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Of Cherokee Culture and American Indian Identity: An Interview with Joshua Nelson

Olivier Burtin, Tatiana Viallaneix et Joshua Nelson

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1Professor Joshua B. Nelson, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a native Oklahoman, is an associate professor of English at the University of Oklahoma, whose work focuses on American Indian literature and film. He is also affiliated faculty with the departments of Film and Media Studies, Native American Studies, and Women’s and Gender Studies.

2We seized the opportunity of his presence in Europe on a research project to invite him in early April 2023 to the Université de Picardie Jules Verne in Amiens, where we interviewed him about his work.

3Nelson’s book, Progressive Traditions: Identity in Cherokee Literature and Culture, published in 2014 by the University of Oklahoma Press, sought to dismantle the assimilated/traditional dichotomy in American Indian literary criticism. More recently, he has been coproducer and narrator of the PBS documentary Searching for Sequoyah (directed by James Fortier and coproduced by Native author LeAnne Howe), about the eponymous figure who created the Cherokee syllabary in 1821 and later tried to reunite the various bands of his nation. Nelson was in Europe to retrace the trajectory of two Native American veterans of World War II and Medal of Honor awardees, Ernest Childers (Muscogee/Creek) and Jack Montgomery (Cherokee), about whom he is preparing his own documentary. Childers and Montgomery served in the 45th Infantry Division, headquartered in Oklahoma and comprising a large share of Native American soldiers. Known as the “Thunderbirds,” a legendary Indigenous American creature, the division took part in the campaigns of Sicily, Italy, France, and Germany (it liberated the Dachau concentration camp near Munich) during World War II, before being disbanded in 1968.

4Professor Nelson’s work has appeared in several academic publications such as the American Indian Culture and Research Journal and The Oxford Handbook of Indigenous American Literature (2014). He is also Lead Organizer of the Native Crossroads Film Festival and Symposium.

5Olivier Burtin is a historian of the modern United States and an associate professor (maître de conférences) at the Université de Picardie Jules Verne (CORPUS). His work has appeared in journals such as Reviews in American History, Politique américaine, and Social Science History, and his book A Nation of Veterans: War, Citizenship, and the Welfare State in Modern America was published in 2022 by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Tatiana Viallaneix teaches English language and US cultural studies at the Université de Picardie Jules Verne. She is a doctoral student (CELIS, Université Clermont Auvergne / University of Oklahoma) specializing in Native American Studies. Her dissertation deals with the specific vulnerability and resilience of Native groups in Oklahoma, formerly known as “Indian Territory.”

Olivier Burtin: Could you please introduce yourself first, and then talk a little about the key themes of your research, both past and present?

  • 1 Following the passage of the 1830 Indian Removal Act, Cherokees and several other tribal nations we (...)

Joshua Nelson: I’ll try. I’m a Cherokee scholar, and I make my home base working on Cherokee literature and identity. Identity theory is really at the heart of where I began, and most of the literature that I studied was written in the nineteenth century. This was in many ways the crucible for Cherokee culture as we now understand it, especially around matters of removal,1 and the subsequent fallout. I wanted to try to understand where we were coming from and how that gave rise then to the Cherokee literature that followed. In the course of doing that, I had to get a little interdisciplinary. I tried to learn what I could about identity theory in general, Cherokee history, and larger histories of native people, gender, and class. If I weren’t in an English department, I would ideally be in a Cherokee Studies department, or in a Cherokee studies program. I had to pick up a little bit of everything along the way, which also means that I’m a master of none of those fields, unfortunately.

As I was teaching American Indian literature at the University of Oklahoma, where I’ve been since 2009, I felt like I needed a little bit of an outlet to do something other than work strictly on those kinds of questions. I had started teaching American Indian film at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, when I was working on my dissertation, away from Cornell. There was a wonderful woman, Terry Baker, in the English department, who hired me on and encouraged me to try that. I said, well, I don’t know how to teach film, to which she responded, you’ll figure it out [laughs]. So I sort of upped my Netflix subscription, back when we were getting DVDs in the mail. I would watch these films on fast forward sometimes just to try to pack in as much as I could about film in general. If you’re not careful as a graduate student, you feel like you need to understand all the films before you’re ready to teach Native American film [laughs].

O.B.: Did you find the same themes in Native American literature as you did in Native American movies?

  • 2 Smoke Signals is a 1998 movie by Chris Eyre. It was an enormously influential film in Native circle (...)
  • 3 Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001), by Zacharias Kunuk, was the first film written, directed, and a (...)

J.N.: I found some overlap around formal approaches. As much as I believe that we need to be culturally and historically contextualizing the literature that we read, too often I felt that we left aside esthetic considerations, such as the narratological trickiness in “sentimental” writing by authors like S. Alice Callahan and John Oskison, where narrators might use stereotypical racialized language but grow out of that over the course of a novel. When I was viewing American Indian films, I felt like there too, we were especially not being very cognizant of the esthetic approaches—the precise camera movements, the messaging in edited sequences, the symbolism in color and costume, the references to the visual archives of American Indian art and photography, for instance. And for the most part, back when I was doing this, there weren’t all that many Native films to draw on. You had to dig for them. You still have to dig a little bit today, but in 2009, we had Smoke Signals.2 We had Atanarjuat.3 It was hard to put together a syllabus. In terms of methodological approach, I really tried to remind myself to focus always on the text, to always historicize. It helped to draw that methodology into relief.

So yes, it was out of that outlet valve that my work in film arose. But in both my literary and film study, I’ve tried very hard to reconcile some tensions and to think about ways in which those tensions have arisen from investments that are not attuned to tribal concerns themselves, but are rather externally attuned. Particularly in teaching to Cherokee students at Northeastern State University or at the University of Oklahoma, I wanted to privilege their perspectives. And I’ve tried to do that in my criticism and in all of the work around film that I’ve done, with an eye toward trying to encourage my students to write on their own, to make films of their own, and to reconcile tensions that they see.

