The Western narrative of progress—the idea that humanity is moving from chaos to order and from savagery to civilization—had its roots in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and perhaps hit its high water mark with the establishment of the United States of America. This would be a democratic republic: a nation of the people and for the people. One of its founding documents, the Bill of Rights, protects the people against the many tyrannical acts that the British government had visited upon its colonies. The Bill of Rights also enshrined religious freedom. The founders recognized that this provision was absolutely necessary, since state-sponsored religion had caused no end of mischief in the time between the Protestant Reformation and the founding of the United States of America.11David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed explores in detail the four major migrations from England to America. As one might imagine, the Puritans, Anglican Cavaliers, Quakers, and Border Presbyterians who settled America (in New England, the Chesapeake Bay, the Delaware Valley, and the colonies’ southern and western frontiers, respectively) had very different ideas about what religious freedom should be. The first draft of the first amendment was much more explicit in establishing religious liberty, but Massachusetts and New Hampshire lawmakers objected, because they feared it would damage already established religious organizations in New England. The final text, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” was a compromise designed to protect the interests of all four cultural regions.
“Manifest Destiny” was the idea that European settlers of America, because they were more advanced technologically, culturally, and religiously, had a divinely ordained right to expand their settlement from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This necessarily entailed the dispossession and displacement of Native Americans.22 It goes without saying that Europeans were only more advanced in their own estimation: they devised the standards against which they judged themselves and other people groups. In an era in which humanity in the aggregate begins to consider how best to keep 7 billion people alive without completely wrecking the planet, the way that some Native Americans lived—thoroughly in harmony with nature, not taking more than they needed, and using everything that they could use—begins to look like it may have been more advanced than its European counterpart, which often operated on a principle of growth for growth’s sake. This is not to suggest that Native American society was utopian: certainly, there were Native Americans who were greedy, venal, or warlike. Finally, it should be remembered that the Mayan, Ancient Pueblo, and Mississippian cultures fell into decline before the arrival of the Europeans, although the causes are unclear. This makes it a thoroughly malignant outgrowth of the European belief in progress. The genocide—for genocide is the only word that can describe it—began with the arrival of Europeans in 1492 and continues even today: Native American reservations are plagued by poverty, crime, alcoholism, and substance abuse.
An especially dark chapter in this history concerns the U.S. government’s forced removal in the first half of the 19th century of the Choctaw, Seminole, Muscogee-Creek, Chickasaw, and Cherokee tribes from their homelands in the southeastern United States to the Indian Territory, beyond the Mississippi River in what is today Oklahoma.
These tribes were known as the “Five Civilized Tribes” because they had attempted to assimilate into American culture—adopting plantation agriculture, slave ownership, schools, written language, and written constitutions—to avoid being displaced. This strategy, however, was not ultimately successful.
The Arkansas Gazette quotes a Choctaw chief who called the removal of his tribe “a trail of tears and death.” Of the 17,000 that migrated between 1831 and 1833, somewhere between 2,500 and 6,000 did not survive. Nevertheless, George W. Harkins wrote, “We as Choctaws rather chose to suffer and be free, than live under the degrading influence of laws, which our voice could not be heard in their formation.” (“George W. Harkins to the American People”).
The Treaty of New Echota was signed in 1836 by a party that did not represent the Cherokee tribe, and the U.S. government ignored a petition, signed by 15,000 Cherokee, to nullify the treaty. The treaty allowed a two-year period for voluntary relocation, during which only 2,000 Cherokee moved away from their lands. After the two years passed, the remaining 16,000 Cherokee were rounded up into camps, without being allowed enough time to gather up food or clothing, and then marched to the Indian Territory. The march killed around 4,000 of the Cherokee, who perished from disease, starvation, and exposure to the elements.
Other tribes resisted violently. Hiding out in the near-impenetrable Florida wetlands, the Seminole tribe fought with everything it had. The Second Seminole War (1835-1842) cost the U.S. government as much as $60 million. Runaway slaves, who had been aided and sheltered by the Seminole Tribe, joined them in their fight. After the Third Seminole War (1855-1858), the remaining Seminoles accepted payment from the U.S. in exchange for moving west.
