'Native Removal Writing'

NATIVE REMOVAL WRITING: NARRATIVES OF PEOPLEHOOD, POLITICS AND WAR by Sabine N. Meyer, University of Oklahoma Press, paperback, 302 pages, $29.95

Sabine N. Meyer is professor of American Studies at the University of Bonn, Germany, an impressive pinnacle from which to survey her American cousins; her previous book is We Are What We Drink: The Temperance Battle in Minnesota. In Native Removal Writing: Narratives of Peoplehood, Politics and War, a large compendium from a multitude of sources, Meyer joins a century or more of European academics fascinated by the study of Native Americans. Germany in particular recognized the vital importance of this topic, while we here in the U.S. had not yet overcome the memory of our efforts at extermination.

Her decade of research has resulted in a compilation of synopses of Native writing across all categories rather than in an anthology of the writings themselves. I am uneasy about this appropriation, because a synopsis may not convey the writer’s tone, no matter how skillful and necessary as a basis for Meyer’s sensitive and well-informed conclusions. Although this volume is not entertaining, it is well-written and fast-paced and will reward readers who have more than a cursory interest in these subjects.

Beginning with an overview of Indian removal — the federal government’s forced uprooting of more than 80,000 Cherokees, Chickasaws, and Seminoles from their Southeastern homelands to permanent exile in Oklahoma, along the Trail of Tears — Meyer starts with an account of the 2016 uprising at Standing Rock and the use of “speeches, blogs, editorials and tweets” to convey Native stories, ephemeral by nature and not always preserved, even here. However, her inclusion of the contemporary issues of Native removal, dated in some accounts as ending in the 1840s, is worth the reader’s attention because the relevance today of these events is not always understood.

As an example of Native writing, she mentions Joy Harjo’s retelling of the Indian removal story in the prologue to her 2009 collection of poems, An American Summer. A mention, of course, can’t recreate the quality of the poems themselves and tends to view poetry and fiction as solely a reaction to the federal government rather than having artistic merit of their own.

Copyright and permission problems may have intervened, as well as the familiar scholarly preference for paraphrase in order to stress the historical context.

Chapter headings evoke crucial consideration of such topics as “Native Visions of Belonging.” In this context, the writings of Cherokee politicians are mentioned, as well as John Ridge’s 1854 novel, The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, which Meyer calls “The first novel ever written by a Native American.” However, the flavor of the novel is lost.

Meyer’s reliance on European forms, such as the novel, to dissect Native American writing is a reoccurring issue. Natives used many other forms to tell their stories, such as beadwork, petroglyphs, and painting. But these forms do not fit European models.

Meyer attempts to correct this lacunae, divorcing herself from earlier academic analyses that saw Native writing solely as responses to “the external challenges posed by U.S. Indian law and policies.” Her corrections are timely and important, as is her skillful weaving of many paraphrases into a convincing historical survey.

I found Chapter Four, titled “Cherokee Blood,” particularly interesting. Here Meyer refers to two recent novels, Abraham’s Well (2006) and Cold Running Creek (2007) by, respectively, Sharon Ewell Foster and Zelda Lockhart, both of African Native ancestry. These novels tell the stories of enslaved Cherokees and Choctaws, forced with their Native masters along the Trail of Tears. The novels “focus on the twice marginalized” — as enslaved people forced to leave their land — expanding the scope of this survey.

Finally, in a long reflection on Gerald Vizenor’s 2012 novel, Chair of Tears, Meyer concludes that “Native stories are superior to Western historiography” because they replace “narratives of victimry.” Grounded in sound research, these narratives succeed in creating “imaginary worlds in which the supposedly impossible becomes possible.”

Most of this knowledgeable volume concerns the Cherokees and other formerly Southeastern tribes, a disappointment, perhaps, to readers here. Yet, Meyer’s summation in her epilogue applies to all Native stories: “They are unbound. They have the power to imagine the disruption and dismantling of forms of subjectivity imposed by the settler story.” She is aware of the limitations of an academic approach, quoting the narrator in Chair of Tears: “Only in a Native trickster story would my cousin (Shammer) be named an academic administrator.” 

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