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Georgia was once the home of the Muscogee and Cherokee nations before both were forcibly removed and sent to Oklahoma in the 1830s.

They were among the more than 100,000 people from the Five Civilized Tribes — which also included the Seminoles, Choctaws and Chickasaws — who were sent away so that Anglo-Americans could take their lands. Thousands died on that infamous “Trail of Tears.” The removal not only set the tone of this country’s policies towards Native Americans during expansion and beyond, but also marked the birth of the “states’ rights” arguments that led to the Civil War and still permeates American politics.

On Tuesday, Claudio Saunt — associate director of the Institute of Native American Studies at the University of Georgia, and the Richard B. Russell Professor in American History — will speak at the Michael C. Carlos Museum about Georgia’s central role in what many consider a national shame. The lecture, at 7:30 p.m. in the Carlos Museum Reception Hall, is part of a series that complements Indigenous Beauty: Masterworks of American Indian Art from the Diker Collection, which opened last month at the Carlos and will run through January 3. 

Claudio Saunt

Claudio Saunt

Saunt is the author of two books that delve into that era, A New Order of Things (University of Cambridge Press 1999) and Black, White, and Indian (Oxford University Press 2006). His latest book is West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776 (W.W. Norton 2014).

ArtsATL: The removal of the Muscogee and Cherokee happened about 180 years ago; why is it important to remember now what happened that long ago?

Claudio Saunt: By the most recent estimates, some 750,000 Americans lost their lives in the Civil War. A few weeks before it came to an end, Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address. If slavery was injustice, he said, then the war was the woe due to those by whom the offense came. Americans are still struggling with the legacy.

By contrast, the United States has never come to terms with Indian removal. It is not a part of our national conversation; the predictions of Americans in the 1830s — that it would forever stain the nation’s history — have not come true. Indian removal was, in short, the war the slaveholders won, and Americans as a whole never looked back. That’s to our detriment, given what was at stake. 

horsehoe-bend02vArtsATL: The seeds of the states’ rights arguments that eventually led to the Civil War were planted in Georgia during the debate over the fates of the Indian tribes during the 1820-30s. How did that evolve?

Saunt: The first real Southern challenge to federal authority in the Antebellum era came not over slavery but over Indian removal, when the state of Georgia threatened U.S. troops who were protecting Creek lands in 1825. The immediate controversy was over the Treaty of Indian Springs, which by every measure but the state of Georgia’s was fraudulent. Nonetheless, Governor [George] Troup wanted the land and insisted on taking it. 

By the 1830s, Georgia was challenging the federal government over Cherokee lands. Two U.S. Supreme Court cases early in the decade seemed to hand the Cherokees a victory, but Georgia ignored the rulings and President Andrew Jackson failed to enforce them. Perhaps this emboldened Southern planters when they confronted anti-slavery sentiment in the 1840s. If the federal government had backed down once, then it would surely do so again.

ArtsATL: Cotton and the rise of slavery, along with a lust for land, seem to be the primary motivations for the removal of indigenous people from the Southeast. How did those forces come together to create an atmosphere where “the only good Indian is a dead Indian?”

William McIntosh, leader of the Lower Creeks.

William McIntosh, leader of the Lower Creeks.

Saunt: Americans across the nation, not just in the South, do not fully understand how central Indian removal was to the growth of slavery and to the Indian wars in the second half of the 19th century.

In the early 19th century, some Americans argued that the best thing for native peoples was removal. The policy, they said, was benevolent. Yet the same people argued that slavery benefited slaves. In fact, native peoples lived on some of the most valuable land in the world. Consider that 25 percent of Mississippi’s cotton crop in 1850 was grown on former Choctaw and Chickasaw lands. That’s a huge percentage in one of the key cotton-growing states producing the world’s most important crop. And it certainly was the central reason that there was such a tremendous push to expel native peoples in the 1830s.

Removal permitted slavery to expand across the Black Belt. By 1850, an astounding 67 percent of Mississippi’s slaves worked on land that only some 15 years earlier had belonged to the Choctaws and Chickasaws. At the same time, removal created a westward moving frontier between “civilization” and “savagery.” The Plains Indian wars were its legacy.

It’s worth stating that Indian removal was the first mass deportation of the modern era, predating deportations in the Caucasus, in Turkey and Greece, and in western Europe by several decades. Americans in the 1830s complained that the U.S. carped about human rights abroad, but did not pay attention to them at home.

ArtsATL: Was there an alternative to removal? Could the Muscogee and Cherokee have assimilated? And if so, could they have done so without losing their sense of identity?

Saunt: Absolutely. The Indian Removal Act passed by a mere five votes out of 199 cast, and that was in a Congress full of Jackson loyalists and after the president himself had twisted arms and issued threats.

Cherokee leader John Ross.

Cherokee leader John Ross.

ArtsATL: How did the influence of Angelo-Americans, and mixed bloods (Mestizos) in native leadership positions, fundamentally change the culture of the Muscogee and Cherokee nations?

Saunt: All cultures change all the time, so it’s not the case that there was once a pure Cherokee culture and then there wasn’t. Nonetheless, native peoples who were familiar with Anglo culture — who could speak English, who understood the structure of the federal government, who could balance an account book — had skills that aided in negotiating with state and federal officials. They rose to leadership positions and were deeply influential in tribal affairs. John Ross, the long-standing Cherokee leader, for example, outmaneuvered Georgia’s governors and Andrew Jackson for a decade and lost only because he didn’t have an army behind him. 

ArtsATL: The Muscogees and Cherokees have similar histories in the 1800s in terms of the development of two factions within the nations: one that first wanted to assimilate and then accepted a move to a new homeland in Oklahoma, and another that was determined to keep their native lands and culture. In retrospect, they both seem impossible choices. Was there a right and a wrong between those two factions?

Saunt: The Creeks and Cherokees faced bands of hostile whites who stole their crops and livestock and finally took their land. Some Indians fled into the forests, half-starved. A few died of hunger. So it is not surprising that, living under such conditions, their communities fractured. The United States created a situation they could not win. For me, the story is not about which faction was right or wrong — who’s to say? — but how the situation was created in the first place.

ArtsATL: Was the Indian removal of the 1830s a national shame or a simple necessity to fulfill our national destiny?

Saunt: Americans in the 1830s said it was a national shame and a betrayal of the principles of the Revolution. Unless we think our national destiny was to create a slave country, then they were right.

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