W. Dale Weeks is Instructor of History at Blinn College. This interview is based on his new book, Cherokee Civil Warrior: Chief John Ross and the Struggle for Tribal Sovereignty (University of Oklahoma Press, 2023).
JF: What led you to write Cherokee Civil Warrior?
DW: Well, I came across a set of letters written by a physician from North Texas during the Civil War. The doctor served as the regimental surgeon for a Confederate cavalry unit in Indian Territory. While studying the regiment and its service, I found the historiography a bit confusing. The doctor wrote frequently about his interactions with Native American troops, yet the historiographical accounts of the same seemed to tell a different story. In short, I was hearing two different stories about the Native Americans. So, I knew I needed to find out what the Native Americans had to say about the matter. That’s when I learned about John Ross, the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. Ross was very well educated and wrote prolifically. He served as chief from 1828 to 1866, from before the “Trail of Tears” through the end of the Civil War. So, I let Chief Ross tell me his version of the story. Cherokee Civil Warrior is what I heard. It is John Ross’s story. It is the story of the Cherokee Nation during the Civil War, yet it is about so much more than just the Civil War. Cherokee Civil Warrior tells the story of how John Ross led the tribe through the horrors of removal, only to learn that an even greater storm was brewing in Indian Territory, a storm that would cause more death and destruction within the Cherokee Nation than the infamous “Trail of Tears.”
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Cherokee Civil Warrior?
DW: As with most books, it is impossible to summarize in two sentences. This book tells an important story of how the Cherokee Nation responded to the Civil War. However, while reading it, we learn so much more. We learn about the development of U.S. Indian policy, about the practice of treaty-making with Indian nations. We learn how the United States Supreme Court came to define tribal sovereignty, and how that definition led us to Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee. However, for the sake of the question, I will only attempt to summarize the story in two sentences.
Cherokee Civil Warrior argues that the United States abrogated its treaty obligations to protect the Five Tribes by abandoning Indian Territory at the start of the Civil War, allowing Confederates from Texas to occupy the area and compel the tribes, especially the Cherokees, to agree to a new alliance with the Confederacy, or face the wrath of their Southern neighbors.
However, Abraham Lincoln, who admitted to the abrogation and initiated plans to return to the territory, reinstate Federal control, and reestablish the prewar treaties with the Cherokee Nation, was assassinated before those plans could be completed, introducing a new administration that refused to admit to anything so foolish, choosing instead to punish the Cherokees severely for what Andrew Johnson called their disloyalty, and in doing so, he opened the door for the federal government to begin the process of dismantling the treaty-making process, culminating in the events at Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee.
JF: Why do we need to read Cherokee Civil Warrior?
DW: You need to read Cherokee Civil Warrior for at least two reasons. First, as a nation, I think it is important for us to fully understand how we have treated our indigenous neighbors, especially during the nineteenth century. Many Americans have a limited understanding of the “Trail of Tears,” or the Sand Creek, Colorado Massacre, or the Massacre at Wounded Knee Creek, in South Dakota. However, there are many more stories of mistreatment and abrogation, stories of stolen land and broken promises on the part of the United States that we have yet to hear because we have silenced them through assimilation and acculturation. I believe that we are only now uncovering the truth of how badly we treated the Native Americans. It is also important from the perspective of President Abraham Lincoln. Prior to this book, we have had limited knowledge of Lincoln’s Indian policies during the war, and even less about his plans for after the war. What I learned from Ross is that Lincoln was actually one of the few presidents, if not the only one, who openly admitted that the United States had abrogated its treaty obligations to the Native Americans, and, in March of 1862, dispatched Federal troops to Indian Territory to restore the treaties. However, his assassination stopped those plans for restoration.
Second, I am a proponent of doing all we can to reverse the effects of the great “melting pot” we learned so much about in the past. Cherokee Civil Warrior tells the story of how the United States dismantled the Cherokee government, divided Cherokee land for allotment, and forced the people to assimilate into white society, because Indian nations were “in the way” of progress. Assimilation and Acculturation have hidden so much of indigenous culture and tradition from our present generation. We need to dig deeply into the past, as I have done with this book, and reintroduce the stories of our indigenous neighbors, so that they can once again tell us their story. Because it is our story, too.
JF: Why and when did you become an American historian?
DW: This is actually a fun story for me to tell. When my daughter was about eight or nine years old, she bought me a model airplane for Father’s Day. She knew I liked planes and thought it would be a fun project for the two of us to work on together. That plane, a model of the B-17 bomber from the Second World War, lit a spark in me. I read as much as I could about the plane, the men who flew them, the battles in which they were involved. Before long, I had started a small library of World War II books. It became a passion for me. I could not get enough history. At the first opportunity, and after travelling a long and winding road, I decided to go back to school to become a history professor. I wanted to write those books myself! My daughter is now thirty-four. And although I do not study the Second World War as a profession, I am a history professor, nonetheless.
JF: What is your next project?
DW: My next project is an examination of Confederate Indian policy. Even though the Confederacy only existed from 1861 to 1865, the eleven states that comprised it have a long history with Native Americans. It was the state of Georgia who demanded that the United States extinguish Cherokee title to Georgia lands that led to the “Trail of Tears” in the 1830s. It was Tennessee that produced many of the anti-Indian politicians of the day, including Andrew Jackson, who worked tirelessly to eliminate the presence of Native Americans east of the Mississippi River. We are all aware of how Southern slave owners exploited the African American race for their labor. However, before they could exploit the African Americans, they had to steal the land from the Indians in order to build their plantations. Then, once the Civil War began, these same states seized control of Indian Territory and demanded loyalty from the tribes within, the very tribes they had expelled decades before.
JF: Thanks, Dale!
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.