By: Joshua Dacey, Chester Inn Site Manager
Our new exhibit “Displaced, Not Placeless” is an attempt to explore and reconcile with the difficult history of Indian removal here in Eastern Tennessee. From the earliest European settlers to the first generation of U.S. citizens, a prejudice against indigenous peoples proliferated. Ignorance, greed, and the belief that God meant for them to inhabit every corner of the Americas, led to the eradication of thousands of tribes. By the 1830s, another aspect of colonialism came to the forefront of public discourse concerning the “Vanishing Redman.” The federal government subsequently adopted policies based on paternalism. Indigenous people had always been cast as lesser than their European and American counterparts. They needed guidance in order to integrate with the modern world. A culture war was waged against the Cherokee and numerous other tribes that had been marched along the “Trail of Tears.”
From their new reservations in the west, thousands of Indigenous children were placed in Indian Boarding Schools. Forbade from even speaking their native languages, children were assimilated into the Christian world and then sent back to their reservations to further convert their tribes. The reality of these boarding schools has come to light in recent years. The abuse, starvation, and neglect the children endured stands in stark contrast to the paternalistic nature the U.S. and Canadian governments professed. It is still not known how many children died in the boarding schools. In recent years, a push to investigate the true nature of the Indian Boarding Schools has gained momentum, largely championed by the Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous person to occupy the office.
Working with indigenous peoples has been a corner stone in my career as a historian. My original interest developed during my undergraduate studies at Spartanburg Methodist College. It started small, very small in fact. As a research assistant, I had regular access to the college archives. Rooting around in the dust one day, I found a small clay figure. It was a bluish gray with what looked like scorch marks striping the effigy. After studying the object for a moment, I realized it was a turtle sculpted by a member of the Catawba tribe of South Carolina. I spent the next several years immersing myself in the history of the only federally recognized tribe in South Carolina as well as theirs neighbors, the Cherokee.
What made these groups so interesting to me was their adaptability and determination. Both the Catawba and Cherokee refused to leave their ancestral lands in the 1830s. While only a small band of the Cherokee remained in the east, they proved to be resourceful, employing legal tactics such as litigation over the treaties made in the past with the U.S. government. The tribe also purchased from the government 57,000 acres now known as the Qualla Boundary. With the ratification of a tribal constitution, the Cherokee became a sovereign nation within the United States. Similarly, the Catawba people created a treaty with the government of South Carolina during the Removal Period.
Unlike the Cherokee, the Catawba were dwindling in numbers. So much so, that the governor of South Carolina didn’t see the point in removing the remaining tribal members. Instead, the tribe ceded their 144,000 acres in exchange for a designated 700-acre reservation on the banks of the Catawba River. Unfortunately, the names listed on the tribal roles continued to be fewer and fewer. Yet, they endured. An emphasis on preserving traditional Catawba culture became a focal point for tribal members throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A tribal constitution was drafted to ensure the status as a federally recognized tribe. Most notably for the Catawba, their art of pottery continued to be passed down by tribal mothers generation to generation. The location of the clay deposits they use as material for their art is still closely guarded, as is the unique firing methods they use to bake the raw clay. That one little piece of pottery I had found years before became even more important as I worked with tribal elders to document the history of the Catawba tribe in their words. Turtles were sacred animals to the tribe. I was told their hearts are closest to the ground ensuring their connection with the earth.
In our new exhibit, we celebrate these stories of resilience and preservation. The focus is decidedly placed on the Cherokee tribe. The earth that Jonesborough and other eastern Tennessee towns now occupy has long belonged to the people of the Cherokee nation, despite the hardships they have endured.