Update 2: Complexities of Memories

Since my last update, I immersed myself in reading the primary documents from five tribes in the Indian Pioneer Papers, Grant Foreman Collection from Oklahoma Historical Society, and microfilm collection Cherokee Nation Papers in Western History Collection of the University of Oklahoma. The sources include correspondence, newspaper articles and editorials, obituaries, petitions, general orders, and oral history. Though at this stage, my sources are mostly relating to the Confederate Cherokee Indians, I did have some exciting findings.

While reading the sources of Civil War era, I gained a new understanding of why the elite Cherokees decided to join the North or the South. It is commonly believed that slavery was the main reason that Indians, especially the Five Tribes which adopted slavery as a sign of civilization in the early twentieth century, chose to side with the Confederacy. Admittedly, slavery did make some of the Cherokees feel the affinity to the white Southerners, but slavery seemed not to be the central concern. Interestingly, very few Cherokee leaders, indeed only Stand Watie as I’ve seen so far, used the language of “cause” as a patriotic call. Though Watie invoked the “cause,” his understanding of the cause, in my opinion, seemed not to be centered on preserving slavery; preserving the Indian Nation was a major concern which required Cherokees to fight vigorously. The omission of the “cause” in the narration in the Indian Pioneer Papers also suggested slavery’s relatively minor place in the Indian motives of choosing sides. Watie also seemed to be aware of the historical agency that he and his troops had in this war, as he appealed his soldiers to fight valorously to write a glorious history of Confederate Indians.

After the war, although the public Civil War commemoration of the Five Tribes was less prominent as that of the white Americans, my sources suggest that Cherokees also made an effort to shape their own Civil War memories. There was a reunion of the veterans who belonged brigade of Stand Watie, in the early twentieth century, in which the Indian veterans attempted to organize a permanent camp named after Watie. In addition, in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, there emerged several biographical sketches of Stand Watie, who died early in the 1870s, commemorating his valor and lamenting the disappearance of full-blood Cherokees. Meanwhile, this period witnessed the strong sense of historical consciousness, in the face of the crisis of the dissolution of the Cherokee government, among the Cherokees, which was shown in the petition of Cherokee women against destroying the Cherokee capitol which they considered as a monument of their history. Watie’s agency in the Civil War and the commemoration of the leader after war gave me a new thought: the Cherokees, contrary to what historian Jeff Fortney considered as “self-silencing in regard to public Civil War commemoration” among the Natives, consciously invoked the Civil War memory as a way of rearticulating their agency as a people and of addressing the anxiety of their disappearance under Anglo-Americans’ constant encroachment in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

However, this is just a preliminary thought which requires more evidence to substantiate. Moreover, Indian civilians’ memory of suffering due to the constant raiding, destruction of house and stocks, shortage of food, and the forced abandonment of their homes to take refuge in Texas, perpetuated from the later phases of war to the early twentieth century, suggesting another perspective of Civil War memory among the civilians who told a different story of the war from that of the leaders and politicians. Though in some cases I could still capture the similar notion of celebrating valor from both sides to establish the ground for reconciliation prevailed among post-war white memory, Native Americans did not simply just keep silence and let the Anglo-American memory replace their own in this conflict that influenced a wide range of people, which showed again the great complexities of historical memories.


Fortney, Jeff. “Lest we remember: Civil War memory and commemoration among the five tribes.” American Indian Quarterly 36, no. 4 (2012): 525-544.

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