This week, I read an interesting article about how the memory of the Civil War developed in Native territories. The article “Lest We Remember” by historian Jeff Fortney explores how memory was shaped within Oklahoma’s tribes. Fortney makes the argument that Native Americans did not commemorate a war that represented an unjustified and unavoidable interference with American affairs. Though many fought for the Union and the Confederacy memorials are often not erected during war times. He argued “public sentiment during the post-war period tends to dictate commemorate endeavors” (527). This is why Native involvement in the war is frequently overlooked or forgotten. The Cherokee did not identify with the principles of the North or the South, even though owned slaves, the need to defend slavery never outweighed the potential losses if the United States were to split in two. So after the war, the focus was not to commemorate the American conflict but to rebuild their broken communities. The lack of wanting to remember a devastating war in the Native community allowed the white memory of the war to become dominant in Oklahoma.
After the war, many white settlers moved west to settled in the Indian Territory. This was made possible by forced sales of tribal lands and allotments. During this time is when the South transplanted their heritage into Oklahoma. It was a combination of forced assimilation, white settlers, and abolitionism that threatened the promise of sovereignty. By forcing black freedmen to become citizens, Fortney argued “robbed natives of their right to decide tribal membership” and ultimately took away sovereign rights promised to the Cherokee in the 1866 Treaty. By 1889 non-natives outnumbered the Native populations. Fortney described “white settlers attempted to assimilate the Native story into their own narratives via public commemorative endeavors” (526). To this day, monuments of white Union soldiers and plaques from the United Daughters of the Confederacy chapters and the Grand Army of the Republic dominate the memory of Native lands.
Like I mentioned before, post-war periods tend to dictate how wars and memories are commemorated. Fortney described reconstruction for Native Americans as a time in which they rose to the overwhelming challenge of rebuilding their homes and forgiving past grievances of members of their nations while resisting unjust punishment for their unavoidable roles in the Civil War. There was no neutral option. They were forced to pick a side in a war that did not pertain to them. And how the Cherokee were remembered should have been decided by them. Instead, the southern memory hijacked and whitewashed Natives, and “Indian men could be co-opted as symbols of white cause became preferred objects of commemoration” (536). For example, the Cherokee General, Stand Watie, was recognized but not celebrated for his role in the war by the Cherokee Nation. However, the erection of Watie’s memorial by the United Daughters of the Confederacy demonstrated how Native participation for either side could be molded into the white American dominant Civil War memory. Watie became the most well-known Indian soldier from the need to “reshape their history of the war to fit into one of the visions of dominant American memory” (537). Ultimately this leads to the thinking that it was natural for the Cherokee to join the Confederacy due to their roots on southern soil and ignores the efforts to resist the war and those who joined the Union.
The most interesting part of this article is how Forney pushes against David Blight’s book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. He criticized Blight for not including Native memories in his analysis. Blight identifies three visions of the Civil War that collide with each other until one emerged as dominant. He concluded that by the beginning of the twentieth century, forces had joined with white supremacy for the propaganda of the lost cause mythology and permitted the South to reiterate its own past by arguing war was necessary to defend their home and way of life. Fortney does not argue against how white memory is formed but that the memory focuses on the black-white narrative and does not include Native perspectives on the western front. Books like Blight’s are examples of how “the most efficient way to bring natives into dominant Civil War narratives of the war was to reshape their history of the war to fit into one of the visions in the dominant American memory” and ultimately forgetting the true reasons for their involvement. It is not just Blight but many other historians who overlook Native perspectives from the dominant white perspective that took over the Oklahoma territory after the war.
This article has shifted the perspective of the argument of my paper. The story of the Cherokee in the Civil War can not be told without voices from their community. The memory of the war in their Nation is unreliable when it is not theirs. There is no place for Civil War monuments for “lost cause” ideals or defense of the American Union on Native lands. No matter what side the Cherokee were on, they lost. The true commemoration of the war in Cherokee territory was how they rebuilt. Their monuments were not traditional. The memorials are the rebuilding houses and fields that were destroyed. It is how the foundation of their Nation was ripped apart and built up again. The story of the Cherokee in the Civil War is one of resilience. Yet there are no celebrations for Cherokee resiliency.
Fortney, Jeff. “Lest We Remember: Civil War Memory and Commemoration among the Five Tribes.” The American Indian Quarterly 36, no. 4 (2012): 525–44.