- Monuments to Absence: Cherokee Removal and the Contest Over Southern Memory by Andrew Denson
In the last ten years, we have seen a plethora of scholarship on the use of historical memory to write and rewrite American Indian narratives. Most of [End Page 191] this scholarship, however, has come out of histories of the West. Books such as Ari Kelman's A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek, Boyd Cothran's Remembering the Modoc War: Redemptive Violence and the Making of American Innocence, and Karl Jacoby's Shadows at Dawn: An Apache Massacre and the Violence of History all demonstrate how public memory can serve as a venue for the violence of settler colonialism. Andrew Denson's new book moves the lens of public memory to the South, a historiography that while much has been explored in relation to the post– Civil War erasure of the slave narrative, remains relatively untouched when it comes to Native history. Denson argues that the remembrance of Native history is a large departure from these previous narratives of the south that sought to remove antebellum slavery from the major narrative. Instead, white southerners embraced the history of the Trail of Tears for its tales of loss and injustice, and in doing so "broadcast negative images of their forbearers" (5). The author argues that whites are able to do so because their own southern communities were built on the removal of Cherokees, and it was this removal that gave them the security that Cherokees were not a threat to their racial order. Denson goes further than just telling the stories of white communities' misuse of Native memory: he also shows how the removal story actually confirmed Cherokees' claim to land in the south and allowed them to assert a Native identity. The strength of Denson's book is his ability to tell the history of whites' use of the Trail of Tears while at the same time showing "how some Cherokees sought to turn the popularity of the removal memory to their own people's benefit."
The book is organized somewhat disjointedly, in chronological themes. The first chapter gives a short narrative history of the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The second chapter discusses the development of tourism around the Great Smoky Mountains and in Cherokee, North Carolina. In this chapter he argues that the creation of the Smokies as a tourist attraction was built on the wedding of the romantic landscape with the evocative human story of Cherokee removal. This is Denson's most persuasive chapter. He contends that the participation of Cherokees in historical productions and special "Indian Days" did not mean that they were able to alter the narratives told at these commemorative occasions, but their very presence indicated that they were persisting. The author's third chapter discusses the commemoration around the one hundredth anniversary of the Trail of Tears by the city of Chattanooga, and through this commemoration the city took hold of its removal past and therefore white heritage. In Chapter 4, Denson moves down to Georgia to discuss the memory-making of removal during the Civil Rights Era and then returns in Chapter 5 to Cherokee, North Carolina, to discuss how stereotypes and the otherness of Native people played a vital role in the Unto [End Page 192] These Hills outdoor historical pageant. The author then discusses memory formation in Oklahoma before ending with the establishment of the National Park Service's Trail of Tears National Historic Trail in 1987. While a more recent development, Denson argues that the interpretation along the trail still places the Trail of Tears in the past without any reference to contemporary political concerns.
Denson explores infrequently used primary sources such as tourist booklets, commemoration-commission planning notes, and roads and trails records for the National Park Service. The book is groundbreaking in effectively presenting how Native people crafted narratives alongside white narratives; however, it does not deal heavily in...