Tag Archives: Cherokee

Agency doesn’t always look the way we want it to

I’m really enjoying the seminar I’m taking on Native American history.  Last week we had a lively discussion about Nancy Ward, a prominent Cherokee woman of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries whose name has come up here on the blog before.  One of my most pleasant surprises as a history buff was the day I was on a short road trip with my mom; our route unexpectedly took us right by Nancy Ward’s gravesite, so I got to step out and take a look at it.

She made a name for herself when she was still a teenager in the 1750s, taking up her mortally wounded husband’s gun during a battle with the Creeks.  Shortly thereafter she married an English trader and became one of those cross-cultural mediators that popped up from time to time in the history of the American borderlands.

Nancy Ward’s grave, along with the graves of her son and brother, in Polk County, TN. Photo by Brian Stansberry via Wikimedia Commons

In the summer of 1776, as Cherokee warriors prepared to launch attacks on settlements along the southern frontier, word of the impending assault made its way to the whites.  Nancy Ward was one of those responsible for sending the warning.  When the attacks fell in July, the settlers were hunkered down behind the wooden palisades of their forts.  Warriors did manage to capture Lydia Bean, wife of one of the first settlers in present-day Tennessee.  As Beloved Woman, Ward had authority over the fate of prisoners and saved Bean from the stake, reportedly keeping the captive in her home to make butter and cheese until she could return home.  It wasn’t the only occasion Ward would use her influence to prevent the shedding of white blood.

The reason our discussion in class got lively was because Nancy Ward is a controversial subject for many modern Cherokees.  My professor noted that some members of the tribe still consider Ward a traitor because of her affinity for the settlers and her tendency to intervene on their behalf, and one of my classmates (who does preservation work for the Eastern Band) cringed when her name came up.  And by modern standards, it’s hard to argue with the “traitor” label.  What else would you call someone who sent word to the opposing side that her own people were about to launch an invasion?

But, as my professor pointed out, it’s not quite that simple.  For one thing, Ward’s status as Beloved Woman gave her a certain amount of authority in matters of war and peace.  In her excellent book Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835, Theda Perdue discusses how women sought to maintain their prerogatives when it came to the disposition of captives, treaty negotiations, and other important business during the tumultuous eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Maybe Ward’s actions had as much to do with the preservation of female power as it did with saving whites’ lives.

More importantly, judging Ward reduces our ability to see their activity for what it was, namely a form of agency.  “Agency” is a term we’ve been discussing a lot in that class.  When you’re dealing with marginalized and often voiceless historical groups—groups such as Indians, women, slaves, or the poor—it’s important to remember that their circumstances didn’t reduce them to passive blobs of matter.  They remained human beings who confronted, resisted, and adapted to the forces around them.  Historians spend a lot of time trying to recover the agency of marginalized people, and when they do, they usually identify agency with some form of resistance.  Resistance can come in many forms besides open rebellion.  Workers who protested harsh factory conditions, slaves who broke farming tools—these are the sorts of activities historians generally have in mind when people refer to “agency.”  Just because oppressed people weren’t taking up pitchforks and raising hell doesn’t mean they weren’t holding on to their humanity.  An act as simple as doing one’s work a little bit more slowly than expected could be a form of resistance.

But maybe agency doesn’t have to equal resistance at all.  Any time some historical figure faced a choice and made a decision, they were exercising agency.  Perhaps Nancy Ward’s decision to forewarn the settlers was an act of agency, too.  In fact, it was a pretty striking one; she chose to act in a way that seems counter to the interests of many of her own people.

Why did she do it?  Maybe she thought a war with the whites would just bring down even harsher retribution, which is what indeed happened, and she wanted to minimize its effects.  Maybe, as I suggested above, she felt the councils had failed to take into account her opinion and that of other leading women in the discussions that led up to the decision to launch the assaults.  Maybe her marriage to a white trader had given her a soft spot for the settlers.  I don’t know.  But whatever her motives, she decided to act as she did, even though she didn’t act the way we might expect a woman in her position “should” act.

As a Native American woman (albeit a very influential and prominent one), Nancy Ward was the kind of person whose decisions usually didn’t make it into the history books.  But in her case, we get the opportunity to observe an Indian woman choosing to act, and doing so.  Her choice might look odd to us, but it was still her choice.  Nancy Ward made her choices and shaped her own circumstances, as surely as did the Indians who fought white encroachment to the last bullet and resisted acculturation to the last breath.  As my professor put it, people want their historical Indians to behave like Geronimo, but not all of them did.

