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A Solitary Tree and a Tornado:
The Hows and Whys of Cherokee Assimilation and Removal (1796-1838)
by Vincent Lyman

We must plant corn and raise cattle, and we desire you to assist us…in former times we bought of the traders goods cheap; we could clothe our women and children, but now game is scarce and goods dear, we cannot live comfortably. We desire the United States to regulate this matter…

--Little Turkey, 1791-1792

The Indians say they don't understand their Father, the President. A few years ago he sent them a plough and a hoe-said it was not good for his red children to hunt-they must cultivate the earth. Now he tells them there is good hunting at the Arkansas: if they go there he will give them rifles.

--Anonymous Cherokee, 1816

Men must have corrupted nature a little, because they weren't born wolves, yet they've become wolves.

--Voltaire

At the dawn of the 19th century, as they settled down onto lands accorded them by treaty with the United States, the Cherokee peoples of Georgia and the Carolinas began a massive program of cultural assimilation. They formed a legislative assembly, wrote a Constitution, formed a court system, created a police force, adopted Southern slaveholding agricultural practices and both allowed and encouraged missionary educational facilities. Thirty years later, after an unprecedented cultural transformation praised throughout the western world, the Cherokee were forced off their lands to property west of the Mississippi. This paradox presents a number of interesting historical puzzles. First, why did the Cherokee acculturate Western ways? How, exactly, did the Cherokee manage to acculturate Western ways so quickly, and were these complete assimilations or modified ones? Secondly, after being so praised for their acculturation, why were they expelled from their native lands? How and why did the Trail of Tears happen? The answers to these questions provide some startling insights into both the Cherokee Nation and the United States in both the early 19th century and the present.

Before I begin I should make clear my own bias in this report. I find the removal of the Cherokee an atrocious and morally inexcusable act on the part of my own government. I do not believe that modern attitudes toward Native Americans in either the government or the populace have improved greatly. However, the purpose of this report is not to write a condemnation of US policy toward Native

 


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