Tatiana Viallaneix: Speaking of these tensions that you wish to reconcile, in your book, Progressive Traditions, you sought to challenge the distinction often made in American Indian Studies between progressive and traditional, cosmopolitans and nationalists. Can you tell us more about this distinction: what it is, why it matters, and how you’re suggesting a different path forward?

  • 4 In the context of Native American history, “mixed-bloods” designates persons with both Native and n (...)

J.N.: The book started by looking back at Cherokee history. I don’t know how many times I read an account of Cherokee history saying that it could basically be explained by this split between progressive-minded mixed-bloods and traditional full-bloods.4 And I kept thinking, don’t we need to say a little bit more than that? Isn’t that a touch reductive to split a population of 16,000 into two camps? I think it is. And in fact, the more I started reading broadly, especially the histories of the Southeastern tribes, the more I found that same rote dichotomy trotted out, and the more I wanted to trouble and diversify it.

  • 5 The debate between cosmopolitans and nationalists revolved around the questions of how Native liter (...)

That led me accidentally to look consistently at those preserved cultural practices that were not necessarily consciously theorized by Cherokee actors, but that enacted values and habits that predated them and had a very distinctly Cherokee flavor to them. If we start seeing those through a Bourdieusian lens, we start to see continuance where formerly we saw rupture, success rather than capitulation, innovation rather than abandonment. That was a major part of what I was up to, in my dissertation and then in my book, at a time when the debates between the cosmopolitans and the nationalists were raging.5

  • 6 Tribal nations, especially southeastern ones such as the Cherokee, enslaved a significant number of (...)
  • 7 According to their own account, the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians (UKB) comprises mostl (...)

I was trying to intervene in that debate, which was perhaps more salient then than it is now. There too, I felt that some critics were looking at Cherokee history from the outside in, without privileging internal debates or internal tensions that were more relevant to the lived experiences of Cherokee people. Take for instance the controversy over the disenfranchisement of the Freedmen,6 or the ongoing tensions between the Cherokee Nation and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians.7 There were serious fights there between related peoples, and I felt that we needed to address those tensions in a new way. I was a little worried that the progressive/traditional dichotomy was inflecting the ways that we were relating to one another. I think it still does. So I tried to come at that nationalist/cosmopolitan tension in a new way, not least by diversifying our senses of the identities that are available to us in practical, goal-oriented ways.

O.B.: You mentioned some preserved cultural practices. What are some examples of these that you used in your book?

  • 8 This happened in 1997 as then-Principal Chief Joe Byrd contended with the Cherokee Supreme Court an (...)

J.N.: Debate is one. Especially when we’re thinking about non-coercive models of governance, which is something that I’m always excited to hear more about. It was not long before I wrote my dissertation that some of the tensions in the Cherokee Nation became so ugly that we had groups of Cherokee people occupying our Supreme Court.8 The Feds were coming in to intervene, and they had snipers posted on the roofs of the buildings in downtown Tahlequah. That’s not the way that we want to do things in Cherokee country.

  • 9 Following removal to Indian Territory in the 1830s, the Cherokee Nation was torn apart. In 1839, as (...)

If we look back at the nineteenth century, things were factional and very heated, and eventually broke out into unadulterated warfare.9 If we look a little bit earlier, however, we find different modes of debate, different modes of argument, different modes of reconciling these tensions in non-coercive, non-status-oriented ways. Unfortunately, I feel like we lost some of those practices, though they were not entirely supplanted. But if we venerate tradition, and we do—tradition is one of the things that we hear American Indians talk about all the time, the idea of honoring the values that our ancestors embodied and bequeathed to us—well, one of those traditions was arguing with one another in different ways, in ways that didn’t result in snipers on the roof. I wanted to try to encourage us to think through more respectful ways of disagreeing with one another.

  • 10 Purification is a common initial step in Native cultures as a morning practice, before a ceremony o (...)

The other major kind of such practices was around religion, which was central for the progressive/traditional dichotomy: if you were a Christian, then clearly you were no longer traditional. It’s the way that thinking generally goes. Well, I tried to look at nineteenth-century texts that demonstrated that it’s not the case at all. In fact, American Indian worshipers have made all kinds of innovations and adaptations to understand their spiritual experience in ways that resonate with them. Sometimes that included Christianity and Christian practices alongside traditional practices like going to water or purifying oneself.10 I also tried to trouble that distinction around other practices that were not all that far removed from us, such as the practice of naturalizing citizens, which I found absolutely fascinating and which is now precluded by US colonialist structures.

O.B.: You mean naturalizing US citizens into the Cherokee Nation?

  • 11 After a popular vote to amend the Constitution and disenfranchise the Freedmen’s descendants in 200 (...)

J.N.: Not just US citizens, but other citizens as well. This was happening in the context of the disenfranchisement of the Freedmen, who were the descendants of former slaves of the Cherokees. At the end of the Civil War, Congress mandated that those former slaves be given the rights of citizenship in a treaty. For reasons that I and many others objected to, they were disenfranchised until 2007.11 This is one of the potential objections that many had toward an American Indian nationalist approach to cultural and literary studies, namely that it tended to be a bit exclusionary. People worried that there was an essentialism to that mode of thinking. And I wanted to remind us that for a very, very long time, predating these colonialist intrusions, we used to be far more hospitable and welcoming of people.

  • 12 In Progressive Traditions, Nelson mentions the Natchez (seventeenth century), the Catawbas (1835), (...)
  • 13 In United States v. Rogers (1846), the Supreme Court decided that a white man adopted by an Indian (...)

There were practices of individual adoption that happened all the time, when a Cherokee would marry someone from another tribe that would be formally adopted into the clan and given the full rights of citizenship. We did this not only for individuals but for entire tribes, when one felt under threat or was dissolving because its numbers were too small. In no less than three separate instances, the Cherokees adopted en masse these other tribes, which became Cherokee.12 Well into the twentieth century, there were categories on the Cherokee census for intermarried whites given full Cherokee citizenship. Why? Because they had organic relationships with tribal members. They lived there. They spoke Cherokee. They oftentimes participated in Cherokee ceremonial practices. They were, culturally speaking, Cherokees. And we made formal space for that. After the Supreme Court ruled that an adult white male could not be an Indian in US v. Rogers,13 we started to embrace that restriction and make a virtue out of that pragmatic necessity.

