Two Books In Honor Of Native American History Month
Reviewed By Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
A Demand of Blood by Nadia Dean, and Voices of Cherokee Women, Edited by Carolyn Ross Johnston
How many of us, unless we are strong American history buffs, know much—if anything—about the Cherokee War of 1776 and it’s importance in the context of the American Revolution?
Nadia Dean’s new book, A Demand of Blood, released just in time for the November Native American Heritage Month, takes us deeply and thoroughly into the intrigues, the betrayals, the characters, the geography of this vital chapter in the history of America and Native Americans.
Decades of tension between the Cherokee and frontier settlers exploded in the year that marked American Independence: 1776. As southern colonists prepared to fight Britain, the Cherokee warriors stepped up their struggle for sovereignty. Dragging Canoe, the charismatic Cherokee war leader and staunch British ally, waged guerrilla warfare throughout the southern colonies in an effort to regain control over native hunting grounds. In retaliation, colonial powers sent 6,000 militiamen into Cherokee country to destroy towns and crops.
Ms. Dean tells us, in her Author’s Note: “To understand our past, we should remember that history is not an exercise in asserting who was right and who wrong, but rather an endeavor to examine what causes what.”
From the first chapter, she does just that, relating that in 1775 Indian agent John Stuart wrote to the Earl of Dartmouth: “I know of nothing so likely to interrupt and disturb our tranquility with the Indians as the incessant attempts to defraud them of their land.”
In 1730 seven Cherokees had traveled to England to meet King George II and while there met with the Board of Trade to explore a possible alliance. The Crown wanted control of the highly lucrative deerskin trade, of which the Cherokee were a critical component. Britain knew the Cherokee, if they were allies, could bring 3,000 warriors to any conflict with the colonists. The Cherokee considered the British, at first, partners in trade: John Stuart explained that the “tye (sic)… was Mutual Conveniency…” as the early settlers supplied the Cherokee with tools and weapons that “contributed to their ease & happiness by Furnishing them with such instruments.”
In the early years of settlement there were strains between the two diverse cultures but each group accommodated the other’s differences, sometimes even adapting the other’s clothing styles. By the early 1770s, however, game was growing scarce, settlers didn’t always observe the Board of Trade regulations, and competition for land as the settler populations grew and moved steadily westward led to discontent and resentment among the native populations.
King George III, in 1763, had issued a proclamation to enforce the Indian boundary line, banning settlement of native lands. But this proclamation served largely to further anger land speculators; as well, some Cherokee made private land deals for presents and liquor.
From this point forward conflicts deepened and became increasingly alarming to both sides. Dragging Canoe, for instance, realized new settlements (such as one instigated by Richard Henderson, called Transylvania) would further threaten Cherokee survival. In an impassioned speech during treaty talks he proclaimed: “The White man will scarcely leave us a small spot to stand on… They have crossed the mountains, and have settled upon Cherokee land… the extinction of the whole race will be proclaimed. Should we not therefore run all risks and incur all consequences, rather than submit to further laceration of our country? We will have our land…”
As Cherokee and other native discontent grew, the European colonists were also growing more and more frustrated under British rule. The newly formed Continental Congress sought to counteract British authority with the Indians. Traders became de facto diplomats because [of] their knowledge of Indian culture and language. Both sides promised the Cherokee much needed supplies (such as ammunition to hunt deer to pay debts) but due to disruption and scarcity, agents on both sides often failed to deliver.
In A Demand of Blood, Ms. Dean has drawn on an amazing array of archival sources. She takes us in rich detail through the causes and results of the myriad, often confused, conflicts, loyalties, politics, and daily survival needs of both sides.
We learn about the effects of shortages of gunpowder, lead, salt, packhorses and even linen to make flour bags… not to mention the lack of fresh food. In one note about daily rations she found that “12,000 lbs flour, and thirty Beeves” enabled a company of 330 men to march 230 miles. That journey of 23 days required 1 1/2 pounds of flour per man and one slaughtered cow per day to feed the 330 militiamen!
