The Cherokee Nation: A History

By Robert Conley
Review by Albert Bender

This work is a first, in that it is the first Cherokee history to be written by a Cherokee. The writer is the renowned author Robert J. Conley, who is an enrolled member of the Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians of Oklahoma. Conley, the author of thirty-four novels, the majority of which are about Cherokee culture and history, does a stellar job with this volume. Also, this is the first history of the Cherokees to be written in over forty years.

The volume begins with the ancient history and folklore of the origin of the Cherokees. Conley debunks the Bering Strait theory held by non-Indian scholars, presents Cherokee origin folklore and leans toward a South American beginning for the tribe with a migration route that winds its way through Central America and Mexico and the northern United States before eventually stopping in the southern Appalachians.

The author also alludes to another fascinating subject: the origin of the Cherokee writing system. He sets out information that the writing system, the syllabary, routinely credited to the single-handed efforts of Sequoyah, was an ancient literacy system far predating the arrival of the Europeans.

The book, which gives a broad sweep of Cherokee history, nevertheless, provides a wealth of information on so many epochs and periods of Cherokee history and also discredits a number of misconceptions about Native Americans long held by the non-Indian world. For example, on the practice of torturing captives it has long been held by historians that this practice originated with and was carried out in its most heinous form, by Native Americans, particularly Southern and Eastern Indians. However, Conley found no reference to torture by Southeastern Indians until almost 200 years after European contact.

The book covers, in depth, the tumultuous Colonial period of Cherokee history of the 18th Century, when the Nation was at war, due to white intrusion almost constantly for one-hundred years. Central to this era were the figures of Dragging Canoe, the greatest off all the Cherokee War Chiefs and Nancy Ward, the peace advocate, whom now most non-Indian historians and most Cherokees categorize as patriot and traitor, respectively. During this era the nation was literally fighting for its physical survival in the face of the invading white settler onslaughts and genocidal U.S. government policies.

This reviewer will take issue with only one assertion in the book. In regard to the 1791 Treaty of the Holston, the author states the Treaty was signed by forty-one Cherokees with one of the names being “Cheakoneeske,” Otter Lifter in English. Conley states that the name is “almost certainly Dragging Canoe.” All other historians and all historical records and tradition indicate that Dragging Canoe never signed a peace treaty and ever remained the indomitable foe of American expansion. The confusion perhaps arose because the Cherokee word for canoe and otter is very similar; just a different ending (between tsiya-otter and tsiyu canoe). The American treaty recorders of the day were not aware of the difference.

Other periods and aspects of Cherokee history include the pitiless Trail of Tears; the devastating American Civil War (again, thousands of Cherokees died as a result of the four year conflict); the late 1800s sovereignty disputes and the heroic Cherokee resistance leaders Zeke Proctor and Ned Christie; the dismemberment of the Cherokee Nation government in 1907; the creation of the state of Oklahoma; the subsequent rise of the Redbird Smith resistance movement; World War II and the little known Cherokee removal of 1942; the rise of the Five County Cherokee Movement and the Original Cherokee Community Organization; the election of Wilma Mankiller, the first woman Principal Chief; and the election of Chad Smith as current Principal Chief.

The book also has a glossary and reading list at the end of each chapter and photos, illustrations and archival plates including maps, chiefs and other figures from Cherokee history. There is likewise, a listing of the Principal Chiefs from the 18th to the 21st Centuries, with biographical information on each along with a separate listing of Chiefs of the Eastern band of Cherokees and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians.

All in all, the volume magnificently chronicles the trials and tribulations of the Cherokee people. Conley ends the work with these inspiring and cautionary words. The Cherokee people must always remain alert and vigilant.