Monday, October 03, 2011

Happy Birthday, John

John Ross
Today in 1790, John Ross, first and last elected paramount chief of the Cherokee Nation, was born near Lookout Mountain in North Carolina. John Ross's life is defined by his struggle to preserve his people, a struggle in which he used the courts not an army, and by the result - a bittersweet mix of terrible failure and stubborn success.

The Cherokee did their best to become like the white Americans who had invaded their land, devising an alphabet (a syllabary, really) and printing newspapers, intermarrying, converting to Christianity, taking up farming - even (given that they lived in Georgia at the time) the wealthier ones owning slaves - and city life, and defending the US in wars. They created a democratic form of government, which resulted in John Ross's election in 1827. But for all their efforts to be like white America, they were, after all, Indians living on valuable land, and Washington decided to take it. Ross took the country to court - all the way to the Supreme Court, in fact, which ruled that the government had no jurisdiction. In one of Andrew Jackson's worst moments, he said: "[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it." In the winter of 1838-39 some fifteen or twenty thousand Cherokee were rounded up in the night, not allowed to take their possessions with them, and marched over the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma. Eight hundred miles, in the winter... thousands died of exposure, starvation, disease, and exhaustion. The Nation was settled in Oklahoma, where most Cherokee still live today. A smaller group escaped into the mountains of North Carolina, and eventually were allowed to remain. Today the Cherokee are a relatively prosperous tribe - with three federally recognized bands - whose language and literature is thriving by comparison with many other tribes. You can even get Cherokee fonts for your computer. But the betrayal and forced removal remain like a shard of jagged stone in their history, and as late as the 1950s it was federal policy to "discourage" bilingualism and remove children from their homes and force English-only education on the Cherokee, as on other tribes.

(Sarah Vowell explores the Trail of Tears in her excellent Take the Cannoli: Tales from the New World, tracing her ancestors' trip. And here is a Cherokee survivor's memoir and one written by an American soldier who was an escort.)

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