O.B.: You mentioned that this division between progressive and traditional in Native American Studies is less salient now than it used to be. Do you think your book contributed to that?

J.N.: I would like to imagine that, but if I might clarify, I don’t know that that division is less salient. We still tend to teach a lot of American Indian history using that same notion. The debate between the cosmopolitans and nationalists is perhaps less salient, and it has shifted toward a closer examination of trans-Indigenous or transnational comparisons. We’ve got exciting territory in front of us there. Whether or not my book had anything to do with it, honestly, I don’t think so [laughs].

T.V.: Are there other Cherokee scholars or politicians who share your views on this?

  • 14 Kirby Brown is an associate professor of Native American and Indigenous literary and cultural produ (...)
  • 15 Daniel Heath Justice is a professor at the University of British Columbia. He teaches English in th (...)

J.N.: Yes, I can happily point to voices like Kirby Brown, a Cherokee scholar at the University of Oregon who shares similar ways of looking at these questions.14 Daniel Heath Justice was someone who preceded me, with whom I shared quite a bit, and he is an avowed nationalist to be sure.15

  • 16 Craig Womack is an author and professor of English at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, special (...)
  • 17 A specialist of critical theory and Native American literature, Arnold Krupat is a professor emerit (...)

But again, one of the things that I tried to suggest is that none of us is completely right or wrong. And we probably need not imagine that we can’t talk to one another. Similarly, there are some kinds of more Cherokee cosmopolitan voices out there too. In general, especially as some of those nationalist/cosmopolitan debates resolved themselves among more central actors like Craig Womack, Jace Weaver, Robert Warrior,16 and on the other side, Arnold Krupat and Elvira Pulitano,17 we were able to talk about more things and future directions. Those people are more important than I am to be sure [laughs]. These were major cultural figures that gave shape to the nationalism/cosmopolitanism debate.

T.V.: How did you get from your book, which was published in 2014, to your subsequent projects, one on Sequoyah, the creator of the Cherokee writing system, and the other on American Indian Medal of Honor awardees?

J.N.: One way was that I got my bearings as I did some film work on the side, and the other major influence was Jace Weaver. I disagreed with a lot of what he said in my book. He was a Cherokee scholar at the University of Georgia, as well as an avowed nationalist, one of the big three [Womack, Weaver, and Warrior]. But he is also a scholar who has done more to celebrate and mentor and champion Cherokee scholarship in general than anyone I know. He and LeAnne Howe now are together at the University of Georgia and LeAnne had an idea, among many that she has, about doing a film about Sequoyah and what became of him at the end of his life.

Sequoyah was this major intellectual figure in Cherokee history, and there is a big mystery surrounding what happened to him in his later years. And Jace, because he keeps cranking out books, moved into trans-Indigenous and transatlantic concerns himself, and said [to LeAnne], why don’t you get somebody with more time on their hands? So he pointed LeAnne to me, and she is another giant figure in the field, a novelist, a poet, a playwright, and a filmmaker. They were really generous to agree to work with somebody like me. They brought me onto the project and my role expanded little by little as time went on.

Then, after watching James Fortier, the director of Searching for Sequoyah, work, I thought that now that I know how films work, maybe I could figure out how the camera works too. And so I just saved up all of my earnings and put together a mobile film unit and headed into this rabbit hole on the Thunderbirds that I haven’t been able to get out of for the past seven or eight years.

T.V.: Let’s talk a bit more about each one of these projects. First, where does Sequoyah stand among past and present Cherokee leaders, and what is his place in Cherokee memory and culture?

J.N.: Sequoyah invented the Cherokee syllabary, the system that allows us to write in Cherokee and that’s attuned to the language’s particularities. As far as we know, he’s about the only fellow to single-handedly invent a writing system. He stands out as an American Indian genius, and I don’t know that we have a lot of intellectual geniuses that we celebrate. We have them, but we don’t talk about them enough. Though we don’t talk about him every day in Cherokee country, we may well see him every day, because we name things for him. The street signs in Tahlequah use the Cherokee syllabary, for instance, and the high school is named after him. His image is around; we know about him and we know about that achievement. Perhaps we don’t know as much about other facets of his life: that he was a soldier, a diplomat, an artist, and a silversmith. He seemed to exhibit genius in all facets of his life.

In terms of his place among other Cherokee leaders, he is exceptional in that he is not encompassed or pigeonholed by either of those progressive/traditional categories. He seems to exceed them in many ways, in part because he occupies a place of Solomonic wisdom, right? He was able to function as a reconciler. Perhaps this is just me projecting my own desires onto him, as we often do with our heroes, and certainly Cherokees have oftentimes seen in him what they want to see. But I see in him a diplomat and a unifier, and the historical record bears that out.

T.V.: Would you say he had a vision for the Cherokee Nation?

  • 18 Eastern tribes were pressured to move west from the beginning of the nineteenth century. While the (...)
  • 19 The Cherokee Phoenix was the first newspaper published by Native Americans and printed in a Native (...)

J.N.: Yes, absolutely. I don’t know if he knew the extent to which his syllabary would continue that unifying vision. I suppose he must have, especially as his letters were so much more of a force. He was living out in Arkansas, on the section of land that the Old Settlers were on, while the main body of the Cherokees were back in the Carolinas and in Tennessee.18 And so I’m sure that he wanted to allow Cherokees to communicate with one another over this distance. But it’s not long after he invents the syllabary that the nation purchases a printing press and starts publishing the Cherokee Phoenix19 in Cherokee, and his syllabary becomes a bulwark against American colonial intrusion and exploitation. It becomes itself a unifying, nationalizing force. I don’t know that he would’ve foreseen that; he may well have, though. You don’t work for twelve years on a project the way he did without having a sense that it’s going to be crucial.

