- Centering Native Diasporas in North American History
During the past decade, the concept of diaspora has made a powerful entry into Native North American history.1 While scholars may have previously felt uncomfortable with this culturally alien term whose origins lie in Jewish history, many have come to embrace it as a way to make sense of the continent’s Indigenous pasts, which seem increasingly complex, shifting, and entangled.2 Since 2000, three overlapping historiographical trends have paved way for this development. First, Jon Parmenter, Michael Witgen, and others have recalibrated scholarly understandings of mobility in Native North America, arguing that rather than a sign of Native decline or disunity, mobility often constituted a strategy for political expansion, a complex cultural way of inhabiting space, and a social process linking people to one another.3 Second, Ned Blackhawk, Robbie Ethridge, [End Page 677] and others have reconsidered how violence shaped Indigenous North America, splintered communities, hammered fragments into new “coalescent societies,” and turned Native homelands into “borderlands” and “shatter zones.”4 Finally, a burgeoning body of research has demonstrated that in this world of mobility and violence Indigenous identities were always multi-layered, fluid, and debated—yet also resilient and enduring.5
Together, these studies have raised new questions about belonging, peoplehood, power, and place in Native North American history. Even more fundamentally, they have invited scholars to rethink how to write about the continent’s past: whose perspectives, which geographical borders, and which communal identities should frame historical narratives when such traditional foci as nations, tribes, and bounded places seem inadequate, even distorting? Diaspora offers one fertile perspective for engaging these questions, for it binds together mobility, networks, identity, lived and remembered landscapes, and violence. Emphasizing the concept’s complexity, one specialist defines diaspora as an involuntary migration, the connections among the dispersed migrants, and their enduring links to old homelands.6
The three excellent monographs under review here thoughtfully explore the possibilities and potential problems of using diaspora as an analytical lens in Native North American history from a variety of perspectives. Taken together, they illuminate how centering Indigenous diasporas can help reconfigure the continent’s history. As the three books give different weight to the concept of diaspora—indeed, John L. Steckley does not even use the term—and trace quite differing diasporic experiences, they collectively offer a good overview of what historians can do with the concept.
The one to make the most thorough use of diaspora theory is Gregory D. Smithers in his superb exploration of how diverse experiences and memories of migration shaped Cherokee notions of identity from the mid-1700s to the 1940s. As the book’s unconventional temporal scope suggests, Smithers boldly reframes and re-centres Cherokee history. While studies of Cherokee history have traditionally [End Page 678] been dominated by the Trail of Tears, the forced removal of the Cherokees from their homelands in southeastern North America to the Indian Territory in 1838-1839, Smithers situates this traumatic event in a much broader context of mobility and connectivity. Tracing the diverse experiences of various Cherokee communities, groups, and individuals across a wide landscape stretching from the Southeast to Hawaii, he demonstrates that the Cherokees interpreted their multiple migrations, resettlements, and identities in radically differing ways. Indeed, from the late eighteenth century on, Cherokee identity has been “multi-dimensional” and “multi-sited” (p. 16), a nexus of contestation as well as unity.
Although the Trail of Tears still rightfully plays an important role in Smithers’s analysis, he places equal weight to two other transformative periods of displacement and resettlement: the turn of the nineteenth century and the US Civil War. During the late 1700s, relentless Anglo-American expansion convinced many Cherokees that the only way to maintain a viable Cherokee “soul...