Update 1: Looking for the Memories of Native Americans

During the past two weeks, I was reviewing the secondary literature about the concept of blood among the so-called Five Civilized Tribes because of its close relationship with American Indians’ racial perception. However, in this process, I encountered an article written by Amanda Cobb-Greetham about Cherokee and Creek women’s memories of the Civil War in Indian Territory. This article struck me because of my recent interests in the Civil War memories. As David Blight argued in his book, Beyond the Battlefield, “memory is usually invoked in the name of nation, ethnicity, race, religion, or someone’s felt the need for peoplehood (p.4).” Indian identity and the issue of who qualifies as the “real Indian” have long been controversial. Through the lens of historical memories and through exploring how American Indians remembered the Civil War, I may be able to explore how they defined themselves as a distinctive people in this sectional conflict in which white Americans and African Americans re-defined their identities as well. Thus, after conferring with my advisor, Professor Andrew Fisher, I decided to change my focus on Five Civilized Tribes’ Civil War memories to explore how they made sense of the war and how they rationalized their distinctive identity.

I faced some difficulty with this topic. First was the scarcity of secondary literature on this topic. Most of the literature of Civil War memories focus on the sectional relationship between white Northerners and Southerners and the black-and-which racial tension embodied in the limitations of reconciliation. However, very few literature deals with American Indians’ Civil War memory and even fewer for the so-called Five Civilized Tribes. I am now setting out to a field that is largely unknown, which would be an exciting challenge for me without knowing the potential results. Lacking the secondary literature, I have some trouble pinning down the archives I should look at. Luckily, I found a collection called “Indian Pioneer Papers Collection” in the University of Oklahoma library, which is the oral history conducted in Oklahoma as part of the Work Progress Administration project. I spent a week reading the oral history transcripts of Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, and Choctaw about their Civil War experiences or their families’ experiences. From their accounts, I found some patterns. Among those who were interviewed, most of them expressed their feeling of not being willing to participate in the war at the beginning and were forced to join the war due to the constant raiding and persuasion of Confederate commissioners. The omission of the discussion of slavery in these accounts may have suggested some interesting tribal perspectives of the Civil War, which I would explore further in the later stages of research. It is also interesting to see the variation of the five tribes’ experiences, where the Cherokee experienced the split between Stand Watie and the loyal Cherokees and Opuithli Yahola led the non-Confederate Creek to flee to avoid the war.

For the next stage of research, I will continue to exploit relevant materials from the Indian Pioneer Papers Collection. Meanwhile, I went over the archive catalog of Oklahoma Historical Society and Western History Collection of the University of Oklahoma and summarized the list of archives I may look at. I also reached out to the archivists there. Once they provide more detailed information about archives for me, I will start reading those archives as well. I expect these archives to present me more native voices of the Civil War memories and the minority’s perspective in the national progress of the United States.


Blight, David W. Beyond the battlefield: race, memory & the American Civil War. Univ of
Massachusetts Press, 2002.

Cobb-Greetham, Amanda. “Hearth and home: Cherokee and Creek women’s memories of the Civil
War in Indian territory.” In The Civil War and Reconstruction in Indian Territory.
University of Nebraska Press, 2015.


  1. Hi! I think the focus of your research is extremely interesting as I find the Civil War fascinating. While I’m not a history major nor have I taken many classes on the topic, I love learning about it but I have not thought about the repercussions for the American Indians living in the United States at the time. Your original focus on the identity of American Indians during this time caught my eye because recently I wrote a research paper investigating the effects of misclassification of racial identity of American Indians in the health care system. The identity of these people is of extreme importance back during the war and it still is today, as others are still misclassifying them and therefore putting them in harm’s way when they shouldn’t be. I know you have slightly changed your topic, but I’m still interested in learning more throughout your research and look forward to reading your other posts and seeing your poster at the fair!

  2. tepayer says:

    Thanks for your research update! As someone who’s also researching a historical topic, I’m really interested to hear about your search for primary sources, as I know it’s often difficult to find primary sources, or to hear the voices of minority groups in a broader historical narrative. Personally, I haven’t worked with oral histories all that much, but I was wondering if you’ve been able to listen to any of the recordings rather than just reading the transcripts; I can imagine there’s something special about hearing a person telling their story out loud. I look forward to hearing about what other types of sources you come across in your research, and which archives or other places you reach out to in the course of your research!

  3. Yutong Zhan says:

    Thanks for your comment! For the oral history, I work with the transcripts and do not find the original tapes for the Indian Pioneer Papers, but I know there is one piece of recording of a Choctaw veteran in Oklahoma Historical Society. It would be great to listen to the original tapes to know the questions that the interviewers asked to get a better sense of the biases of the oral sources, but unfortunately it is quite hard for this collection.

  4. Yutong Zhan says:

    Thanks for the comment! Your research about American Indians’ identity classification sounds pretty interesting! Indeed, the war and memory are closely related to American Indians’ self-perceptions as a distinctive people, as well. Cherokee leaders, such as John Ross, constantly invoked the language of “brotherhood” and “red brethren,” upholding the pan-Indian identity. Moreover, my other sources suggest that white Americans also incorporated American Indians in their Civil War commemorative efforts, which might have created the contested perceptions of Indian identities. I read a couple of secondary literature about Indian-African Americans race relations in the earlier stages of my research. The changing racial relations tell another story about Indian identity. Identity has always been an interesting topic and I would definitely like to do more research on this subject.

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