Gregory D. Smithers is Associate Professor of History at Virginia Commonwealth University. This interview is based on his new book, The Cherokee Diaspora: An Indigenous History of Migration, Resettlement, and Identity (Yale University Press, 2015).
JF: What led you to write The Cherokee Diaspora?
GS: That’s an interesting question with an answer that most people don’t expect. I was actually in Australia in the early 2000s doing some research on the forced migrations of Aboriginal children in early twentieth-century Australia. As I was conducting that research I noticed a curious reference to an immigration document that listed “Cherokee Meeks” and her family. It turned out the Meeks family tried to migrate and resettle in Australia during the early twentieth century. I asked the archivist if I could see the document. She agreed to retrieve the document but insisted it said nothing about the Cherokee people; it was pure coincidence, I was assured, that the mother of that family happened to be named “Cherokee.” Undeterred, I began analyzing the document and I discovered that the archivist had been mistaken. In actuality, that document said a great deal about a mixed-race Cherokee family and why they made the decision to migrate to a far-flung corner of the earth. I became intrigued by this document and wondered how many other documents like it lay buried or mis-cataloged in archives throughout the Americas and beyond. I guess you could say that chance discovery was the beginning of a long journey to uncover documents and stories that might shed more light on Cherokee migrations since the eighteenth century.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Cherokee Diaspora?
GS: The Cherokee Diaspora is the story of how Cherokee people have endeavored to retain a sense of themselves as individual Cherokees and as people who are part of a collective Cherokee identity. The history that I’ve been able to uncover and piece together reveals how Cherokees used migration – whether freely chosen or coercively undertaken – to forge what became a diasporic identity.
JF: Why do we need to read The Cherokee Diaspora?
GS: I think one of the areas of research that historians of American Indian people have become much more sensitive to over the past generation is how human movement and migration has been such an important part of the history of Native peoples. This is certainly true for the Cherokee people. Yes, a spiritual and historical connection to the land and rivers of the Southeast were (and remain) fundamentally important to Cherokees, but when those things were so violently taken from thousands of Cherokees (even before the infamous Trail of Tears in the 1830s), then Cherokee people needed to find the strength to resettle and rebuild their lives and reconstitute their identities in ways that gave renewed meaning to being Cherokee. This didn’t mean giving up on tradition, it meant innovating traditional stories, ceremonies, and cultural practices. It meant developing their own educational institutions, their own system of writing, and adding new chapters to their collective history. In other words, Cherokee history is really an incredible story of a people who found the courage and strength of will to continue being Cherokee, whether in Connecticut, Indian Territory, Texas, California, Mexico, Hawaii, and scores of other places.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
GS: I was born and grew up in Australia at a time when Aboriginal land rights had become a fixture of Australian political and popular discourse. Some of the reactions among white Australians to Aboriginal land rights claims were incredibly racist, and often willfully ignorant of the history that led to the dispossession of Aboriginal people. That’s where it began. I wanted to understand the comparative historical dimensions of Indigenous peoples’ dispossession. As an undergraduate, I became particularly interested in the history of the Cherokee people and haven’t looked back since that point.
JF: What is your next project?
GS: I’ve just started researching a project on water and riverine cultures in Cherokee history. It’s a story that’s taking me back to Cherokee oral traditions, colonial America, and into the present.
JS: Thanks, Gregory!
And thanks to Abby Blakeney for facilitating this installment of The Author's Corner