- The Cherokee Diaspora: An Indigenous History of Migration, Resettlement, and Identity by Gregory D. Smithers
gregory d. smithers
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015
Gregory Smithers’s Cherokee Diaspora tells a history of Cherokee peoples from the mid-eighteenth century up to World War II. Surveying that roughly two-hundred-year span, it attends to the emergence, persistence, and connection of twinned homelands (the “ancestral” North American Southeast and the “political” Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma), as well as extrahomeland regions where Cherokees in significant numbers have lived or sought to live, including Texas, California, and Australia (20). The shifting interrelationship of these long-standing and multisited resettlements undergirds what Smithers terms the Cherokee diaspora. “In [End Page 516] diaspora,” he explains, “the Cherokee people became settlers and were forced to reimagine their nation, their identities, and the nature of their homeland” (23). His overall goal is to describe how Cherokee experiences of migration, forced and chosen, have affected identity, where identity en-folds race and gender as well as Cherokees’ legal and political rights as citizens of Indian and US nations.
What is most admirable about Cherokee Diaspora is its endeavor to craft a narrative about multisitedness across multiple centuries rather than focusing on a single site or single era or even a pre-Removal Southeast–post-Removal Indian Territory trajectory. The results of Smithers’s ambitions are mixed, with the most successful and revelatory moments occurring in his interpretive rather than narrative sections. A sustained interpretation occurs at the beginning, in the prologue. Here, Smithers emphasizes the critical importance of dispersal and resettlement to a multiplex Cherokee history, and offers an important corrective to those histories foregrounding forced migration under settler colonialism, especially the Cherokee Removal of the 1830s, as the originary and principal migration experience of Cherokees. Turning to folklore and anthropology, Smithers relates how migration had long been a part of Cherokee identity. It is a motif of many origin and other oral stories and an evident part of proto-Cherokee and pre-Columbian existence. As a result, colonial-era Cherokees already possessed a practiced approach to communal “cycling and coalescence” (11).
After the prologue, Cherokee Diaspora shifts to the better-documented centuries, at least by Euro-American colonists, and presents a more traditional historiographical narrative (11). Part 1, along with the prologue, may be of most interest to early Americanists. It covers roughly 1750 to 1850 and traces the intensification in frequency and scale of this period’s Cherokee migrations. Ending with Removal and the establishment of the Cherokee Nation in the antebellum nineteenth century, part 1 showcases that not all Cherokee leaders agreed about when and how to respond to settler colonialism, encroachment, and the pressures to migrate. Some Cherokees advocated traditionalism and violent resistance to colonization, others intermarried with Euro-Americans and converted to Christianity; some left the hills to establish plantations in the flatter valleys of northeast Georgia, others moved westward to present-day Texas, Arkansas, or California. Some self-removed communities rejoined the Cherokees in the political [End Page 517] homeland in Indian Territory, others built permanent new homes in exile. The different responses of leaders and their followers often depended upon proximity to and travel among white Americans, family history, economics, and religion. Smithers makes clear that Cherokees were thoughtful and adapting participants in early American history.
With Removal came a bifurcation of the Cherokee homeland into its political and ancestral locations. In part 2, Smithers focuses on the interplay between these homelands as well as populations who desired to leave, return, or transfer. He ranges across the schisms and devastations produced by the Civil War; the post–Civil War “Refugee Business” and the fraught debates over citizenship and residency, especially that of Cherokees in the ancestral homeland and the Cherokee freedmen (Cherokees’ former slaves and their spouses and descendants); the emergence of two other US federally recognized Cherokee bands, Keetoowah and Eastern; the effects of diaspora upon allotment; and the continuing tension between race, identity, and citizenship in post–Civil War and early twentieth-century America, where black and white were the dominant...