Once the Declaration of Independence was delivered to regiments fighting near the Keowee River, the burning and destruction of houses and crops by the rebels intensified. As did the counter attacks from Loyalists and their Cherokee allies.
State by state Ms. Dean takes us from South Carolina through Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia. Those chapters are often grueling to read and those of a queasy constitution may want to skip the most violent parts… although these read like a well-plotted war novel, they are taken directly from letters, journals and other records of direct observation at the time.
Anyone interested in American history, in Native American history, or in the Revolutionary War will find this book fascinating and informative. Ms. Dean “powerfully conveys a visceral sense of eighteenth-century people and places and vibrantly recaptures the girtty realities of everyday life among Cherokees and colonists.”
“Voices of Cherokee Women recounts how Cherokee women went from having equality within the tribe to losing much of their political and economic power in the 19th century to regaining power in the 20th, as Joyce Dugan and Wilma Mankiller became the first female chiefs of the Cherokee Nation.”
Similarly to A Demand of Blood, Voices of Cherokee Women draws from original sources in the form of letters, newspaper articles, diaries and first-hand accounts from travelers and missionaries. The book’s publication, in October, 2013 was timed to coincide with the 175th anniversary of the Trail of Tears.
To establish women’s changing roles and position in the tribe Ms. Johnston first relates a series of creation and other ancient myths; then she relates the chronological events from the first encounters with Europeans through the American Civil War.
She tells us that Cherokee women’s sexual freedom and their considerable political, economic, and domestic power shocked most European observers from the time of first contact in 1540. Not only shocked, they felt their patriarchal values were threatened. As well, the biases of the Europeans led many early traders to misunderstand the nature of the Cherokees separate but equal roles. James Adair, author of The History of the American Indians, saw Cherokee women’s monthly menstrual retreats as a result of fear of uncleanness, noting that, “They oblige their women in their lunar retreats to build small huts, at [a] considerable… distance from their dwelling houses… where they are obliged to stay at the risk of their lives.”
Naturalist William Bartram, on the other hand, stated “… that there is no people anywhere who love their women more… or of better undertanding in distinguishing the merits of the opposite sex, or more faithful in rendering suitable compensation. They are courteous and polite… and gentle, tender… ”
Skip to the post American Revolution and Johnston recounts the “civilization” programs when the United States government and missionaries sought to transform Cherokee gender roles and attitudes toward sexuality and the body. Many resisted this shift but others, many of mixed ancestry, acquiesed. There was much pressure since Presidents Jefferson and Jackson agreed that the Cherokee must be “civilized” or moved West.
In 1818 Cherokee women met and issued a statement of protest when “they heard with painful feelings that the bounds of the land we now possess are to be drawn into very narrow limits.” Again in 1825 they argued against removal, urging General William Clark to resist the policy.
Johnston clearly and carefully elucidates the process within which Cherokee women lost power, including letters such as one from Catherine Beecher (sister to Harriet Beecher Stowe) in which she argues that all women should come forward to the aid of the Cherokee women and their families: “A few weeks must decide this interesting and important question, and after that time sympathy and regret will all be in vain.”
As we know, of course, removal went forward. By 1819 the Cherokee had lost 90% of their pre-colonial territory; the discovery of gold near Dahlonega, Georgia in 1829 sealed the tribe’s fate.
In 1937 the government sponsored a project called the Indian Pioneer Papers. Hundreds of elderly indians were interviewed and their often terrifying recollections of the Trail of Tears are included in this book. Also included are stories of the challenges these women faced during the Civil War and after as they tried to rebuild their lives.
Thankfully, Johnston ends on a positive note to show how women are regaining political and economic power today; along with inspiring journals from Cherokee women such as Isabel Cobb, a Cherokee medical doctor practicing in Oklahoma from 1893 to 1930.
Rich with detailed personal remembrances, Voices of Cherokee Women is a wonderful honoring of their complex and still evolving heritage.
Sandi Tomlin-Sutker is the publisher and editor of WNC Woman Magazine. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.