Patriots or Pariahs

Ironically, my first take on the Trail of Tears, came as a film. About six years ago I began working as the writer on a documentary about the Cherokees’ experience on the Trail of Tears. And when it was done, it was thrilling to hear my narration read by James Earl Jones (part Cherokee himself). In researching that story and conducting interviews of Cherokee storytellers, political leaders as well as historians, I quickly realized that there was also a very good book here, a strong narrative story that hadn’t really been told. A story about a fierce battle over identity and patriotism within Cherokee culture as well as the more obvious drama about the forcible removal of entire nations from their ancestral homeland.

What excites me about the project is not simply the opportunity to tell such an epic narrative, but also to explore a rich, character-driven story. Vivid and compelling voices nearly leapt from the documents I was reading. And I wanted to capture all of these memorable voices and the intense and sometimes conflicted struggle that lay behind them: there was the veteran Indian-fighter Andrew Jackson who nonetheless adopted a young Indian boy into his home;

Chief John Ross, only 1/8th Cherokee who required an interpreter to translate his perfectly-spoken English into Cherokee; yet he commanded the loyalty of most Cherokees because of his relentless effort to remain on their native soil. And then, most significantly, there were the dissenters in Cherokee country–especially Elias Boudinot and John Ridge, gifted young men who were highly educated in a New England religious academy but whose marriage to local white girls there erupted in racial epithets, effigy-burnings, and the closing of the school.

While today native Americans live mostly forgotten on reservations, the Cherokees’ story of removal conjures up for me our ongoing contemporary struggle to define what it means to be an American, what is a true patriot. We are at once a country of immigrants, the melting pot of the world, and yet a society that worries deeply when people of color gain influence or power. For some Americans, such people apparently threaten the very meaning of what a true American is. In the case of the Cherokees—who had ironically done everything white America asked for in becoming “civilized”—there was no expectation of influence or power, merely acceptance as a sovereign people. Telling this story while listening to all the voices within and beyond Cherokee country reminds me why we as Americans, despite our genuine love of liberty and equality, remain troubled by those among us who look, live and believe differently.

One comment


  • Hi there, You have done a fantastic job. I will certainly digg it and personally recommend to my friends. I’m sure they’ll be benefited from this website.

    January 23, 2012

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