- Monuments to Absence: Cherokee Removal and the Contest over Southern Memory by Andrew Denson
Some history books are just timely. Andrew Denson’s compelling Monuments to Absence: Cherokee Removal and the Contest over Southern Memory landed on my desk as Americans grappled with public statues commemorating the Confederacy and slaveholders’ names affixed to school buildings. While some debates end tragically, equally often they demonstrate Americans’ deep investment in “our” history, whatever we mean by “our” or “us.”
Denson’s book engages the politics and practices of commemoration in the context of the Cherokee Removal and southern memory but might be read as a rumination on memorialization more generally. His signal contribution lies in identifying how a story of betrayal and racism, a stain on the founding principles of the United States, became a “usable history” that encouraged empathy with victims while eliding the ways injustice reverberates through history.
Monuments to Absence moves through seven chronologically organized chapters, each turning on episodes in the development of the Cherokee Removal as a focus for historical commemoration. Taken together, these episodes offer compelling insights into how the intersecting forces of tourism, commerce and performance, civil rights and the Cold War, and historical erasure and tribal resurgence gradually produced a redemptive narrative.
The story begins in early twentieth-century Appalachia, where promoting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park helped inspire popular representations of North Carolina Cherokees as isolated remnants of a once great but deeply wronged people. Crafted by anthropologist James Mooney and several public historians and boosters, this ersatz creation story featured Tsali’s moving tale of courage and sacrifice amidst a shameful betrayal. Though largely constructed externally and directed toward non-Indian tourists, the story included Cherokee participation through their performances of Indianness for tourists and the transformation of their annual fair into cultural and craft tourism.
The key to this emerging narrative lay in rooting the Cherokee story safely in the past, where it provided atonement without responsibility. This explains how in the 1930s non-Indian tourism boosters chased dollars and visitors by claiming the removal story for their use. Manifestations included popular pageants like the “Spirit of the Smokies” and efforts to cast Chickamauga Cherokees (who sided with the British during the American Revolution) as proto-Confederates. It helps us understand the jarring juxtaposition of the Georgia legislature’s funding a tourist attraction on the site of New Echota, the capital of the Cherokee Nation at the [End Page 114] moment of removal, with its concerted effort to resist desegregation. It speaks to the positioning of “Unto These Hills,” another popular pageant, as a Cold War narrative of American progress combatting race hatred.
These narratives relegated living Cherokees to bit parts in a drama having little to do with their own histories, but their effect was not wholly negative. North Carolina Cherokees found memorialization a useful tool for combatting termination, generating income and, at least indirectly, reviving cultural traditions. Oklahoma Cherokees found their usable past in the period following removal when their nation revived its economy and exercised self-government. Though Cherokee elites conveniently elided the dispossession that accompanied statehood, they were able to cast that moment as an inspiration and model for contemporary nation building.
Denson’s final chapter considers the “National Trail,” a National Park Service initiative to identify and commemorate the forced migration’s multiple routes. Paradox lies at the core of this story too, for white 1990s sensibilities (and National Park Service policy) encouraged memorializing injustice and remembering victims, and recognizing the crime of removal did not generate the same negative response by the public as have other incidents in the history wars. Thus, the removal story remained a safe narrative, a place to acknowledge a moment of national shame without confronting its enduring consequences. But hope remains, for as Denson demonstrates in his excellent final chapter, tribes see the National Trail as an opportunity to tell stories of resistance and survival, nationhood and sovereignty. So perhaps the new century will inaugurate a re...