Tyler Boulware. Deconstructing the Cherokee Nation: Town, Region, and Nation among Eighteenth-Century Cherokees. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2011. xii + 234 pp. $69.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-3580-2.
Reviewed by Natalie Inman (Cumberland University)
Published on H-AmIndian (March, 2014)
Commissioned by F. Evan Nooe
Complicating Historical Understandings of 18th Century Cherokee Politics
Tyler Boulware's Deconstructing the Cherokee Nation has quickly become a staple resource for those who study southern Indian history. Drawing on Joshua Piker's Okfuskee: A Creek Indian Town in Colonial America (2004), the foundational study of the importance of town organization in Creek Indian history, Boulware argues that towns had a similar centrality to Cherokee life that was also bound to regional affiliation. Town and region, he contends, were central to the ways Cherokees identified themselves, affiliated with one another, and experienced rivalries. Town membership, alongside kinship, provided the central units of political organization. Regional affiliation created links among towns in much the same way that kinship provided cross-town and cross-regional ties through clans that helped to bind the Cherokee people together. Boulware walks a fine line arguing that town and regional membership created fundamental divisions between groups of Cherokees, characterized even by different linguistic dialects, and that the Cherokees were in fact a coherent cultural group that made up one "people." In the end, he succeeds with this careful balance between two seemingly oppositional arguments, making this work among the best nuanced accounts of Cherokee political organization available.
Boulware structures the book chronologically covering the period form 1670 through the American Revolution and its aftermath. In addition to the introduction and epilogue, which provide the analytical framework, the first chapter highlights how his main arguments fit into historical and anthropological debates dating from the 1930s to the present. The first chapter also defines and contextualizes the essential terms for the book. Boulware warns, for example, that "recent scholarship demonstrates the dangers of unequivocally applying the nation concept to Native Americans" (p. 3). Such heedless use of the term, he contends, results in exaggerated perceptions of political and cultural homogeneity. Instead, Boulware argues for recognition of regions and towns as complicating identities and loyalties within the larger body of Cherokees. He notes that other fields, including colonial American history, have also benefited from problematizing the concept of nation by recognizing the political and cultural divisions within polities that have been called nations. Boulware seems to struggle throughout the book with this tension between difference and unity, particularly in his use of the term "nation," which he defines as "a sense of peoplehood that transcended localized identities" (p. 6). The tensions seem to resolve themselves toward the end of the book as the American Revolution forced Cherokees to reorient themselves more toward a unified political body in response to Anglo-American pressures for land. Boulware intersperses references to the "nation" with descriptions of the actions of the Cherokee "people" to remind readers that he refers to a body of people linked culturally and through kinship rather than a formal nation-state.
To this end, Boulware's descriptions of the Cherokee towns, regions, and nation are multifaceted, especially in the way they portray rivalries between and within towns and regions. During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Cherokee political organization so emphasized the centrality of town leadership that British colonial officials were forced to deal with the leaders of individual towns and groupings of towns as separate political entities. Over time, colonial administrators tried to deal mostly with leaders who led multiple towns, thereby reinforcing the power of those leaders and encouraging more centralization. The central place of trade to these negotiations provides a consistent and clear thread throughout the book. However, the fluctuating economic and political environments of the Southeast, as well as the merit-based leadership of the Cherokees, ensured that chiefs led by persuasion rather than by coercion. Town leadership changed according to the needs and opinions of the townspeople. Boulware makes significant contributions to the historiographies of the Seven Years' War and the American Revolution. By focusing on town and regional loyalties, the motivations of the historical actors and the effects of events on particular populations become clearer and create more nuanced, and therefore valuable, narratives. Boulware's recasting of the Cherokee/Chickamauga divide, which some historians have defined as a political split or even a Cherokee civil war, is a new incarnation of the regional system of town confederation complete with a reprise of the historical tensions between regions. His discussion of the reformation of regions over time is especially helpful for scholars of the early Republic.
Boulware argues for the recognition of the importance of town and regional identities alongside kinship identities rather than in place of them. He continually illustrates how kinship connections, embodied in matrilineal clans, facilitated regional and transregional communication. Wartime cooperation of towns often drew on these bonds, as well as those forged by inter-town ballgames, shared interests, and shared threats. He interweaves the threads of kinship, attachment to place, and common concerns over trade, land encroachment, and tension with Anglo neighbors to create a much fuller picture of Cherokee motivations through the long eighteenth century. By placing these two systems of political organization side by side, Boulware's study provides a more comprehensive way of understanding Cherokee politics.
Deconstructing the Cherokee Nation is well written, easy to follow, and intriguing. The historical characters come to life as their motivations and responses to historical situations are made clear through the course of the book. Boulware's account of the American Revolution and its aftermath provides an important regional perspective. However, by focusing on the actions and fates of towns, readers lose sight of the Chickamauga military victories that took place at the same time that Anglo militias raided the Upper and Lower towns. The dissonance between Boulware's definition of "nation" and the more generally accepted definition of "nation" referring to a nation-state forces readers to read with careful awareness. The monograph blends extensive primary research with both classic and recent secondary sources to provide an excellent analysis of the roles of town, region, and nation (or "peoplehood") in shaping the interactions of the Cherokees and the British. This book will be foundational reading for scholars of Cherokee, American Indian, southern, and early American history who seek to understand the region before, during, and after the American Revolution.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-amindian.
Natalie Inman. Review of Boulware, Tyler, Deconstructing the Cherokee Nation: Town, Region, and Nation among Eighteenth-Century Cherokees.
H-AmIndian, H-Net Reviews.
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