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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Masculine Heroes Cherokee Memorials

[6823] F. W. Greenough, Se-Quo-Yah [Sequoiah] (c. 1836), courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZC4-4815].

At the end of the eighteenth century, the Cherokee tribe was living in the mountain areas of northern Georgia and western North Carolina, on land guaranteed to them by the United States in the 1785 Treaty of Hopewell and the 1791 Holston Treaty. The Cherokee Nation had its own government, governing council, and by 1827 its own constitution, making it an independent sovereign nation. Increasingly, however, white settlers refused to respect Cherokee sovereignty and began encroaching on Cherokee land–especially when gold was discovered there in 1829. These illegal incursions by white settlers and prospectors were the basis for a series of ongoing disputes among the Cherokee Nation, the state of Georgia, and the federal government of the United States. In 1830 the United States Congress, with the support of President Andrew Jackson, attempted to legislate a permanent solution to the dispute by passing the Indian Removal Act by a narrow margin. The act stipulated that the government could forcibly relocate Native Americans living within their traditional lands in eastern states to areas west of the Mississippi designated as “Indian Territory.” With this stroke, the federal government officially sanctioned the prevalent racist view that Native Americans had no valid claims to their homelands and should be moved westward to make way for white settlers and white culture.

During the debates over the Indian Removal Act, many Cherokee writers penned impassioned letters, pamphlets, and editorials to defend their tribe’s right to its sovereignty and its land. Drawing on a long tradition of eloquence and a high rate of literacy and fluency in English among tribe members, the Cherokee produced articulate and compelling defenses of their position. In some cases they appealed to Congress and the courts directly with their letters and memorials–the nineteenth-century equivalent of petitions. The Cherokee Council, which was the official leadership body of the tribe, composed its own memorial to send to Congress, while also submitting twelve other memorials written by Cherokee citizens who, as the council put it, “wish to speak of their wishes and determination… themselves.”

John Ridge (the father of John Rollin Ridge), who held the position of council clerk, probably authored the Council’s official memorial with the help of the other council members. The document uses formal, polished, legalistic language to articulate its claim that the forced removal of the Cherokee would be unnecessary, contrary to established agreements, and immoral. In its efforts to appeal to its white audience, the memorial stresses the Cherokees’ commitment to “civilization” and their wish to “pursue agriculture and to educate their sons and daughters in the sciences,” thus implying that the Cherokees’ willingness to assimilate with white culture should strengthen their claim of sovereignty. At the same time, the memorial also insists on the Cherokees’ separateness from the United States and on their historical claim to their land–a claim that long predates the arrival of Europeans in America. Perhaps most powerfully, the memorial skillfully employs American republican ideals of independence, natural rights, and self-government to point out the hypocrisy of nineteenth-century American policy and to support the Cherokees’ claims. The citizens’ memorials use many of the same rhetorical strategies, but are generally characterized by less formal language than the document composed by the council. The Cherokee memorials provided a model of rhetoric for subsequent Native American protest literature, such as William Apess’s “An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man” (featured in Unit 4).

Tragically, for all their eloquence, the memorials were not effective. The state of Georgia, backed up by the federal government, continued to exert pressure upon the tribe to remove. Eventually, Ridge and some other leaders came to believe that resistance was futile and signed the Treaty of New Echota, agreeing to cede Cherokee lands to the state of Georgia. Most of the tribe, however, did not agree with the treaty and did not want to vacate their lands. In 1838, the United States government enforced the treaty by sending in federal troops and private contractors to compel the Cherokee to move west to what is now Oklahoma. One-third of the tribe died on the forced westward march, along what came to be known as the Trail of Tears.