The same search for unification defined the end of his life. In the 1840s, some twenty years after the syllabary was created, the Cherokee Nation now found itself almost entirely in Indian Territory, but there was a faction of Cherokees that had moved down to Mexico to get away from US intrusions into Cherokee affairs. He wanted to persuade them to return and reunify with the full body of Cherokees. So this was an ongoing concern for him in his life, and I can’t help but think that it must have informed his thinking about why the syllabary was going to be important. This had to do with the political but then later also the adventurer role that he played. This man in his sixties set out on horseback from Indian Territory through hostile Comanche territory to go and talk to the Cherokees down there in Mexico. That’s a bold move!

T.V.: Did he ever explain why he was creating a writing system?

J.N.: I don’t think so. I think he holed up in his cabin, just kept working and working [laughs]. His friends and acquaintances and his family knew about it, and in fact as we discussed in the film, they were sometimes intensely distrustful of it. People sometimes thought that he was messing with stuff that he didn’t need to be messing with. By some accounts, his wife got irritated enough with the attention that he devoted to this project rather than taking care of the farm, that she burned his notes one day, and he had to start all over again.

T.V.: This raises the question of legitimacy, of whether his creation of this writing system was perceived as legitimate by the Cherokee. Was it ever an issue, as far as you know?

J.N.: I think they had to prove that it was going to work. It seemed then that whatever anxieties people might have had about the syllabary were overcome pretty quickly. By all accounts, the population became literate almost overnight and at a very high rate. Even though there are eighty-five characters [in the Cherokee syllabary], it seemed that once people got those down, the language translated very readily and people picked it up pretty quickly.

O.B.: Did you acquire, as you were working on this project, a better understanding of why Sequoyah was able to do what he did? Did he come, for instance, from a family with an intellectual tradition? Was there something about his position in Cherokee society that seemed to, if not predestine him, then at least make him more likely than others to produce this syllabary?

  • 20 The National Council is the nineteenth-century equivalent of today’s Tribal Council, the legislativ (...)

J.N.: I think that he was a genius. And an uncommon genius. Although that’s something that we actually try to trouble a little bit in the film—the idea that he was this isolated, single person. Because he worked with others, to be sure. With his family, for instance: his daughter was his first student. She went with him to demonstrate the function of the syllabary to the National Council.20 He was not just a lone guy sitting by himself in his room, coming up with all this.

O.B.: Do you know if he was building on efforts that were going in this same direction before?

  • 21 Sequoyah travelled to the different Cherokee settlements in Arkansas, trying to convince local lead (...)

J.N.: I don’t believe that he was. It wasn’t just the Cherokees who found themselves in this position, you know? There were tribes who for centuries had come into contact with writing systems [in other societies] but didn’t develop their own. Whereas Sequoyah seemed to think, well, why not do it? And he gave it a go. It may be that his time as an artist helped. We know that he produced sketches when he was a silversmith. He practiced his hand at esthetic construction there too. So he was, to some degree, accustomed to working with visuals to communicate. After he was a soldier, he also worked as an ambassador of sorts.21 These experiences as a broker perhaps also put him in a position of thinking about how you communicate with others. And so maybe he combined that experience as a medium with his skills in visual communication to reach the conclusion that a writing system was not beyond his skills.

O.B.: Did he leave any records for you to use?

J.N.: We have only one document: his signature on a list of the original Cherokee characters, which are not the ones that we see today. The ones that he came up with were very curvilinear, cursive-looking characters. I’ve heard different accounts of how the transformation took place, but I think that for cost-saving reasons, when they came up with the printing press they borrowed figures from other languages, especially Roman characters, and substituted them so you didn’t have to cast eighty-six brand new characters. But we’ve got a list of those original characters and we think that it is in Sequoyah’s hand.

T.V.: So what kind of sources did you rely on for your research?

J.N.: We tried to rely on a variety of them. We went to the historical record as much as we were able to, especially around his final journey to Mexico. A couple of years after he died, an account of it was published by someone who went with him. His name was The Worm, and it was published in Cherokee in the Cherokee Advocate, though there was an English translation of it. I had a Cherokee-speaking colleague look at the original Cherokee, and as it turns out, the English translation’s really good. It’s very, very close. Especially for that segment of the documentary, we relied on this document.

We looked at as much of the history as we could, but it’s a cloudy history. It’s not very clear; there are some competing accounts. First of all, the account in Cherokee offers a transliteration of town names. We think that they went to San Fernando, for instance. Some historians looked at a map and found a San Fernando that’s along the Gulf of Mexico. But I was certain that this was not the San Fernando he went to; there was another San Fernando that had changed its name to Zaragoza many years later. So we tried to read as much as we could to get the history right, and we had to make choices.

T.V.: After all, you’re talking about writing the Cherokee national narrative. The question of how you find accurate information about this figure and how you decide what you want to keep is a delicate one.

J.N.: Yes, it is. And accuracy was really important to us. So I tried hard to come up with as accurate an account as possible. But we were also making a film, and a film is a different animal than a historical, peer-reviewed publication. And so one of the things that we also did in terms of the sources that we consulted was that we turned to Cherokee people’s own accounts of Sequoyah, and how he figured in the stories that they were told, in the sources that they passed on. Part of what that meant is that our story was about the stories. And sometimes we had competing accounts in the oral narrative as well, which, I’m sorry to say, probably can’t all be true. People tell different stories about who his father was, where he came from, sometimes how traditional or how progressive he was. But we really did try to embrace contradiction as part of what makes the legend, the myth, so much of what it is, so prominent.

O.B.: Let’s move on to your project on Medal of Honor awardees. Could you tell us more about the motivations that led some Cherokees to join the military and about their contributions to the war and to Cherokee society?

J.N.: On the question of motivation, economics has a lot to do with it. At the time, Oklahoma was shifting from an agrarian economy to a technological and very oil-based economy. And men from big families are heading out into the world with increased technological and labor mobility and they need a paycheck, which the National Guard offers. When veterans were asked why they joined, they replied: twenty bucks a month [the salary paid by the military] [laughs], which is pretty good and reliable money. They’re also interested in the opportunities that are provided there. They’re going to get job skills, they see opportunities for adventure, for travel, and to be honored by their local communities. They also, frankly, just see opportunities to be of service, and we’ll hear them say that, in the course of their own descriptions. It’s fair to say that social pressures also had something to do with their motivations to join, since they’re no more independent from pressures to conform than anyone else is.

