal leaders in this period were continually trying to teach white Americans about the Indian Territory. Delegates to Washington, for example, often described their work as an ongoing effort to enlighten American authorities about their peoples’ rights and desires, “to educate them into our interests,” as Adair had written in 1870.  They clung to the hope that if Americans could be made to understand the Territory, they might end their assaults on tribal autonomy and land.  The fair at Muskogee offered tribal leaders a further opportunity for this kind of teaching, particularly when visitors from “the states” included politicians and Indian Bureau officers.


So, in addition to the typical colonialist education of Cherokees by European-American settlers, Cherokee people sought to teach the Europeans about themselves and their Territory, and also ran their own schools as we saw during the 1840s “golden age,” described in the first quoted passage above.

What of this dynamic complex of Cherokee education still exists today.  How do Cherokee people teach themselves, how are they taught by settlers, and how do they teach us European-American settlers?  My guess is that the Cherokee Central Schools are not simply examples of one of the above modes of education.  Even on my cursory view of the school district website, I notice that NC curriculum standards have been adopted by the schools.  But there also appear to be plenty of sites and instances of Cherokee people continuing to educate settler-learners such as myself– museums, as well as activism such as the group of young people who ride bikes along the path of the Trail of Tears every year.  And naturally, the autonomy of the Cherokee Central Schools is something that should be taken with some pride.  But I still want to get to the bottom of how autonomous these schools are with respect to curriculum and governance by the Sate of North Carolina.