Teaching Tips

  • Scholars have noted that the official memorial of the Cherokee Council employs pointed, though unstated, references to the language and logic of the Declaration of Independence. Most powerfully, by appealing to the ideals of independence and of natural human rights, the official memorial effectively points out the disjunction between American rhetoric of freedom and equality and the government’s despotic treatment of the Cherokee. Ask students to consider the relationship between the Cherokee memorials and foundational American documents such as the Declaration of Independence. You might have students examine the Cherokee syllabary, and then discuss the way the Cherokee might be considered a culture in transition between oral and written expression. The Cherokee were the first tribe in the United States to develop a complete syllabary–that is, a written script that included characters for the vowel and consonant sounds of their language, thus enabling them to write in Cherokee.
  • In its opening paragraphs, the “Memorial of the Cherokee Citizens” uses less formal language than the “Memorial of the Cherokee Council.” It is sometimes characterized as reflecting traditional Cherokee oratorical practices in its rhetoric and language, while the Council’s memorial is written in the conventional style of eighteenth-century government documents. Yet, by its closing, the Memorial of the Cherokee Citizens adopts more formal, legalistic language and sounds quite similar to the memorial of the Council. Ask students to consider the shift in tone and language in the Memorial of the Cherokee Citizens. Why might the memorialists have chosen to close their petition on a more formal note? What are the advantages and disadvantages of the two different styles at work in the memorial?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: How are the “Memorial of the Cherokee Council” and the “Memorial of the Cherokee Citizens” different from one another? Why do you think the Cherokee chose to submit multiple memorials from different groups in the tribe rather than a single memorial?
  2. Context: The Cherokee Council’s memorial points out that, historically, the “phraseology, composition, etc.” of treaties between the United States and the Cherokee were “always written by the Commissioners, on the part of the United States… as the Cherokees were unacquainted with letters.” Given the council’s awareness of this problem, what is the significance of the memorials’ status as written texts? How does the Cherokees’ “unlettered” history impact their written presentation of their situation?
  3. Context: What kinds of attitudes toward land and land ownership do the Cherokee memorials endorse? How do their feelings about their relationship to their land compare to nineteenth-century white writers’ attitudes toward land (in works by Cooper, Clappe, or Kirkland, for example)?
  4. Exploration: How do the Cherokee memorials compare to early national documents proclaiming American sovereignty (such as the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution)? How do the Cherokee memorials exploit traditional American rhetoric of freedom and natural rights to their own ends?
  5. Exploration: How does William Apess draw upon the rhetorical strategies and language developed by the Cherokee memorialists in his “Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man”? How do Apess’s reform goals compare to the memorialists’ goal of retaining possession of their homeland?
  6. Exploration: In The Return of the Native: American Indian Political Resurgence, sociologist and political scientist Stephen Cornell traces three basic stages in American Indian political resurgence. Cornell argues that while in the early contact period, Native American groups were able to maintain authority and status by playing European colonial powers off one another, in the years following the American Revolution, American Indian nations suffered a loss of land, social cohesion, and economic independence as America expanded westward. This dislocation and disempowerment was in turn followed by militant activism in the 1960s and 1970s. Where do the Cherokee memorials fit into this continuum and what resistance strategies do they use? How do their resistance strategies compare to those of the Sioux during the Ghost Dance (Unit 1), or the Costanoans during the revolt against the Franciscan missionaries (Unit 7)?

Selected Archive Items

[5595] Gales and Seaton’s Register, Register of Debates, House of Representatives, 23rd Congress, 2nd Session, Pages 1007 through 1008, Cherokee Memorial (1835),
courtesy of the Library of Congress.
This is a record of Congress’s reception of the Cherokee Council Memorial. Despite their petitions and appropriation of the republican ideals of natural rights and independence, the Cherokee people were forced off their lands in 1838.

[5916] John Ross to Abraham Lincoln, September 16, 1862 [Re: Relations between the U.S. and the Cherokee Nation] (1862),
courtesy of the Library of Congress.
During the early nineteenth century, Cherokee politics were highly factionalized. Author John Rollin Ridge’s grandfather, Major Ridge, argued that it was useless to resist the U.S. government and hence supported removal. John Ross led the opposing faction, which urged complete resistance.

[6823] F. W. Greenough, Se-Quo-Yah [Sequoiah] (c. 1836),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZC4-4815].
Half-length portrait of Sequoyah holding a tablet that shows the Cherokee alphabet. Sequoyah developed a Cherokee syllabary that enabled his people to write in their own language.

[8688] Arch C. Gerlach, editor, Map of Early Indian Tribes, Culture Areas, and Linguistic Stocks [from The National Atlas of the United States, U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Geological Survey] (1970),
courtesy of the General Libraries, University of Texas at Austin.
The Cherokee Nation originally lived in the southeastern part of what is now the United States, but after the unsuccessful petitions of the Cherokee memorials, the Cherokee people were removed to present-day Oklahoma.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey

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Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

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