- Sustaining the Cherokee Family: Kinship and the Allotment of an Indigenous Nation by Rose Stremlau
The federal government's allotment of Indian reservations into privately owned tracts of land at the turn of the twentieth century dispossessed native communities of most of their holdings and embedded arcane complexities in law and administration that have endured to the present day. While scholars recognize allotment's significance in the history of nearly every tribe in the United States, few have undertaken study of the allotment process and its consequences. Stremlau's close analysis of allotment's impact on Chewey, a community in the Cherokee Nation that now falls within Adair County, Oklahoma, is thus a valuable addition to the historiography. Stremlau's effort to situate this legislative disaster within the history of the family also makes her book noteworthy, since the family in native history has received even less scholarly attention than allotment.
The first half of Stremlau's book provides a general overview of Cherokee history in the nineteenth century. The second half of the book contains most of the new material that Stremlau has diligently gathered from the vast bureaucratic storehouse of records listing Cherokees, individually and in various family groupings. These lists include several important censuses that the Cherokee Nation conducted before the 1898 Curtis Act called for its dissolution. The federal government also generated lists in the form of the regular decennial U.S. census, special rolls of Cherokees produced during the 1830s removal period and at the turn of the twentieth century when the descendants of those removed in [End Page 251] 1838–1839 received some compensation, and lists of Cherokees compiled by the Dawes Commission during the long and complicated implementation of land allotment: the Dawes Rolls and its accompanying applications, petitions, maps, correspondence, hearings, probate records, and Indian account case files. Using the methods of a genealogist to reconstruct Cherokee kin connections and residence patterns, Stremlau had no choice but to restrict her study to a small segment of the Cherokee population. The book's many photographs add greatly to bringing to life the individuals affected by allotment policies.
Stremlau's main point is that the family was essential to understanding how the Cherokees responded to allotment. She presents persuasive and interesting evidence showing how the extended family functioned in Cherokee life to create bonds of both affection and economic sustainability and how the Dawes Commission acted from a different ideological vantage point by enrolling Cherokees in nuclear family fragments made up of a parent, or parents, with dependent children and, for those who fell outside that narrow definition of a family, as individuals. In addition, the Dawes Commission and the later Bureau of Indian Affairs administrators who managed the accounts of Indian allottees made determinations that favored patriarchy by ignoring the longstanding autonomy of Cherokee women and by defining land ownership as the rightful patrimony of men over the age of 21. Tracing several families well into the twentieth century, Stremlau argues that Cherokees tried to control the process as best they could. Some were outright resistors, most of whom were given allotments against their will. Others complied with allotment to preserve their homesteads and, for a generation at least, continued to live as they had before by residing near their extended relatives, the only significant change being the patronizing surveillance exercised by federal and state authorities and the feeling of loss of their corporate identity as citizens of the Cherokee Nation.
Stremlau succeeds at what she set out to do, but I wished for the book to do more. If I were to recommend any one book on land allotment, it would still be Melissa L. Meyer's The White Earth Tragedy: Ethnicity and Dispossession at a Minnesota Anishinaabe Reservation, 1889–1920 (1999), a book that has much in common with Sustaining the Cherokee Family but which Stremlau oddly does not mention nor even cite in her bibliography. Meyer reached some of the same conclusions as Stremlau while conveying more...