Native American removal did not meet with universal approbation. Ralph Waldo Emerson implored Martin van Buren not to remove the Cherokee forcibly from their lands. Like the abolitionists, who finally began to gain traction when they argued that slavery degraded slaveholders as much as it did slaves, Emerson said in 1838 that the seizure of Indian lands was “… a crime that really deprives us as well as the Cherokees of a country, for how could we call the conspiracy that should crush these poor Indians our government, or the land that was cursed by their parting and dying imprecations our country any more?”
Observing the Choctaw Tribe passing through Memphis, Tennessee, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “In the whole scene there was an air of ruin and destruction, something which betrayed a final and irrevocable adieu; one couldn’t watch without feeling one’s heart wrung . . . . We … watch the expulsion … of one of the most celebrated and ancient American peoples” (Democracy in America, chapter 18).
Even more so, those who enforced the removal felt incredible remorse. Private John G. Burnett offered this defense: “Future generations will read and condemn the act and I do hope posterity will remember that private soldiers like myself … had to execute the orders of our superiors. We had no choice in the matter.” A Georgian soldier reflected: “I fought through the War Between the States and have seen many men shot, but the Cherokee Removal was the cruelest work I ever knew.”
The Civil War—“the War Between the States”— nearly destroyed the United States. Half a century later, the Great War (as World War I was originally called), nearly destroyed Europe. Both of these events shook the belief in progress to its core. 1922, four years after the end of World War I, was the annus mirabilis of literary modernism, the year that saw the publication of both T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and James Joyce’s Ulysses. Modernism kept intact the ideas that had constituted Europe up to that point, but like a broken mirror, with fragmented, shifting perspectives, shifting understanding of time, and a questioning of everything that had been taken for granted in the past.
The two world wars, separated by only 21 years, destroyed not just Europe’s worldview, but Europe itself. Postmodernism, the zeitgeist of our time, is not so much a broken mirror as a scattering of fragments across the ground; a thousand different perspectives, subjectivities, and traditions are available to us, none of them offered any kind of claim to authority or superiority. It also entails a questioning of everything that led up to the world wars. Since Europe had to be rebuilt from the ashes, it would be foolish to rebuild it the way it was before, just so that it could destroy itself again.
Alexis de Tocqueville, writing of the Native Americans more generally, states that “he considers the cares of industry as degrading occupations; he compares the plowman to the ox that traces the furrow; and in each of our handicrafts he can see only the labor of slaves. Not that he is devoid of admiration for the power and intellectual greatness of the whites; but although the result of our efforts surprises him, he despises the means by which we obtain it; and while he acknowledges our ascendancy, he still believes in his own superiority. War and hunting are the only pursuits that appear to him worthy of a man” (Democracy in America, chap. 18).
De Tocqueville was a product of his time, and he did not have the ability to look beyond his own European perspective. However, he did see that the Native Americans did not value work for work’s sake the way the Europeans did. Furthermore, Native Americans, far more than Europeans, had a sense of balance with nature. They recognized that killing an animal to eat it was a necessary evil. It was not until the second half of the twentieth century that European/American culture gained this consciousness.
To revisit the Trail of Tears is to escape from the monotony of the daily routine—the office, the cubicle, the mindless repetition, the ox tracing the furrow. It is to seek to move beyond the emptiness of materialism and consumer culture.
Even more importantly, to revisit the Trail of Tears is to attempt, in some small way, to experience this terrible journey. It is to travel the distance, and to attempt to envision the finality of the exile. It is to offer a small tribute to the nobility of the nations that were all but destroyed. It is to remember the sins of our ancestors. It is to make a small attempt at reconciliation. It is to seek healing not only for them, but for us—because the crime is damaging to the perpetrator as well as to the victim.
Further reading: 1) Eliot, Thomas Stearns. The Waste Land. 2) Fischer, David Hackett. Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. 3) Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism: or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. 4) Joyce, James. Ulysses. (1922) 5) de Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. 6) Weber, Max. The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.