  • 22 The Dawes Act was passed in 1887 and made provisions for the allotment of all remaining Indian land (...)

But I guess I’m also interested in what their military service represents for Cherokee folks, for Native folks in general, and more broadly for the nation. People oftentimes know that American Indians have served in the armed forces at higher rates than other races for a long time, and certainly in World War I and World War II. Part of what this represents for me is a new way of answering the following question: why did American Indians serve a national military that not many years before had explicitly targeted American Indian culture, politics, and identity? Not that many years before World War I, the Dawes era22 in essence dissolved the Cherokee Nation and broke up tribal lands along with their political apparatus.

The fact that Cherokees were willing to join the army after that represents an act of political forgiveness, if not consciously theorized, at least practically enacted. And that willingness to accept a wrong, to acknowledge it and be aware of it, but to move past that, and to volunteer for service, has to represent some sort of a moral choice on their part. It represents the organic relationships that they had with non-Native people all around them, who were oftentimes their mothers and fathers and wives and husbands and children. To harbor a resentment over those past wrongs would’ve done them harm. That practical, personal, political forgiveness is represented in that act of service, and I wonder if there is a lesson for us to be learned about forgiveness in looking at that history.

O.B.: Thinking of their position in Cherokee memory, is there a parallel to draw with Sequoyah in the sense of them being, perhaps not overlooked, but not given the place that they deserve? Do you think that these Medal of Honor awardees are in the same situation?

  • 23 Audie Murphy (1925-1971) was a soldier, actor, and songwriter. He was one of the most decorated US (...)

J.N.: I don’t know, maybe it’s not exclusive to them. I don’t think I could tell you [the names of] too many Medal of Honor awardees, aside from Audie Murphy.23 Even though it’s the nation’s highest military honor, it’s not one that we generally know a great deal about.

But it seemed to me that there were too many important Cherokee figures about which Cherokee people did not know. From writers, to poets, to filmmakers, to political leaders, to geniuses, to military heroes. I’m not sure exactly what it was about the stories about Jack Montgomery and Ernest Childers, the Creek fellow, and the Thunderbirds more broadly that got their hooks into me, but they did. I think it had to do with this willingness to step boldly forth into the world. There’s a boldness in their actions that I can’t account for but that I just frankly admire. I don’t know that we talk very much these days about admiring, or at least I don’t, and most of my friends in my generation would not admit to either, right [laughs]? I don’t know if that’s a Gen X sort of thing, but I felt like it is more often our job to poke fun at things, to criticize, rather than to, you know, genuinely embrace.

I think about my grandfather and his generation, and there was much that I was able to criticize. But the older I get, the more I look for things that I can admire, and I admire that boldness. I admire that toughness that I saw in that generation, that fearlessness. I admire that willingness to swing for the fences. These guys grew up feeding their family by hunting, they grew up in poverty; Jack Montgomery tells a story about taking his little sister to school on the back of their plow horse. That’s serious toughness. To then leave Long, Oklahoma, and go on a boat to the shores of Italy in the face of machine-gun fire, that’s a boldness that I don’t understand. It’s so alien to my experience. I can’t quite wrap my head around it. But I suppose, too, that I worry about whether or not we teach American Indian youth how to be bold.

A lot of American Indian youth these days may not leave Oklahoma. They may not go to college. They may not go as far away from Tahlequah as Norman, Oklahoma, a three hours’ distance. And again, economically speaking, for a lot of them, that is a very long way, and it’s an expensive way. So we can understand where it comes from, but I worry about it. And if there are Cherokee children out there who think that they would like to go to Norman, or to go to the shores of Italy, or go wherever to swing for the fences, then I would like to offer them a model of incredible Cherokees who did this in the past.

T.V.: On that point, which public are you trying to reach with your projects?

J.N.: It’s young Cherokee people. It really is. But the problem is that this project is probably not going to reach young Cherokee children. I don’t know that they’re inclined to sit through a one-hour documentary that has a slowed-down editing pace and that privileges the landscape. I’m sorry for that [laughs], but I don’t know what else to do, I don’t know how to make a film for young Cherokee folks. All I know is how to do what I’m compelled to do.

T.V.: To some extent, World War I was a turning point in Native history. What about World War II’s impact on American Indian society at large, how do you understand it?

  • 24 Maria Tallchief (1925-2015) was an Osage born in Fairfax, Oklahoma, who became the first renowned N (...)

J.N.: In terms of mobility, the war becomes yet another turning point, and I mean that very broadly. We see a lot more dispersal of American Indian populations, we see them moving far more toward places like Oklahoma City or Tulsa, and even down to Dallas. After they come back from the war, a lot of Cherokee folks know how to run a drilling rig, and so they move into places where oil production is happening. A kind of amplified mobility comes out of the conflict, which is itself relatively important, as Philip Deloria describes in his book Indians in Unexpected Places (2004). It’s perhaps from this kind of dispersal that we start to see even figures like Maria Tallchief,24 the Osage ballerina: Indians whose world is not bounded by tribal land borders, who believe that there is a space for them to be prominent or included wherever they would like to go.

O.B.: Was it the case for the Medal of Honor awardees, for instance, that they traveled across the United States after they came back?

  • 25 The Veterans Administration was the federal agency in charge of veterans’ benefits. It became the D (...)
  • 26 Chilocco Indian School was a major institution located in Newkirk, Oklahoma. This federal boarding (...)
  • 27 Bacone College is a prominent tribal college located in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Originally a mission un (...)
  • 28 The University of Redlands, California, welcomed a significant share of veterans following the pass (...)

