Claudia B. Haake is a senior lecturer in history at La Trobe University. She is the author of Modernity through Letter Writing: Cherokee and Seneca Political Representations in Response to Removal, 1830–1857 (Nebraska, 2020) and coeditor (with Richard Bessel) of Removing Peoples: Forced Migration in the Modern World.
When I began research in Native American history, I was given a lot of unsolicited advice from non-experts. They all held that there were few, if any, primary sources by American Indians themselves. Yet the work I undertook for my first monograph really surprised me with the number of letters by Native American authors I happened to come across. I focused on these unexpected but treasured finds in as much as possible as my project allowed, but I began to want to know and to do so much more with them. So, when it came to my next book, I decided to look exclusively at letters, memoranda, and petitions authored by Native Americans. The process of gathering these documents proved to be extremely time-consuming task as I had to sift through the entire agency correspondence for the tribes I was looking at, the Cherokees and Senecas. Friends, historians and others seemed to assume that all you had to do was look for bad handwriting and x-marks. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, most of the badly written ungrammatical letters with child-like signatures were actually from non-indigenous settlers! This shouldn’t have come as a surprise. After all, those writing for the Cherokees included men such as John Ross, John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot who were bicultural and highly educated in the Western tradition, while Seneca authors comprised men such as Dartmouth graduate Maris B. Pierce and Ely S. Parker, both of whom had legal training. Parker not only went on to draw up Lee’s terms of surrender but also became the first indigenous Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Considering all the practice he got when writing for the Tonawanda Senecas, I have no trouble believing the myth that when it came to the surrender, he was picked because of his calmness and good penmanship.
While I began by looking at materials from several tribes, in the end I decided for this book to focus on the Cherokees and Senecas, both prolific writers to members of the federal government. Among other things, it was the excellent scholarship available from a range of disciplines that enabled me to read the letters in the way I did. I discovered that I not only needed to look at what Cherokees and Senecas wrote, but also how they phrased it and even how they wrote it down on the page. For this I drew especially on the work of anthropologists and linguists. Letters contained messages on several levels and were written for multiple audiences. These included not only the intended recipients, all members of the federal government, but also members of the tribes themselves. They needed to persuade all of these and this asked a lot of those tasked with penning the messages.
Among the Senecas, most letters were written by educated men on behalf of chiefs or even the entire reservation population. The role of the runner, a younger man helping the chiefs, was a traditional one which for the letters was reinterpreted to meet the needs of a novel situation in which the ability to write was of crucial importance. It was up to these men to ‘translate’ the messages they received and were tasked with passing on. This role was often a dual one. They translated the messages not only from their own language into English but also conducted a cultural interpretation. Through this process they tried to convey to their white audience what they had been told to communicate by those who had asked them to write the letters. Who that was could vary from letter to letter and also between the two tribes and over time. While Seneca letters were often signed by chiefs, even they, it seems, were not necessarily solely responsible for the content of the letters as messages were frequently discussed in councils. Other tribal members thus constituted not only another audience for the letters but likely also contributed to the messages sent to members of the federal government by contributing to discussions in council. In this manner, through what one might refer to as oral writing, even illiterate Senecas who might not have understood much English would have been able to contribute.
For a long time, the Cherokees differed from the Senecas in the way they composed their letters. The tribe appointed delegates to go to Washington. Many of the letters to members of the federal government were written by those delegates and they were often penned in the capital as well, at a considerable distance from the tribe. While delegates were given a brief before they left, the opportunity for quick consultation with the tribe was limited. Yet this practice changed when pressures on the tribe to remove mounted after the signing of the 1835 Treaty of New Echota by a minority which included the Ridges. At this stage, John Ross and others, who continued to be opposed to removal, increasingly consulted the remainder of the tribe and many letters emerged from discussions in councils. This is apparent in the signatures as more messages were signed by very large numbers of Cherokees. At this stage, the character of the letters changed, and more traditional expressions and terminology indicate that ordinary Cherokees opposed to removal contributed to the messages via oral writing.
Letters were thus not expressions of a surrender of ‘Indianness’, no matter how much Cherokee and Seneca authors might have, for complex reasons, been adopting a discourse of progress towards civilization. True to best diplomatic practice, the authors of the letters were outlining to their intended recipients where the tribes would be willing to compromise and where they were drawing a firm line. Letters were one of the few instruments of diplomacy still available to tribes at this stage when fewer
delegations to Washington were authorized. Yet still the messages were not entirely tailored to non-Indigenous expectations of what diplomatic efforts should look like. Instead, they harked back to a time not so long past in which compromises between tribes and the federal government could still be reached in diplomatic arenas. And compromises were what Cherokee and Seneca authors were seeking. Whether they wrote against removal or in favour of it, letter writers sought to inform the federal government that they were not rejecting all aspects of the so-called civilization pressed upon them but were also unwilling to jettison their culture and way of life. What they were hoping to achieve partially through their diplomatic writing was modernity – but on their own terms.
Even though scholars have for quite some time now argued against the portrayal of Native Americans as ahistorical peoples stuck in an unchanging past, it was amazing to see that in their letters they actually made it clear that they wanted modernity—if one of their own choosing and not the kind the federal government and others were seeking to force upon them.