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Cherokee Women in Crisis:
Trail of Tears, Civil War, and Allotment, 1838-1907
By Carolyn Ross Johnston
The University of Alabama Press, 2003
Trade paper, $29.95 (272 pages)
ISBN: 0-81735056-X
 
 
 

Cherokee culture in the southeastern United States, according to historian Carolyn Ross Johnston, was “one in which women had autonomy and sexual freedom, could obtain divorce easily, rarely experienced rape or domestic violence, worked as producers/farmers, owned their own homes and fields, possessed a cosmology that contains female supernatural figures, and had significant political and economic power.”  

It is not difficult to imagine how these distinctive cultural arrangements came under pressure after European contact. Johnston’s book on the Cherokee nation focuses on the triple threat of removal, Civil War, and allotment and how these traumatic episodes in Cherokee national history transformed gender roles for women. Each of these dislocations profoundly destabilized gender relations among the seven clans that had been historically matrilineal as well as matrilocal. 

Johnston is an accomplished historian at Eckerd College; her account of the Cherokee dispassionate and scholarly. But her interest in this subject is far from academic and began with the search for her great-great-great-grandmother Caldonia’s grave in 1993. Caldonia was a Cherokee woman who married a white man and died in 1843. Johnston’s ancestor serves as inspiration for her project, a book that uses a wealth of archival and secondary material to bring up to date the history of Cherokee women in the United States. 

Each September as many as 100,000 motorcycle riders from across the United States commemorate the Cherokee Trail of Tears in a trek through the southeast culminating in Waterloo, Alabama, on the Tennessee River. Removal was brutal and ruthlessly executed by the Jacksonian presidency. As many as 4,000 Cherokee may have perished in the journey to Indian Territory. Less well known is the devastation caused by the Civil War. Wealthy Cherokee owned slaves, and the nation found itself split by tribal conflict after siding with the Confederacy. In the post-bellum period, the federal government punished an already devastated nation—one third of the women were widows; one quarter of the children were orphans—for their choice of allies. Equally destructive to the Cherokee way of life was the forced “allotment” in the 1880s of tribal lands held in common. Allotment compelled the nation to embrace private ownership of a portion of tribal land while the United States government appropriated the sizeable remainder.  

There is no “essential” timeless Cherokee culture, Johnston reminds us, and Cherokee women felt the erosion of tribal autonomy as a gradual shift from matrilineal to patrilineal society. Elite Cherokee families speeded the transition by adopting Euro-American and patriarchal social patterns. Nevertheless, the prominent roles played by contemporary Cherokee women, illustrated by the election of Wilma Mankiller and Joyce Dugan as chiefs in the 1990s, reinforce the persistence of traditional gender roles despite a concerted two century attempt to “normalize” them within dominant white society.

 

Vince Brewton
Southern Scribe Reviews

 

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