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The Trail of Tears — the forced migration of thousands of Native Americans from their ancestral homeland in the Southeast to Oklahoma — is taught in many classrooms as one of the darkest moments in American history.
The episode is typically understood as a single event that happened to the Cherokee people and many other Native American tribes. But that isn't the full story, argues historian and filmmaker Daniel Blake Smith. His book, An American Betrayal: Cherokee Patriots and the Trail of Tears, depicts the series of events and decisions that led up to the relocation of the Cherokee — decisions made not only by the federal government, but by actors from within the Cherokee nation as well.
NPR's Brian Naylor talks with Smith about the long and complicated relationship between the Cherokee nation and the U.S. government, and the present-day legacy of the Trail of Tears.
On the disagreement within the Cherokee people over the value of culture versus place
"Jackson's Indian Removal bill was in 1830. He was elected president, of course, in 1828 and needless to say, a lot of Native Americans, Cherokees in particular, began to get pretty gloomy about their prospects once they saw his election victory, knowing that much of his support came from Southerners who were coveting Indian lands, [who] had been for some time. So he got the Indian Removal bill passed in 1830, and there was all kinds of bickering and treaty-making going on to try to find a solution to it.
"But by the early 1830s ... there was an internal battle going on in Cherokee country over what to do about this looming prospect that actually didn't take place. The actual removal itself under the military's control was in 1838. But by 1832, there was a small but vocal faction among the Cherokees who were mostly acculturated, but had realized that if they were going to survive as a people, they had to focus on saving the soul of the people of the Cherokee nation rather than clinging simply to the homeland, as powerful and important as that was.
"But the Cherokees were led by a man named Chief John Ross, who ... who felt that holding tenaciously to their ancestral homeland was the only way to maintain a sense of distinctive tribal identity. And so [there was] a real internal battle, little known by most people who understand the Trail of Tears."
On the Cherokee men behind the Treaty of New Echota, which sent the Native Americans west
"Elias Boudinot and Major John Ridge were the principal spokesmen for the treaty party ... They helped craft [the treaty] and got [it] passed. Even though it was only for the very small minority of the Cherokee people, the famous — or infamous — Treaty of New Echota in 1835 ... made the deal to go west.
"... So they had bought into ... the civilization program inaugurated back during the Washington and Jefferson administrations aimed at converting Indians to Christianity and teaching them white men's ways and ... living in patriarchal nuclear households and that sort of thing. And these two young men, Elias Boudinot and John Ridge, who were cousins, went to Cornwall, Conn., and became so converted to the cause, they found beautiful white women in Cornwall, daughters of leading men there and had ... the gall to fall in love and get married.
"And they unfortunately, in that interracial marriage, it led to ... Boudinot ... and his wife being hung in effigy on the town square."
On how the Cherokee people felt about Christianity
"Well, on the part of the treaty party and especially its leaders, like John Ridge and Elias Boudinot, it played a very strong role. They did become converted. They believed that Christian uplift and education could improve the Cherokee people and represent an important part of their future. On the other hand, Cherokees, like a lot of native peoples, were very good at picking and choosing among white suggestions and intrusions into their world. And I think the figure is roughly 10 percent of all Cherokees who were attempted to be converted, in fact, became converted to the Christian message. But they certainly lacked the educational element that the missionaries proposed for them — Moravians, the Presbyterians and Methodists and Baptists — in Indian country, starting in the late 1790s. And they were huge advocates of the Cherokee cause."
On the complicated role of Christian missionaries on the Trail
"They ... tried to find this middle ground ... of being supporters of the Cherokees at every point they could without taking sides. And that, as you can imagine, got to be harder and harder to accomplish because after all, the missionaries were really ambassadors, so to speak, of the federal government. They didn't come out there just on their own. They were organized and sent with the help of the federal Indian nations to come out and help Christianize the Indians.
"So it became a very difficult position to maintain your advocacy for Christianity and supporting the Cherokees, and then knowing that the entire nation is being riven by this split. ... [My book explores] why missionaries like Daniel Butrick and more particularly Sammy Worcester ... tried to walk that increasingly delicate line between advocating the Cherokees and not appearing to subvert the federal government's game plan."
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