Sometimes historical figures acted in ways that seem nonsensical or even immoral to us.  Our job is to figure out why they acted as they did, and what their choices can reveal about larger patterns of behavior and about the societies that produced them.  We can’t choose for them; nor can we judge their choices.  The choices were ultimately theirs.

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Lunchtime lecture tomorrow on Cavett’s Station massacre

If you’re free at noon tomorrow, pack your lunch and head over to the East Tennessee History Center in downtown Knoxville for a brown bag lecture on the 1793 massacre at Cavett’s Station.  The speaker is Dr. Charles Faulkner, who’s spent years studying Tennessee archaeology.  Admission is free.

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Nancy Ward hits the stage

Through the magic of the Interwebs, I just found out that somebody has written a musical about Nancy Ward, Beloved Woman of the Cherokee.  The show’s on its premiere run in Hartwell, GA.

Ward (or Nanye-hi, if you prefer to use her Cherokee name) was one of those intercultural mediators that played such a prominent role on the early American frontier, which in her case consisted of what eventually became northeastern Tennessee.

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History in the first person plural

The other day I was at UT’s McClung Museum, where there’s a fantastic exhibit on Native Americans in Tennessee.  The exhibit includes a film about the experiences of the Cherokee from prehistoric times down to the present day, with onscreen commentary from current members of the tribe.  Some of them use the first-person plural when talking about past events.  “What we decided to do when the whites came was such-and-such,” or, “One of our holy people said such-and-such,” and so on.  I’ve seen the film a number of times, and this use of the first person plural to discuss events that happened well over a century ago has always struck me.

Coincidentally, when I got home I ran across an interesting editorial called “No Longer Circling the Wagons: Many National Parks Get Indian Stories Wrong.” It’s worth reading in full, because it touches on some fundamental issues regarding historical interpretation and historical memory.

The main issue is that parks don’t give Native Americans as much interpretive “airtime” as they do whites.  I’m sure that’s generally true, but with mitigating circumstances.  For one thing, history is inherently and inescapably weighted toward people and events that left a paper trail.  It’s much easier to document the comparatively few years during which the U.S. Army battled its way across the West than it is to document the many centuries during which Native Americans had the continent to themselves.

The Cherokee Female Seminary in Oklahoma, with the class of 1875 posed in front. Western History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library

Second, things are changing.  If you visit NPS sites that have recently undergone interpretive overhauls, I think you’ll find that Native Americans aren’t all that underrepresented.  To take an example from my neck of the woods, the visitor center exhibit at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, updated not too many years ago, includes substantial sections on the Native experience along the Wilderness Road, both before and after European involvement.  Sites with older exhibits and signage aren’t likely to be as inclusive, but you can’t change a park overnight.  Each park doesn’t have its own onsite exhibit fabrication team.  If I’m not mistaken, there’s one department responsible for fabricating and installing historic exhibit galleries for the enite park system.  They’ll get to you when they can get to you.

Anyway, what really jumped out at me what this section:

Changes in interpretation have also been significant at Nez Perce National Historical Park, which includes more than 30 sites in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. After having built closer relations with the Nez Perce nation over the past 20 years, the NPS is ready to let the tribe tell its own story here. The new park brochure about the Bear Paw Battlefield in Montana gives the tribe this voice. It opens with a greeting in the Nez Perce language and then speaks in a Native voice: “Far from our beautiful homeland, upon this quiet terrain of our Earth Mother, the spirits now forever bear silent witness to our people’s painful and tragic encounter with manifest destiny.” The tribe, and not the NPS, appears as your host at this site.

Done right, this approach avoids one of the biggest risks of national park interpretation—having the arrogance to tell someone else’s story your way.

The phrase “telling someone else’s story your way” seems along the same lines as the frequent use of “we” in the McClung Museum’s film.  There’s a definite sense in which some parts of history can become “our story,” especially when it’s the history of one’s own ethnic group, country, region, class, or whatever.  That’s the sort of history that one “owns.”

