Friday, January 01, 2021

Following a Trail of Tears

My 2020 reading ended with an interesting juxtaposition:  Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory by Claudio Saunt and An American Sunrise by Native American poet and current Poet Laureate of the United States Joy Harjo.  The former presents in some considerable detail America's efforts under Andrew Jackson to remove Native Americans from the eastern US.  The latter reflects in poetry and vignettes on the indigenous experience during the removals and how that experience continues to inform contemporary Native America.  The two books offer what I would call a full spectrum understanding of a very ugly event.   


 Unworthy Republic--the title comes from an opponent's description of the removal policy--documents the motives, methods, financing and multi-pronged attacks on Cherokees, Chickasaws, Creeks and Seminoles who stood in the way of the expanding southern slave labor empire.  It's a pretty grim read.  History already tells us how it turned out but the detail shows that it was not simply the inevitable result of expanding "civilization" but rather a murderous land grab that dispossessed many tens of thousand Native Americans of land and property.  Author Claudio Saunt notes that America's Indian Removal Act provided the model for the 20th century's mass deportations.  The only uplifting aspect of the entire affair is the principled and determined resistance of the Native American communities.  And in the end the resistance could not overcome capitalist greed and American military force.


An American Sunrise speaks to these same events but from a personal perspective.  The effects of the Removal still haunt Native America in the 21st Century.  As a member of the Creek Nation, Harjo is no stranger to the inequity between Native America and the rest of America.  She is also acutely aware that the Removal turned her ancestors from a self-sufficient people deeply rooted in the places they lived into dependent refugees in an alien land.  Harjo gives voice to the refugees who confronted the hardships inflicted by the dispossession and removal.  An American Sunrise also speaks with a modern voice, articulating not just the difficulties that plague Native America but also indigenous resilience and connection to their ancestral lands and heritage.


One theme that runs through both works is connection to the land.  Another is resistance.  Where Unworthy Republic informs about the tribes' various efforts, ranging from learned legal and moral arguments to armed resistance, An American Sunrise reminds us that Native America is still very much a part of America.