J.N.: Yes. Montgomery went to work for the Veterans Administration25 after he came back home. I think it was hard to keep him down on the farm. Even though he wasn’t supposed to stay on active duty after being awarded the Medal of Honor, he insisted on re-enlisting in the army during the Korean conflict. They found him a job off the front lines (they don’t want Medal of Honor awardees getting shot, you know?) as an instructor. But he had already traveled some before he left Long; he went to school at Chilocco,26 many hours away, then left and went to school at Bacone,27 which was in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and then again to California in Redlands,28 outside of Los Angeles. And he was working in the oil fields too: he went far on the west side of Oklahoma in Woodward, where he enlisted. So he had already started to move around.

Childers stayed in the army. I don’t know where he was posted, but I imagine it was around and about. He retired as Lieutenant Colonel many years later.

T.V.: Numerous soldiers of the 45th Infantry Division originated from Oklahoma, the former Indian Territory. It’s a region with an exceptional Native history, and a unique crucible of tribal nations in the United States. How would you characterize the specific workings of that collective assemblage of nations and its overall position amidst Native America and beyond? Does it operate as a center, a margin, as a pan-Indian collectivity?

  • 29 Oklahoma is a heavily conservative state that has voted for the Republican presidential candidate i (...)

J.N.: Oklahoma is a moving target, in some ways. I don’t mean for this to sound disrespectful, but, you know, on the national level, Oklahoma is kind of irrelevant. We know exactly how Oklahoma’s going to vote in any given election, right?29 It’s a foregone conclusion. Candidates don’t even bother spending on TV ads in Oklahoma, and we continue to call a giant swath of the country in which Oklahoma is central, “flyover country.” Rare are the people who visit Oklahoma, so we don’t exert an enormous influence nationally.

  • 30 In absolute terms, California has the highest Native American population (757,628), with Oklahoma s (...)

But in terms of Indian Country, we’re kind of the center of the world. I don’t know if we still have the highest Indian population, with California thrown into the mix,30 but in terms of population density, total percentage of the population, and certainly the number of tribes that are represented (at thirty-nine), it’s the center of the Indian world. Well, don’t tell the folks in New Mexico I said that, but it’s a focus point. And it’s long been the case that the kinds of federal policies that get enacted in Indian Country start in Oklahoma and then reverberate across the nation, so the shape of local sovereignty oftentimes gets formulated in Oklahoma. That’s one of the most crucial dimensions of that state.

Tribes relate primarily to the federal government; they fall under federal jurisdiction. But at times, the Feds have also said that tribes can negotiate with states. Sometimes they will insist that the states negotiate with tribes. But that’s a delegated authority, and crucially, states do not have the power to tell a tribe what can and cannot be done on tribal land. The way in which that tension has played out has had serious ramifications not just in Oklahoma, but in many other states where tribes are present.

In terms of pan-Indianness, Oklahoma is represented by those thirty-nine tribes. People from Oklahoma, or Native people in general, often have parentheses after our names wherein we put our tribal connections. Sometimes those parentheses go on for a long time: so-and-so is Cherokee, Creek, Pawnee, Kiowa, Cheyenne, Arapaho… Oklahomans know how to read those, and not necessarily as just a pan-Indian history. We can look in there and we can see the geographical tensions, the family affiliations, the connections that have been forged, the problems that might have arisen in the past. We can see the stratifications in that language, to borrow from Bakhtin a little. These parentheses can tell us about time and place; that shiftiness of the center is not random, it’s a specific shiftiness. And in those specific moments when we might locate a person or a point in Oklahoma there’s oftentimes something very rich to be gleaned.

O.B.: As an artist, do you feel that Oklahoma is a place where you can be particularly creative, thanks to this interchange between different Indian nations, in a way that wouldn’t exist if you were living somewhere else?

J.N.: I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer, not least because I got hung up at the idea of being called an artist [laughs]. But yes, it happens in fun and productive ways. In the past, we saw some tensions between tribes, between those on the eastern side of the state and those on the western side. Nowadays we get along pretty well, all in all. When I find myself in a room with scholars or with community members who come from either side of the state, we’re getting along good. And we’re pulling toward a common goal frequently, which is to make a richer and more diverse experience.

I think for instance of the Jacobson House on campus: the house of Oscar Jacobson, a Swedish scholar at the University of Oklahoma. It was the birthplace of the Kiowa Six, a group of artists who developed and championed the flat style of Plains art that became enormously influential and internationally recognized back in the thirties and twenties. This is a place where Native artists still gather. It’s a place where drum groups still gather and students from all over Oklahoma learn each other’s songs and carry on these traditions. There are Cherokee guys singing Kiowa songs, Pawnee guys teaching these songs to Comanches, and it’s just beautiful to see. And all the while, some new works by Chickasaw artists are hanging on the walls. So yes, it does create a wonderfully multilayered and resource-laden environment.

T.V.: It’s interesting that you talk about Oklahoma as a kind of artistic center, because it works as both a center and a margin. When you read, for example, Tommy Orange’s There There (2018), which takes place in Oakland, California, there is this constant reference to a homeland in Oklahoma when actually that state is the secondary homeland to many tribal nations who were forcibly removed from their ancestral homelands.

J.N.: Well, let me push back just a little bit. I think in general that, yes, you are absolutely right, Oklahoma is more of a stopping point, in part because of how we think about Native tradition. But part of what I keep trying to do is to complicate our ideas of tradition. For instance, we generally think of the Smoky Mountains around the Carolinas and Tennessee as the original homeland of the Cherokee folks, but if we keep reading, we come across accounts of an earlier migration: among some of the most traditional Cherokees, there are stories of a migration from the sea into the Smoky Mountains. So these traditions are more complicated than we imagine.

To be fair, I don’t think those stories are very widespread. Most Cherokee would agree with you that the Southeast is our home. But I hope that we can think about ways that home moves with us, that home is a movable center. And that’s easier to do when we imagine our identities as being located in values and practices, which relate to place to be sure, but places can be resanctified. They can be reinvested with the power that existed in other places before them.

T.V.: And there are tribal lands along the removal trail as well. Most tribal nations still own lands where some of their ancestors were buried during the removal, and so that was not necessarily their original or final destination. It is still considered as something that is part of the tribe’s history and land.

