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James Mackay

After the Trail of Tears

Cherokee Christianity.

This major novel by the Cherokee writer Diane Glancy, a companion piece to her 1996 novel Pushing the Bear: A Novel of the Trail of Tears, provides an exploration of faith, love and loss in the context of what is still one of the most disturbing events in American history.

In 1838, American soldiers rounded up the Cherokee still living in Georgia and North Carolina, and drove them into stockades. These were, in effect, concentration camps. Around 2,000 people died in their cramped, disease-ridden conditions, including hundreds of infants. Those who survived were then forced to march from their ancestral homelands to the new land that had been promised them. Guarded by American soldiers, they walked the 900 miles to "Indian Territory," modern Oklahoma. At least 1,500 of those who set off did not complete the journey, whether due to death or to slipping their guards en route. Estimates vary, but when added to the earlier forced migrations of 1817, it seems likely that around 3,500-4,000 Cherokees died as a direct result of an American policy of ethnic cleansing, carried out in direct breach of several binding treaties that recognized Cherokee governance and sovereignty.

Just as important for the people, their land, from which had flowed their religion, their social customs, their very sense of themselves as a people, was taken from them forever. Their towns were destroyed, their sacred lakes, meeting grounds, and graveyards barred to them, their farms given to European settlers. The Nation had been split, not once but several times. Historian Robert Conley records in his monumental The Cherokee Nation: A History (2005) that in 1839 there were as many as five distinct groups, each with its own leaders and politics. Some Cherokee, under Younaguska, had evaded removal and remained in North Carolina; to these outliers can be added the group living in the independent Republic of Texas. In Oklahoma, where the Trail of Tears had ended, there were the Old Settlers, who had agreed to move to Indian Territory under duress as early as 1794, and had been the subject of derision from their fellow Cherokee for decades. They had already accommodated the signers of the (illegitimate) Treaty of New Echota and their followers, known as the Treaty Party. Now they found themselves faced not only with the 17,000-strong Nation on their doorsteps, but also with the assertion of Chief Andrew Ross that the National Party, the government elected by the survivors of the Trail, was from henceforth the sole legitimate governing body.

The years after Removal were marked by battles both internal and external. Several of the signatories of the Treaty of New Echota were murdered, sparking a wave of tit-for-tat assassinations accompanied by intimidation of voters, accusations of electoral fraud, and fights with other Native communities in the area, both pre-existing and also other communities who had been promised the same land by the U.S. government. Meanwhile the people who had marched the Trail of Tears were confronted with the challenge of creating new farms on mostly unpromising ground, with new climatic conditions, new soils, and without, as they saw it, the protection of their gods. In short, this is a period that is fiendishly complex to understand, with a desperate people who left few written sources on which we can draw.

Diane Glancy's previous novel in this historical territory attempted to animate the experience of the Trail itself via a patchwork of short first-person narratives. As she has remarked several times, she was struck by the fact that conventional histories of the period tended to dismiss the Trail, surely the most important event in each marcher's life, in a single sentence: "And then they walked 900 miles." This observation feeds into Glancy's consistent concern, over an extraordinarily productive career as a poet, novelist, essayist, and dramatist, to give voice to those who she sees as ignored. In particular, she has always been interested in the interior lives of women, especially women whose voices are omitted or unheard in mainstream culture. This is most obvious in her semi-autobiographical Flutie, where the eponymous heroine grows up in rural Oklahoma literally without a voice, but it is most strikingly the concern that unites her historical novels. Stone Heart tried to tell the true story of Sacagawea, the Shoshone woman whose role in the Lewis and Clark Expedition made her an American heroine, but whose appearance, history, and personal perceptions are entirely erased from the journals. The Reason for Crows again takes a Native American woman whose very iconicity seems to hide the absence of voice, the Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha (the first Native person to be canonized), and infuses her first-person narrative with a presence built on both Native history and a burning personal faith.

Christian faith, indeed, is the other constant concern of Glancy's works. Whether the Pentecostal revelation of Fuller Man or the simpler faith of The Only Piece of Furniture in the House (or indeed in the non-fictional diary Claiming Breath), Christianity is an assumed, necessary part of her voice. But there is nothing simple or assured about Glancy's faith: how could there be, given the complex and not always positive role of Christianity in Native American histories? Christ's message, as she acknowledges, came to Native America too often on the back of guns and disease, alcohol and colonial power, the breaking of the sacred hoop of Native spiritualities and the willed and deliberate destruction of Indigenous cultures. Her essays, in particular as collected in The Cold-and-Hunger Dance, return to this question frequently, and, though there is no question of her rejecting the Christian message, she nonetheless refuses to turn a blind eye: on the contrary, she forthrightly acknowledges the powerful challenge to faith this history of destruction brings. As Knobowtee, one of the main characters in Pushing the Bear, declares: "I had lost my land and there was a just God. Just try and reconcile that." This agonizing question is the very heart of his creator's artistry.

