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  • The Native South in the Post–World War II Era
  • Christopher Arris Oakley (bio)

In 1945 scholar Julian H. Steward concluded that "the Indian is virtually extinct in the eastern United States.… It is solely a question of a few years before the last survivors will disappear without leaving any important cultural or racial mark on the national population."1 Steward was not alone in his belief that Native Americans living east of the Mississippi River, including those in the American South, were near extinction. To most Americans at the time, and unfortunately also many scholars, Indian history in the South ended with the expulsion in the 1830s of tens of thousands of Native peoples from their homelands to Indian Territory in the West. Much as the tragedy at Wounded Knee supposedly marked the end of Plains history and culture in 1890, the "Trail of Tears" meant the end of Indian history and culture in the South.

But Steward, like many others before and after him, underestimated Southern Native American resilience and perseverance. The end of World War II indeed proved to be a turning point for the indigenous peoples of the South, but not a eulogy, as Steward suggested. In fact, according to historian Alison Bernstein, "World War II had a more profound and lasting effect on the course of Indian affairs in this century than any other single event or period."2 The defeat of Nazi Germany, the horrors of the Holocaust, the burgeoning African American civil rights movement, the cold war, the Vietnam War, and the social and political turmoil of the 1960s ignited change in the South, and this change created new opportunities for Native Southerners. According to census data, in the early 2000s more than 300,000 Native Americans lived in the South. If the surrounding or "border" states are included, that number increases to more than 450,000. As Walter L. Williams wrote in 1979, "Southern [End Page 61] Indians are not on a 'road to disappearance,' and it is time to ask if they ever were."3

The contemporary Native peoples of the South can broadly be divided in two ways. First, there are the remnants and the unremoved. Remnant groups consist of members of removed nations who avoided expulsion by hiding in the mountains, the swamps, or other isolated places in the South. These include the Eastern Band of Cherokees, the Seminoles (and Miccosukees), the Poarch Creeks, and the Mississippi Choctaws. The unremoved are Indian peoples and communities who completely avoided removal, often because they had already been subjugated and lived in small, isolated communities. Southern Indians can also be divided into government (both federal and state) recognized and nonrecognized nations. The federal government currently recognizes ten nations in the South.4 There are also about two dozen Indian peoples recognized by state governments—nine alone in Virginia—and another two dozen groups are currently nonrecognized but seeking acknowledgment.

For much of the twentieth century, Native American scholars ignored Indians in the post-Removal South, preferring instead to focus on those who endured removal and resettled in the West. And scholars who wrote about the South completely ignored the original Southerners. But starting in the 1960s researchers influenced by the civil rights movement began examining the history and culture of Indian peoples in the modern South. Anthropologists were the first group to study contemporary Southern Indians in detail, organizing the Southern Anthropological Society in 1966. Other disciplines, including history, sociology, and political science, eventually followed. Consequently, in the late twentieth century, the number of studies on Southern Indians increased dramatically.

Native peoples in the South have distinctive histories and cultures, but there are common themes as well. For Southern Indians, the most important issue in the post–World War II era was the preservation of their identity as indigenous peoples and nations in a region that changed dramatically in a short period of time. The Second World War ignited a series of changes that finally destroyed the remnants of the Old South, primarily the racial caste system that excluded most nonwhites from positions of economic and political power while also segregating them socially. The South also underwent a dramatic economic transformation in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2152-4025
Print ISSN
1943-2569
Pages
pp. 61-79
Launched on MUSE
2010-01-27
Open Access
No
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