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Nations Colliding: The Civil War Comes to Indian Territory

From: Civil War History
Volume 59, Number 3, September 2013
pp. 279-319 | 10.1353/cwh.2013.0054

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In 1861, the leaders of the "Five Civilized Tribes" in Indian Territory (Cherokees, Choctaws, Creeks, Chickasaws, and Seminoles) officially allied with the Confederacy, producing a collision between several different concepts of nationhood: the federal system of the United States, the CSA model, which theoretically empowered confederated states over a central government, and the indigenous peoples' governments, which in the previous half-century had transitioned from tribal groups to nationalist administrations. The Native American leaders stressed cultural and economic ties to the South and to the institution of slavery (with its attendant racialized social hierarchy) they had adopted; many of their citizens, however, maintained traditional kinship-based views of race and nation, and resisted both the Confederacy and their leaders' political vision. Meanwhile, Confederate representatives wooed the tribes with recognition of their sovereignty, which fit into the Confederate governmental approach, while exerting pressure on those indigenous leaders who hesitated. Consequently, the execution of the war not only deeply divided the nations of the Indian Territory, it enabled the Five Tribes' political and economic elites to solidify their nationalist vision. The American Civil War, initially a conflict between two American factions fighting to settle their differing views of nation, thereby became an Indian Civil War that did the same thing.

By the time they had been relocated west of the Mississippi, the lives of Southeastern Indians had already changed significantly from their pre-European contact existence. Their reaction to those changes, and the role they played in generating the decisions they made in the removal era, reflect their adaptability. After all, social groups, like individual organisms, must weather environmental and existential shifts in order to survive. The Five Tribes' leadership during those decades embarked on a project to establish a revised identity sculpted by the tools of race and nation that Europeans had introduced to them. They sought not to abandon the concept of tribe but rather to augment it by making their people citizens of modern states. They were adapting, not adopting, the Anglo-European model and making it uniquely their own.

Indigenous peoples were not the only groups engaged in such nation-building projects. In the first third of the nineteenth century, others in far different circumstances had also manifested new ways of approaching their identities, resulting in revolutions and nationalist movements around the globe. The Five Tribes' leaders, who had grown increasingly more educated and well-read, would have been aware of this phenomenon. Cherokees and Choctaws, for example, produced a considerable amount of literature, often in the form of petitions, appeals, and press releases, which argued for Indian autonomy and nationhood using rhetoric that resonated with an American audience and engaged the global discussion about nation. "In demanding the nation" via such literature, historian Andrew Denson has observed, Cherokees argued that "the Indian nation was compatible with an expanding modern United States. . . . Some, in fact, suggested that the nation was the key to modernity for native people . . . because it would give them the power to choose the terms of their participation."

Race was another important element in the efforts of each tribe's leaders to establish a modern state, which can be described as a sovereign political entity that legally defines the identity of its members, encouraging their support by appealing to their shared experience (real or imagined), and thus creating a sense of nationalism centered on that state. Scholar David Theo Goldberg has argued that "race is integral to the emergence, development, and transformations . . . of the modern nation-state" and that it "marks and orders the modern nation-state, and so state projects, more or less from its point of conceptual and institutional emergence." Race is the basis for the "shared experience" that validates the creation of a nation-state; someone must be excluded for members to be defined and to possess a unique national affiliation. Blacks, free as well as enslaved, would fill that role in the Five Tribes.

Despite the intrusion of chauvinistic European attitudes, enthusiasm for "progress" was not simply unilaterally forced on to the Five Tribes, nor was it solely a product of U.S. paternalism. Instead, the distinctive view of progress and nationalism evident among the tribes reflected conscious choices political and...



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