'The Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears,' by Theda Perdue and Michael D. Green
Do readers need another book about the Cherokee Nation's 1838 - 39 removal to Indian Territory on the Trail of Tears? Many scholarly works already exist on the subject, as do fictionalized accounts, a book of contemporary photographs of sites along the trail, even works of juvenile literature. As even Theda Perdue and Michael D. Green, authors of ''The Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears,'' point out, the story of the Trail of Tears has been told so frequently it has come to embody the removal experienced by dozens of other tribes.
The answer, thankfully, is yes, readers do need another book about the Trail of Tears; or at least, they need this one.
In their introduction, Perdue and Green, both professors at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, present their argument that the Cherokee removal story exemplifies ''a larger history'' and ''an American tragedy.'' Proving their argument ultimately receives less attention than does the updating and reframing of the Cherokee removal story so that it incorporates the contemporary, scholarly conversations about identity, sovereignty, economics, religion, race, class and gender happening in the field of U.S. history and its subfield of American Indian history.
This tight work is organized into chapters, chronological and thematic, and spans the federal ''civilization'' policy of the late 1700s to the decades after the removal and leading up to the Civil War. The first chapter, ''The Land and the People,'' establishes the Cherokees' attachment to place, making the eventual removal all the more heartbreaking. Subsequent chapters focus on the Cherokees' organized resistance of removal, the pivotal Treaty of New Echota, the trail itself and the rebuilding of the Cherokee Nation in the West.
The work confidently chronicles the political, legal and racial conflicts between the United States, Georgia and the Cherokee Nation as the Cherokees struggle to remain in the Southeast. The authors don't shy from examining the widening split within the Cherokee Nation itself in the decades leading to removal. In this respect, the work offers a fairly unbiased perspective.
Historians often champion John Ross, chief of the Cherokees in the removal era, for his persistent resistance to removal. Perdue and Green, however, characterize Ross' stubborn resistance (unnuanced argument, a litany of petitions, repeated and unsuccessful trips to Washington) as unimaginative. Instead, they seem more sympathetic to the party of Cherokee progressives and intellectuals that orchestrated the 1835 Treaty of New Echota, which went against the majority by committing the Cherokees to removal, with the treaty party arguing that because removal was unavoidable, it was in the Cherokees' interest to at least negotiate the best possible terms.
Perdue and Green are scholars of the highest echelon, and their sources reflect it. The standards of Cherokee scholarship are present and accounted for - James Mooney, Charles Hudson, and Anna and Jack Kilpatrick - but with the new generation of scholars also appearing, including Barbara Duncan, Tom Hatley and Duane King. Primary sources include state and federal documents; pieces from The Cherokee Phoenix, the Cherokee Nation's bilingual newspaper; oral accounts; and many letters to and from the removal's primary players.
This book does a good job contextualizing removal within the Cherokees' broader history, and bringing into relief both the people deeply involved in removal - Ross, President Andrew Jackson, members of the treaty party, for instance - and those affected by it. The authors even add some new ''characters'' to the story, including Jeremiah Evarts, of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, who advocated for the Cherokees and left extensive writings about his opposition to removal. Survivor Rebecca Neugin's oral history of the event (recorded from the 1930s) does much to relay the common experience of hunger, sickness and discomfort of the removed. Perdue and Green are also on target in their focus on the extended stockade detainments the Cherokees endured before they embarked on their journeys west, as these were some of the most difficult and deadly aspects of removal.
One of the books' strengths - its attention to Indian sovereignty - is also a flaw. Few would argue that recognition of Indian sovereignty was implicit in the treaty-making practiced with tribes, first by the English and then the United States. But repeated references to sovereignty begin to seem gratuitous and beside the point.
But this is a small criticism. This book will serve as an excellent introduction to new students of Indian history, as well as a meaningful revisionist work for those already familiar with the Trail of Tears.
Jill Ingram is a freelance writer in Asheville, N.C.