But there’s an equally important sense in which it’s all “someone else’s story.”  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: We’re not the people of the past, and any belief that we can speak for them based on experiences we have in the present is usually a conceit.  We neglect the fundamental “otherness” of the past at our peril.  Sure, we all have our vested interests in the stories of particular groups, and concerns that these stories get told properly are legitimate.  But the fact of my membership in a group doesn’t mean that I’m necessarily going to have a particularly accurate appreciation of the reality behind those stories.

One has identities that coincide with those of people who lived in the past, but one also has an identity as a citizen of the twenty-first century.  This latter identity comes with a lot of baggage, and we’re unconscious of much of it simply because we’re so accustomed to it.  Anytime one invokes the historical “we,” there’s a risk of presuming that one can understand people of the past without any residue from our modern-day identities getting in the way.  The result is that we can easily misread both ourselves and our predecessors.

Let me stress that I’m not trying to imply that modern-day Native Americans aren’t “real” Indians, or that it’s none of their business how the NPS interprets Native history, or that an Irish-American has no business taking pride in Irish history, or anything along those lines.  I’m simply pointing out that our presence in the here and now puts limitations on our abilities to intuitively “read” the past.

History in the first person plural seems to be a more common practice among groups who have suffered misfortune, stereotyping, neglect, or defeat, which is perfectly understandable.  Native Americans have, of course, suffered more than most other historical groups.  It’s not surprising that all this cumulative experience would become an important touchstone for their collective identity, regardless of temporal boundaries.

The same thing happens among people who identify strongly with the Confederacy.  We did this, we experienced that, we were in the right, as if Sherman marched through Georgia last week and personally burned a row of condominiums.  Come to think of it, I once heard the exact same language used in a gathering of northerners.  For work-related purposes I once had to attend a dinner organized by descendants of Union soldiers. The keynote speaker referred to Grant’s assumption of overall command by saying, “Their winning team had been used to beating up on our losing team, but now they were finally going to have to face up to our winning team.” As the only southerner in the room, I couldn’t help but think this was a little comical.

None of this would be a big deal, except that this first person plural approach to history puts us at serious risk of presentism.  I think we all need a usable past, but our primary need is for a past that’s accurate.  There’s a healthy sympathy that we can bring to our attempts to understand historical figures, the kind that opens us up, makes us willing to accept them for what they were, and helps us to see their world as they saw it.  And then there’s an unhealthy kind of sympathy, which comes from an assumption that we’re basically the same as they were, making it impossible to get ourselves out of the way and appreciate the past on its own terms.

It’s never occurred to me to use the first-person plural when referring to events that happened more than a century and a half ago…but, of course, it wasn’t my ancestors that got dispossessed of everything they had and then sent packing to Oklahoma, was it?  Knowledge like that is probably going to make history more personal.

So do you guys think the “we” approach to history is appropriate?  If so, under what circumstances?  Sound off in the comments section.

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A frontier outpost of the British Empire

It’s been a while since I’ve posted one of my historic site reviews, but the other day I tagged along on a trip to Fort Loudoun State Historic Area near Vonore, TN.  This is another of those fascinating frontier-era sites in East Tennessee that I’ve intended to visit for a good, long while.  (It’s funny how you’ll drive hundreds of miles to see a site but go years without hitting the ones in your backyard.)

During the French and Indian War, both sides lobbied America’s tribes for military aid.  The British tried to enlist the Cherokee in their war for empire, but Cherokee warriors balked at leaving their villages undefended.  In 1756 South Carolina began constructing a fort on the Little Tennessee River to offer protection to these Overhill towns and to help improve trade between the tribe and the British.  This fort, named for the Earl of Loudoun, was the first significant European structure in what is now Tennessee.

Colonial alliances between whites and Indians were about as stable as Hollywood marriages, and the relationship between the British and Cherokee was no exception.  Indians passing through Virginia angered settlers by stealing their horses.  Colonists killed British-allied Indians for scalp money.  As reprisals took place on both sides, colonial authorities finally imprisoned a number of Cherokee chiefs in South Carolina.  A party of warriors attacked the fort to free the hostages, but the attack failed and the chiefs were put to death.