J.N.: Precisely. And it is an enormously important part of that history. History is not the only thing that sanctifies place, but I think it’s an important part of what makes a place sacred.

O.B.: We wanted to end this interview by asking you to tell us how it feels to teach such topics right now, at a time when the number of Native American Studies programs is on the rise, but also when there has been considerable backlash against so-called “critical race theory” (CRT), especially in conservative states such as Oklahoma, where the legislature banned CRT in public schools in 2021, and the Inter-Tribal Council (which includes the Cherokee) approved a resolution demanding the repeal of this law last October? How do you envision the future of this academic field and its potential contributions?

J.N.: It feels precarious and pivotal. I would say that I worry most about my colleagues. Secondary-school teachers are far more vulnerable than we are in higher education right now, because they get public money in ways that we don’t. The University of Oklahoma has seen steady declines in the amount of money that we get from the state. We’re a public institution, but that increasingly means less as the years go on, with the result that we are also less vulnerable to cuts in public funding. Now, we have seen attacks on the [academic] tenure system in several states. Georgia did away with it, and I think there’s a bill proposing it in Texas now. We ought to not kid ourselves that we could just float above that fray, which is a rhetorical one as much as it is about a genuine ideology. In any event, it’s precarious, and we could well see academic freedom substantially eroded and not protected by Supreme Court decisions as it has been for decades.

So what role then does Native American Studies play here? I think it’s a crucial one. As Priscilla Wald put it in Constituting Americans (1995), what prevents the government from making a slave of a white person? Similarly, what prevents the government from treating anyone the way that it treated American Indians? What do we see in these attacks on our curriculum and on CRT (which, let’s be honest, is not what our legislators think it is)? We see the potential for a day in the not-too-distant future when not only could we perhaps not talk about race in class, but also not about alternative gender identities. Is it out of the question that we would see a day in which, for instance, female teachers are no longer allowed to wear pants in class, if that seems to represent an alternative kind of gender? Is it out of the question to imagine that there’s a future in which a particular religious denomination is given veto power over the curriculum? Is it beyond the pale that a hard-right legislator introduces legislation that says, we’re no longer going to talk about labor organizations? I could see this happening; this is by no means outside of the realm of possibility. Similarly, could we envision a time in which the legislature says that we’re going to recognize certain kinds of families and we’re not going to recognize others, such as single parents for instance?

This is a troublesome drift. And this is all to say that, if we don’t theorize very carefully how it is that we would stop authoritarian overreach, they will eventually come for us, every one of us, because our politicians have made conflict their sustenance. And if conflict is their diet, conflict will be never-ending, and they’ll eventually come for each one of these things. Native American Studies reminds us that these things could happen because they did happen [to Native Americans]. And so if our students, our future leaders, are going to be able to oppose such totalitarian overreach, they’re going to need to be able to recognize it. They’re going to need critical thinking skills. They’re going to need to recognize that ideological overreach can come from any quarter, and they will need to be vigilant. And that too, of course, is an ideological perspective. I recognize that. But it’s one that I think we have a moral obligation to support.

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Bibliographie

DELORIA, Philip J. Indians in Unexpected Places. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004.

NELSON, Joshua B. Progressive Traditions: Identity in Cherokee Literature and Culture. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014.

ORANGE, Tommy. There There. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.

WALD, Priscilla. Constituting Americans: Cultural Anxiety and Narrative Form. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995.

WEAVER, Jace, Craig S. WOMACK, and Robert WARRIOR. American Indian Literary Nationalism. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006.

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Notes

1 Following the passage of the 1830 Indian Removal Act, Cherokees and several other tribal nations were removed from their homelands in the East and forced to relocate to present-day Oklahoma (then called Indian Territory).

2 Smoke Signals is a 1998 movie by Chris Eyre. It was an enormously influential film in Native circles, not least for featuring a Native director and a screenplay by Native author Sherman Alexie.

3 Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001), by Zacharias Kunuk, was the first film written, directed, and acted entirely in Inuktitut, the Inuit language spoken in the central and eastern Canadian Arctic.

4 In the context of Native American history, “mixed-bloods” designates persons with both Native and non-Native ancestry, while “full-bloods” designates persons with only the former. This dichotomy and alleged contention between progressive mixed-bloods and traditionalist full-bloods is a pattern commonly found in historical and public narratives. While in some instances there may be some truth to it (and bearing in mind that the discussion over the degree of “Indian blood” and Indianness has been a central topic in Native conversations at all levels), it is a mostly simplistic perspective to construe Indigenous reaction to colonization. Depending on the perspective, this set of conflicting terms awkwardly suggests backwardness/purity on one side and progress/corruption on the other. In Progressive Traditions, Nelson argues that “the distinction between the traditional and the progressive is both limiting and difficult to make” (xi).

5 The debate between cosmopolitans and nationalists revolved around the questions of how Native literature might best be understood and its relationship to mainstream US literature—whether it should be included in anthologies and surveys of US and global literature, for instance. Nationalists tended to see such inclusion as cultural appropriation and insisted that Native works be treated on their own by drawing on Native identity, experience, tools, and concepts, whereas cosmopolitans defended such inclusion on the grounds that Native works were part of a global, especially Indigenous literature.

6 Tribal nations, especially southeastern ones such as the Cherokee, enslaved a significant number of Black people on their farms. Reconstruction Treaties following the Civil War ordered all tribes in Indian Territory to abolish slavery by either naturalizing slaves within tribes (with all related rights) or by allowing their departure and transfer to other states. The Cherokee reluctantly offered naturalization to the formerly enslaved but implemented a new policy in the 1880s restricting tribal citizenship to “Cherokees by blood,” thus stripping these citizens of their citizenship and rights.

7 According to their own account, the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians (UKB) comprises mostly descendants of the Old Settlers, groups of Cherokee people who moved west before the great removal in 1838-1839. In 1950, they established their institutions and were the first federally recognized Cherokee tribe in Oklahoma until the recognition of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma (CNO) in 1975. Both tribes are headquartered in Tahlequah and have been at odds over various matters.

