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  • "To Look upon Thousands":Cherokee Transnationalism, at Home and Abroad
  • Daniel Heath Justice (bio)

"They are welcome . . . to look upon me as a strange creature. They see but one, and in return they give me an opportunity to look upon thousands."

— Oukanekah/Ada Gal'kala1

Remembering Our Strengths

The last few years have been trying ones for the Cherokee Nation, which has seen an alignment in its political orientation toward the troubling exclusivist politics of the United States: racially, through the disenfranchisement of the Cherokee Freedmen, the descendants of black slaves held by Cherokee citizens and granted citizenship through a coerced treaty following the U.S. Civil War; and sexually, through the banning of same-sex marriage and the rhetorical erasure of queer Cherokees through evangelically inspired historical revisionism. (Recently there has been movement toward the surveillance of and punitive action against nonenrolled people who assert [End Page 169] Cherokee ancestry.2) In spite of various arguments affirming the "traditional" foundation of these various shifts toward neoconservative social mores and the ethnic essentialisms of the multicultural, neoliberal state, the shared supposition between these politics is one of shrinking perspective, the closing off of difference through the imposition of an imagined cultural uniformity.3

Such moves sadden me for many reasons, but one of the most significant is the fact that they seem to undermine what has historically been one of our most important traditions: a perspective that is inclusive of difference through the active engagement of our diversity. In other words, our nationhood and tribal specificity has, in many ways, been built upon a transnational foundation that has incorporated difference to assert more firmly and powerfully our distinctiveness as a people. Through the invocation of a specific event in Cherokee history, these comments offer a historical reminder of that tradition of Cherokee transnationalism, with the hope that such a reminder invigorates the confidence and compassion at the heart of Cherokee people-hood rather than the limiting and sometimes resentful anxieties that seem to undergird our current political atmosphere.

Strangers in a Strange Land

On June 5, 1730, seven young men were the first Cherokees to set foot upon English shores. Brought to England by Sir Alexander Cuming, an erratic, social-climbing aristocrat who sought to curry favor with King George II by presenting the Cherokees as ambassadors who offered homage (and land rights) to the Crown, the visitors were a fascination to gentry and commoner alike. Yet, as the above passage notes, it wasn't only the English who took the opportunity to observe the customs, costumes, and manners of strangers. The visit was perhaps more educational for the Cherokees than for the English, to whom the Cherokees were a curious spectacle of savage finery that reinforced their own sense of superiority. For the Cherokees—and especially for the youngest member of the group, Oukanekah, who would become famous in later years as Ada Gal'kala, or the Little Carpenter—this three-month visit would be an opportunity to observe the diversity and divisions of English [End Page 170] life from a unique and theretofore unparalleled perspective.4 The experience would have a profound influence on subsequent politics and diplomatic efforts in the Cherokee lands of southeastern North America, and it offers an instructive perspective on "transnational" questions of today's "shifting world order" as they relate to the Indigenous nations that still endure in the lands claimed by the United States.

It's important to note that indigeneity—the constitutive lived relationship and kinship of a people to a particular land, its histories, and its other-than-human inhabitants—is, in many ways, inextricable from definitions of the transnational, even though both categories are often assumed to be oppositional. Placing indigeneity and transnational at opposite ends of relationality is, in large measure, a Rousseauian inheritance of fossilized noble savages trapped in atemporal isolation from both change (cultural and biological) and other peoples.5 Whereas Christopher Columbus heralded a dramatic (and catastrophic) level of transnational and intercultural interaction between Indigenous American and European peoples, Native realities in the Americas were, by necessity, transnational, for vast and complex relations of diplomacy, trade, conflict, and kinship connected diverse Native peoples long...


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