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  • Diasporic WomenWahnenauhi, Narcissa Owen, and the Shifting Frontiers of Cherokee Identity
  • Gregory D. Smithers (bio)

At the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth century, two women of Cherokee descent gave voice to dynamic, innovative, and in their minds modern articulations of what it meant to be Cherokee in the United States. Wahnenauhi, better known to Euroamericans as Lucy Lowrey Hoyt Keys, was one of these women. At the end of the nineteenth century the Smithsonian Institution reportedly paid her ten dollars for her "manuscript," written in the Cherokee syllabary and first published in 1889. Narcissa Owen, Wahnenauhi's contemporary, also wrote a Cherokee history of sorts, publishing her memoir in 1907.1 Analyzed together, Wahnenauhi and Owen's writings highlight how educated Cherokee women understood the historical dimensions of place, movement, and identity at the turn of the century.

Wahnenauhi and Owen rarely receive more than passing mention in Cherokee historiography. The confinement of their writings to the footnotes of history obscures how both women used their considerable literary skills to critique the cultural forces of settler colonialism, forces that helped to rationalize the exile of the vast majority of Cherokees during the 1830s.2 Wahnenauhi and Owen's writings were published during the allotment era (ca. 1880s–1932), a period of American history defined by the federal government's efforts to parcel Native American landholdings to individual allottees, to dismantle tribal sovereignty, and to assimilate indigenous people into white society.3 Set against this historical backdrop, Wahnenauhi and Owen were part of a generation of indigenous writers, performers, and activists who pushed against government efforts to eliminate Native Americans from the United States.

Wahnenauhi and Owen joined writers and activists like Sarah Winnemucca and Zitkala-Ša, and fellow Cherokee authors and celebrities Ruth Margaret Muskrat; Anne Ross, a descendant of principal chief John Ross, and a performer who styled herself "Princess Galilolle"; and Rachel Caroline Eaton, a historian and the first Native American woman to receive a PhD from an [End Page 197] American university. In their own ways, all these women engaged in a conversation with Euroamerican settler colonial culture and its political economy.4 Thus Wahnenauhi and Owen were not, as white Americans routinely imagined Native Americans during this period, human relics of a bygone era passively existing outside historical time and destined for extinction. Instead, Wahnenauhi and Owen used their considerable literary talents to underscore how Native women felt connected to the past and maintained a sense of their unique indigeneity in "modern" America through the nurturing of biracial and bicultural connections to both "white" and "red" America.5 In other words, they were women of the Cherokee diaspora.

The Cherokee diaspora that Wahnenauhi and Owen became part of during the nineteenth century was a product of shifting colonial power dynamics among the Cherokees, Europeans, and Euroamerican colonizers during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Imperial wars, most notably the Seven Years' War and the American Revolutionary War, had devastating consequences for Cherokee communities, as they did for virtually all Native Americans in eastern North America. In response to the destruction of Cherokee towns and farmsteads, and the aggressively expanding settler frontier, some Cherokees sought refuge from the instability that engulfed their lives.6 As many as five thousand Cherokees headed westward during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, settling in the Arkansas Valley, where they attempted to recreate the peaceful life that elders remembered in the Southeast. Other Cherokees headed farther west. For example, Tachee (or Dutch) led a small multi-ethnic band of Cherokees and Kickapoos into Mexican Texas in the early nineteenth century.7

These early Cherokee migrations paled in comparison to the westward movement of Cherokees during the 1830s. By far the largest westward migration of Cherokees occurred in the late 1830s, when the federal government forcibly removed between 12,000 and 15,000 Cherokees from their homes and farmsteads in the Southeast. Whether they traveled overland in ox-drawn wagons along military roads or by steamers along river routes, Cherokees wrenched from their homes in 1838 and 1839 never forgot the hardships endured and the deaths of family and friends witnessed on the journey west. These memories left the...


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