8 This happened in 1997 as then-Principal Chief Joe Byrd contended with the Cherokee Supreme Court and members of the Tribal Council over financial accountability.

9 Following removal to Indian Territory in the 1830s, the Cherokee Nation was torn apart. In 1839, assassinations of important figures of the tribe (Major Ridge, John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot) were perpetrated and later avenged. Tensions remained more or less constant throughout the century due to the series of changes imposed on the tribe by the federal government through either its assimilation policy or the Reconstruction Treaties after the Civil War.

10 Purification is a common initial step in Native cultures as a morning practice, before a ceremony or a specific rite. It can include bathing, sweating, burning vegetable materials (e.g. cedar bark, sweetgrass, or sage), and wrapping oneself in the smoke.

11 After a popular vote to amend the Constitution and disenfranchise the Freedmen’s descendants in 2007, they were able to regain all their rights granted by treaties in a 2017 federal district court decision to which the Cherokee Nation assented.

12 In Progressive Traditions, Nelson mentions the Natchez (seventeenth century), the Catawbas (1835), and the Taskigis (1819). Some Delawares, Shawnees, and Creeks were also adopted in the nineteenth century (223-224).

13 In United States v. Rogers (1846), the Supreme Court decided that a white man adopted by an Indian tribe was still a US citizen and therefore subject to federal laws.

14 Kirby Brown is an associate professor of Native American and Indigenous literary and cultural production in the Department of English and the director of Native American and Indigenous Studies at the University of Oregon.

15 Daniel Heath Justice is a professor at the University of British Columbia. He teaches English in the Department of English and First Nations, and Indigenous Studies in the Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies.

16 Craig Womack is an author and professor of English at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, specializing in Native American literature; Jace Weaver is an author, professor, and the founder of the Institute of Native American Studies at the University of Georgia in Athens; Robert Warrior is an author and professor of American literature and culture at the University of Kansas. Together, these Oklahoman intellectuals defended a nationalist approach of Native American literature and criticism, for instance in American Indian Literary Nationalism (2006).

17 A specialist of critical theory and Native American literature, Arnold Krupat is a professor emeritus at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York; Elvira Pulitano is a professor at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, where she is affiliated with the Ethnic Studies Department. Her research and teaching interests include Indigenous and Africana Studies, Caribbean Studies, theories of race and ethnicity, migration, diaspora, and human rights discourse.

18 Eastern tribes were pressured to move west from the beginning of the nineteenth century. While the bulk of the Cherokees were removed during the Trail of Tears in 1838-1839, some groups chose to leave earlier (from 1817) and settle in Indian Territory, Arkansas, or Texas (then part of Mexico), thus earning the appellation “Old Settlers.” Old Settlers were eventually forced out of Texas when it became a republic in 1836 and they migrated to Mexico.

19 The Cherokee Phoenix was the first newspaper published by Native Americans and printed in a Native language. It was created in 1828 in the Cherokee Nation’s capital, New Echota, in present-day Georgia. In the 1820s, this bilingual newspaper printed in English and Cherokee sought to strengthen the nation’s status. Publication was discontinued in 1834 but was revived in later years and again in the twentieth century. It continues to this day.

20 The National Council is the nineteenth-century equivalent of today’s Tribal Council, the legislative branch of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma institutions.

21 Sequoyah travelled to the different Cherokee settlements in Arkansas, trying to convince local leaders of the usefulness of the syllabary. He is said to have brought a speech written by an Arkansas leader in Cherokee back to the eastern tribes, a demonstration which eventually resulted in the widespread diffusion of the syllabary.

22 The Dawes Act was passed in 1887 and made provisions for the allotment of all remaining Indian land in the United States in order to turn Indians into individual owners and US citizens, officially in the pursuit of civilization and assimilation. The Dawes Act destroyed tribal ownership, disrupted ways of life, and social and family structures, and it forced assimilation upon Native individuals and communities. This law sought to break down reservations across the country by granting individual Natives (man, woman, child) a plot of land. The remaining surface was sold or allotted to settlers. The five large Southeastern tribes relocated to Oklahoma (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee [Creek], Seminole) were affected at a later stage through the 1898 Curtis Act.

23 Audie Murphy (1925-1971) was a soldier, actor, and songwriter. He was one of the most decorated US soldiers of World War II, receiving the Medal of Honor at age nineteen.

24 Maria Tallchief (1925-2015) was an Osage born in Fairfax, Oklahoma, who became the first renowned Native American ballerina, recognized worldwide for her talent. She became George Balanchine’s muse and was the first star of the New York City Ballet. She was also the first US dancer to perform at the Bolshoi Theater.

25 The Veterans Administration was the federal agency in charge of veterans’ benefits. It became the Department of Veterans Affairs in 1989.

26 Chilocco Indian School was a major institution located in Newkirk, Oklahoma. This federal boarding school provided academic and vocational education to Native students from all corners of the United States from 1884 to 1980.

27 Bacone College is a prominent tribal college located in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Originally a mission university founded in 1880, it is still in operation, now as a tribal college, and welcomes Native and non-Native students.

28 The University of Redlands, California, welcomed a significant share of veterans following the passage of the GI Bill after World War II.

29 Oklahoma is a heavily conservative state that has voted for the Republican presidential candidate in every election since 1964.

30 In absolute terms, California has the highest Native American population (757,628), with Oklahoma second (523,360) and Arizona third (391,620). In relative terms, Alaska has the highest Native American population (19.74% of its inhabitants), before Oklahoma (13.36%) and New Mexico (10.86%) (Source: 2020 Census).

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Olivier Burtin, Tatiana Viallaneix et Joshua Nelson, « Of Cherokee Culture and American Indian Identity: An Interview with Joshua Nelson »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2023, consulté le 22 février 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/21758 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/transatlantica.21758

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Olivier Burtin

Université de Picardie Jules Verne

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Tatiana Viallaneix

Université de Picardie Jules Verne

Joshua Nelson

University of Oklahoma

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