Glancy's ambition in the original Pushing the Bear has been seen as creating some problems. Her version of the reasons for Removal is slanted toward that offered by the Treaty Party. As Daniel Heath Justice has pointed out (in Our People Survive the Storm: A Cherokee Literary History), this is a version that many modern Cherokee historians reject as overly partial. Her decision to include untransliterated Tsalagi words and phrases, a stylistic choice intended to emphasize the "Cherokee-ness" of the interior monologues that made up the narrative, is sometimes undermined by her lack of facility in the language, with one scholar remarking that it is not possible in some cases to determine which word had been intended (any English-speaker who has wrestled with the 84-character Cherokee syllabary will be sympathetic). Finally there is her decision to present the Trail in the context of a missionary narrative, which could be seen as close to accepting the colonial mission. Glancy chooses to report the voices of the only detachment led by a clergyman, the Reverend Jesse Bushyhead (a real person, later the chief justice of the Cherokee supreme court), and a number of the major characters describe the difficulty of being torn between the way of the "conjurors" (i.e., traditional religious leaders and healers) and the new message of Christ's sacrifice. This division is particularly mirrored in the principal story, that of the fictional characters Maritole and her husband Knobowtee: a couple whose faltering marriage collapses on the death of their child at the start of the Trail, and whose reconciliation at the end of the march seems to prefigure a tentative reconciliation of differing ways. It also reflects a harsh truth: that the Removal and subsequent strife in the new territory do indeed seem to have pushed the Cherokee, who had originally strongly resisted, towards the Christian faith.

The volume under review, Pushing the Bear: After the Trail of Tears, picks up immediately where its predecessor ended, with the marchers trying to come to terms with life in their new homeland. In writing this, Glancy seems to have addressed some of the concerns mentioned above. The political narrative is much clearer and seems to me—I am, it should be stressed, no expert in Cherokee history—to present a more balanced view of the various parties involved. The untransliterated Cherokee is entirely absent, which avoids the problem of translation but also possibly suggests a population increasingly fluent in English and increasingly given to Euroamerican forms of understanding. And though there is no question of where this deeply Christian writer's sympathies will eventually lie (a point to which I will return), her descriptions of the agonies suffered by people wrenched away from the places upon which their spiritual lives depend are notably stronger and deeper than the references to "conjurors" in the earlier book.

The most immediately obvious change, however, is her decision to alter her storytelling technique. In the earlier book, most pages contain at least two short, first-person narratives, coming from a cast of around fifty characters that mixed fictional with historical persons. The effect is that after a chapter or so the reader starts to view the voices more as a continuous patchwork than as individuals: a neat trick to get across the idea of a communal or tribal identity. This technique also allowed Glancy to incorporate short excerpts from historical documents as part of the voice of history. In After the Trail of Tears, the chapters are lengthier and are no longer told in first-person voice; instead, as Glancy puts it in her (very useful) afterword, "it is one narrator speaking in a daguerreotype style of writing," with each chapter written as though photographed by a pinhole camera "in which the edges of the photo [are] blurred but, in the center, a small image of clarity." The daguerreotype, the first true photographic process, was presented in public for the first time in 1839, the year Removal came to an end, so her invocation of it here is a reminder of the modernity of the Cherokee, their survival and growth as a people in the photographic era—a useful reminder, given the way that stereotyped views of Native Americans tend to insist that they should remain fixed in pre-Contact cultural modes.

The list of characters has been whittled down by around two-thirds, making for a much stronger concentration on the story of Maritole and Knobowtee and their immediate families, on the one hand, and of the Baptist ministers Jesse Bushyhead (himself Cherokee) and Evan Jones, evangelizing among the new communities. The characters begin the novel in a state of what would now be called posttraumatic stress disorder: unable to adjust to the end of the trail ("They had to readjust once again. This time it was to not walking"), unable to understand the new landscape, and having enormous difficulties retaining any sense of community. This is classic Glancy territory, where the numbness and concealed pain of the characters allows her elliptic and poetic style of writing to bring out human feelings that would never be recorded in history books. Although there are many dramatic incidents in the novel (including the deaths of children, the burning down of a cabin, the descent of one character into alcoholism and the remarriage of a central couple), they are not the focus of attention. Rather, Glancy is preoccupied with bringing out the interior lives of her characters, and their correlated adoption of new faiths and new understandings of community.

On several occasions, she directly compares the old ways of Cherokee mystery with the path of Christian self-reliance:

The conjurors' words were not made as a conduit for another, such as the Bible work of Jesse Bushyhead and Evan Jones. It was not a reflection of another, but a determiner of itself, of how things had been and would continue to be.
By a word, a conjuror could remove stones from his field. For the Christians, it was their God who did things for them, though the conjurors saw Christians sweating as though they themselves removed the stones from their fields.

Although she is scrupulously careful never to judge her characters, it is clear that she sees the redemption of certain characters in baptism as their salvation. And while the novel reflects the syncretic religious practices common among modern-day Native Christians (by, for example, showing the positive effect of the revival of ceremonies associated with the corn-goddess Selu), it is Jesse Bushyhead, the undoubted moral rock of the community, who insists that all Cherokee must eventually choose to enter the Christian church and give up their old ways.

But After the Trail of Tears is not, finally, a work of moral philosophy, for all it poses these difficult, faith-challenging questions. The story of the stoic Maritole's struggle with depression and loss; the story of the earnest Knobowtee and his conflict with his anguished brother Oga-na-ya; the story of Jesse Bushyhead's attempt to make community from rocks: these are what the reader will remember. Glancy has achieved the difficult balance she intended, of showing how little the historical record tells us (reports from the historical Baptist mission, obtusely unconcerned with the suffering of the souls under their pastoral care, are scattered through the text, together with other documents that show the poverty of the people), and then using those fragments of a world, together with her own strong insight into the human spirit, to create a moment of clarity for modern readers. Though, as an atheist myself, I cannot say that I agree with her strongly Christian conclusions, nonetheless it is impossible to deny the power and achievement of these two novels. For Christian readers interested in the thorny questions around the spreading of God's word, for readers interested in underexplored American histories, or for readers who are simply interested in the creation of voice by a powerful and complex writer, Pushing the Bear—and especially its second volume—is essential reading.

James Mackay is assistant professor of American and British Literatures at the European University Cyprus. He is the editor of The Salt Companion to Diane Glancy.

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