By the summer of 1760, the same Ft. Loudoun built to cement the Cherokee-British alliance was deep in enemy territory and under a loose siege by the very Indians it was supposed to protect.  Promised safe passage, the garrison started a long trek back to South Carolina.  They didn’t get far before disgruntled Cherokee warriors attacked them; many were captured and later ransomed, while others (including Paul Demere, the British officer in charge) met extremely unpleasant ends at the hands of the Indians.  Maybe the Cherokee were upset that Demere broke the surrender terms by hiding some of the fort’s arms, or maybe they were still upset over the murder of the chiefs held hostage in South Carolina.

Fort Loudoun State Historic Area tells this complex story of alliances made and broken on the outskirts of Britain’s empire.  The centerpiece is a full-scale reconstruction of the fort.  You can explore the barracks, bastions, guardhouse, commandant’s quarters, blacksmith shop, oven, and some fairly extensive outer works (a parapet, dry moat, and chevaux-de-frise).  It’s an impressive structure, and as an added bonus, the view from the elevated rear area is pretty spectacular.

The bad news is that it’s not even remotely similar to the view you would have had 250 years ago—or even three decades ago, for that matter.  Originally the ground around Ft. Loudoun was bottomland, but now it’s at the bottom of a man-made lake.  In the 1970’s, the TVA—as part of its ongoing effort to improve the lives of Appalachians by putting their homes underwater—dammed the Little Tennessee River, which overflowed its banks and flooded the area surrounding the fort site.  In the process, they completely destroyed important Cherokee archaeological sites, sent the endangered snail darter packing, and turned the site of Ft. Loudoun into an island.  To make things even more confusing, the reservoir around Ft. Loudoun is called “Tellico Lake,” but there’s another TVA project called “Ft. Loudoun Lake” that’s farther from the fort site than Tellico.  Go figure.

One of the Indian town sites destroyed by the Tellico Dam project was Tuskegee, boyhood home of Sequoyah, the inventor of the Cherokee writing system.  The park features a couple of reconstructed Cherokee dwellings, one for the summer months and one for the winter months, that illustrate the types of structures found in the villages that Ft. Loudoun was built to protect.

I used to think that the original site of Ft. Loudoun itself was underwater, too, but the reconstruction is on the original spot, although it’s seventeen feet higher in order to keep the reservoir at bay.  The idea that the original site got flooded is a common error that first appeared in a Tennessee history textbook, according to the excellent guide who showed my group around the fort.  Dressed in full redcoat gear, he was extraordinarily knowledgeable about the site, the life of an eighteenth-century British soldier, the region’s history, and early American history in general.  It was one of the smoothest, most thorough tour presentations I’ve heard in a long, long time.

I’ve always maintained that the ultimate test for any visitor center is whether or not any visitor, especially one who knows nothing about a site, can have a fulfilling and interesting tour of the grounds based solely on what they learn from the film and exhibit.  I think Ft. Loudoun would pass this test with flying colors; in fact, it’s the best visitor center I’ve seen at any of the state-run historic sites in Tennessee that I’ve been able to visit.  A fifteen-minute film covers the fort’s context in the colonial struggle for control of North America, its construction, daily life within its walls, and its eventual fall.  The exhibit is small but extremely well-done, incorporating artifacts from the excavations that have taken place at the site over the years.  It’s a fascinating look at how the inhabitants of an outpost on the edge of Britain’s eighteenth-century empire lived their lives.

I’ll also point out that if you’re into the French and Indian War, you’d better bring some disposable income with you.  The gift shop is stocked with hard-to-find academic titles and really great commemorative prints, as well as the usual souvenir items for kids.

You might want to plan on spending some extra time, too, because Ft. Loudoun isn’t the only historic site in the park.  In the 1790’s the federal government built Tellico Blockhouse just a short distance away from where Ft. Loudoun stood, partly to provide the Cherokees with protection from settlers, and partly to domesticate them by teaching them farming and manufacturing techniques.  The excavated foundations are now part of Ft. Loudoun State Historic Area, just across the lake from the visitor center and reconstructed fort.  The Sequoyah Birthplace Museum is on Tellico Lake too, but it isn’t a part of the state historic area, and unfortunately I didn’t have time to see it on this run.

Normally my Tennessee history interests fall a little bit later chronologically—from the Watauga Association to the end of the territorial period—but this is one of those sites that digs its way into your head and stays there.  It compares favorably with any historic site of its size, and it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re in the Knoxville area or on vacation in the Smokies.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Colonial America, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History