In 2012, little white signs with red lettering began appearing throughout western North Carolina next to monuments and roadside markers dedicated to Cherokee history. In both English and the Cherokee syllabary, they proclaimed, “we are still here.” The message was simple. Despite America’s collective memory of the United States’ forced removal in the 1830s of several thousands of Indigenous people from their southeastern homelands to a new territory in the West, many American Indians, including the Cherokee, still called the South home. These signs were part of a project created by the artist Jeff Marley (Eastern Band Cherokee), and they represent a kind of coda to historian Andrew Denson’s remarkable and surprising study of the legacy of the so-called Trail of Tears, the most infamous event in the Indian history of the American South. Monuments to Absence traces the development of memorials, historic sites, and tourist attractions since the turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth century to tell a surprising tale: rather than rejecting this tragic history, white southerners embraced the Trail of Tears, celebrating the region’s history of Indian removal, and in the process they constructed a public memory of Cherokee removal that, ironically, reinforced white ownership of the South. This public memory, Denson contends, permitted whites to acknowledge historical injustices while still clinging to a redemptive narrative of American innocence. The Trail of Tears was a mistake—one Americans have, perhaps unexpectedly, admitted for generations—but recognition of that mistake has never led to a challenge to the fundamental legitimacy of American nationhood. In Monuments to Absence: Cherokee Removal and the Contest over Southern Memory, Denson argues that Cherokee removal has been constructed as a historical aberration because to do otherwise would be to admit that the United States rests less upon a set of liberal political values than on a series of colonial conquests and territorial acquisitions. Denson proceeds chronologically in his exploration of the public memory of Cherokee removal. He begins with a brief overview of the 1830s and Cherokee removal and then discusses late-nineteenth-century writings, such as Helen Hunt Jackson’s A Century of Dishonor: A Sketch of the United States Government’s Dealings with Some of the Indian Tribes (1881), which cemented the Trail of Tears in public memory. He then explores tourism and the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which highlighted the story of removal and was part of a larger campaign to draw visitors to the region. Next, Denson considers Chattanooga’s centennial in 1938, a celebration that embraced Cherokee history, and especially the Trail of Tears, as part of the city’s heritage. But while Chattanooga’s commemorations of the Trail of Tears acknowledged its legacy of violence and injustice, the centennial’s message overall was one of national reunion following the Civil War. Denson continues this theme in a fascinating chapter on the establishment of New Echota, the former Cherokee Nation capital, as a Georgia state historical site in 1962. Encompassing land purchased by local boosters the same year as the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), the New Echota State Historic Site, according to Denson, presented a narrative of regret that expressed a desire to atone for the violence of the past. But the timing was not merely a coincidence. “Civil rights politics made Cherokee removal a more desirable subject of public memory,” Denson argues, because apologizing for removal while ignoring contemporary struggles over black civil rights allowed white southerners “to express a commitment to an American ideal of equality at a time when civil rights activists condemned the segregated South as profoundly un-American” (112–113). This insightful chapter is followed by a discussion of the pageant-play Unto These Hills within the context of the postwar federal policy of termination, arguing that the play’s success allowed Eastern Band Cherokees to avoid the more disruptive aspects of termination because of local whites’ fear that doing so would derail the region’s economic development and the tourism boom. Finally, Denson concludes the book with a chapter that traces the reemergence of the Cherokee Nation government in Oklahoma alongside public memory projects put forward by the Cherokee Nation, and another on the creation of the Trail of Tears National Historical Trail in 1987. Monuments to Absence is notable for its many contributions to American Indian history and southern memory studies. In particular, Denson brings settler colonialism to the forefront of his analysis to argue that public memory is part of the conquest and colonization of Indigenous peoples in the United States. He also introduces Indians into the narrative of southern memory to disrupt the black/white paradigm. Finally, Denson’s points about how these narratives of aberrant events are necessary for the production of a progressive narrative of American history are especially significant. As he puts it: “Acknowledging a history of injustice suggests that we are better now. Indeed, the very act of recognition proves that we are better, since it demonstrates a moral sensibility superior to that of past generations. We reassure ourselves that contemporary Americans will not commit similar mistakes, and, with that reassurance, we render the very history we commemorate less relevant and less troubling” (194, emphasis in the original). Yet the book is not without its shortcomings. Denson ably deploys a variety of historical memory theories such as Erika Doss’s ideas on “memorial mania” and Kenneth Foote’s notion of sanctification, but he rarely builds upon, critiques, or expands upon these theories. Scholars looking for how Cherokee removal in southern memory changes the way we think about historical memory formation more generally will be disappointed by the occasional avenues left unexplored in Denson’s study. That said, Monuments to Absence is a powerful and important study and a must-read for anyone interested in the history of Cherokee removal, southern memory, and U.S. cultural history. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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