Unit 7: Cherokee Renewal Through Literature


Robert Conley, well-known Cherokee author, takes the story of Cherokee cultural recovery from 19th Century education, portrayed in Unit 6, to 20th Century narrative art. The movement of Conley’s lecture is from histories to novels and poems. Conley’s lecture reflects his own difficulties and other Cherokees’ search to portray the past, particularly the Trail of Tears, in art, but with an eye to his own contemporary times. This lecture might can easily be paired with Unit 8’s lecture on three-dimensional art of the Cherokee and the overall movement of the two Units is away from the 19th Century Trail toward a wider and hopeful future in the 21st Century.

Guiding Questions:

  • What might have been some of reasons Cherokees did not talk about, much less write about, the Trail of Tears until the 1970s?
  • What changes had taken place by the 1970s that caused (or allowed?) Cherokee writers to begin to write about the Trail of Tears?

Learning Objectives:

After completing this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Articulate various possible reasons for the long Cherokee silence regarding the Trail of Tears.
  • Express an understanding of the whys of the eventual breaking of that silence.
  • Discuss intelligently contemporary Cherokee attitudes regarding the Trail of Tears as expressed in Cherokee literature.


When Emmet Starr, a Cherokee, wrote his History of the Cherokee Indians (pub. 1922), he did not write about the Trail of Tears. Chapter V is titled “Treaty With the Cherokee, 1835.” It includes the text of the Removal Treaty (also known as the Treaty of New Echota), and letters to and from Chief John Ross regarding the treaty. Chapter VI, “The Emigration from Georgia. Cost Detachment. Resolutions of Protest. Political Differences. Civil War Averted,” contains lists with the names of the conductors of each detachment, the dates of their departure and arrival, the number of emigrants in each detachment, the number of births and deaths and desertions. It includes the numbers of wagons, teams, riding horses, and amounts paid for the removal costs. It includes the text of a resolution by the council of the Cherokee Nation, and then it proceeds thus: “Upon arriving in the western Cherokee Nation John Ross settled at Park Hill.” Dr. Emmet Starr, Cherokee, in his History of the Cherokee Indians, did not write about the Trail of Tears. He wrote around it. It is also interesting, if not instructive, that the phrase “Trail of Tears” does not appear anywhere in the book. The only book about the Trail of Tears written by a Cherokee listed in Raymond D. Fogelson’s exhaustive The Cherokees: A Critical Bibliography, pub. In 1978 is Gloria Jahoda’s The Trail of Tears, published in 1975. My own novel, Mountain Windsong: a Novel of the Trail of Tears, was not published until 1992.

There were Cherokee writers. Elias Boudinot, journalist, early novelist, and lecturer, was killed in 1839. (He was the first Cherokee novelist, having written Poor Sarah, or the Indian Woman, 1833, in the Cherokee language using the syllabary of Sequoyah.) John Rollin Ridge, whose father was also killed for having signed the Removal Treaty, became a journalist, a novelist, and the first poet laureate of California. Ridge did not write about the Removal. The closest he ever came to it was in letters he wrote expressing his craving for revenge for the death of his father. The next Cherokee writers of any note came in the first half of the 20th century. They were John Oskison, Lynn Riggs and Will Rogers. Will Rogers, world famous humorist, movie star and newspaper columnist, as far as I can determine, never mentioned the Trail of Tears. John Oskison wrote several novels of Indian Territory days, numerous magazine articles and a biography of Tecumseh. Again, there is no mention of the Trail of Tears. Lynn Riggs, a very successful playwright, wrote several plays about Indian Territory days, including Green Grow the Lilacs which later became the still popular musical Oklahoma. But no Trail of Tears.

So why not? Several possible answers come to mind, none sufficient enough alone to answer the question. (Class discussion could follow these partial/possible answers.)

  • Cherokee people tend not to dwell on the past. The past is past and cannot be changed. Cherokees rather live in the present concerned with immediate needs and the futures of their children and grandchildren.
  • The Trail of Tears was too bitter a memory and too painful to recall.
  • To whom would Cherokees be recalling these painful memories? To white people? And to what purpose?
  • Who would publish it? There are indications in the novels of John Oskison that he would much rather have been writing about Cherokees than about white people. So why were his heroes all white people? As recently as 1987 I had an editor of a major paperback house tell me that he could not possibly publish a novel with an Indian as a main character.
  • For traditional Cherokee people there is a belief that if we do everything right, then everything will go well for us, but if we do something wrong, then things will go badly. John Rollin Ridge wrote of a time before the Removal when an old Cherokee prophet came before the people and warned them that if they did not get rid of the things they had acquired from the white man and go back to living like Cherokees, they would be driven west. Ridge’s grandfather, Major Ridge, ridiculed the old man. We don’t want to talk about it, perhaps, if it’s our own fault.

During all these years, the Trail of Tears was not forgotten. It was much written about by white historians, such as Grant Foreman, James Franklin Corn, Annie Heloise Abel, Walter Blumenthal, James Mooney and others. It was also written about by Cherokees. People who suffered the long enforced journey kept journals written in the Cherokee syllabary, some of which are still in possession of their descendants and have never been translated into English, much less published. They are kept in the family and hoarded as family secrets and heirlooms. In addition, the Cherokee oral tradition remembered the Trail of Tears in a strange and humorous way by the invention of a trickster-like character called Tseg’sgin’. According to Jack and Anna Kilpatrick in Friends of Thunder, (SMU Press, 1964) Tseg’sgin’, or Jack the Devil, tales seem to have originated in Oklahoma, and while they do not make any reference to the Trail of Tears, seem to be jibes against Andrew Jackson. One example has Tseg’sgin’ in a horse race with a rich man. Tseg’sgin digs a large hole in the race track, and the other man’s horse falls in. Tseg’sgin’ wins the race.

Up until the 1970s, Cherokee artists, like the writers, were ignoring the Trail of Tears and Cherokee history and culture in general. Cherokee artists were painting plains Indian images, and Cherokees on the reservation in North Carolina were dressing up in plains Indian costumes and selling their pictures to tourists. A major exception was Cecil Dick, Cherokee artist from a traditional Cherokee community who alone was painting Cherokee images that were historically accurate. He was not painting the Trail of Tears though. In 1969, two events, neither one Cherokee, conspired to instigate change. Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel House Made of Dawn, and Lakota Vine Deloria’s first book, Custer Died for Your Sins was published and became a best seller. These two books opened the floodgates for American Indian writers.

In the late 1960s, Principal Chief W.W. Keeler of the Cherokee Nation hired a white man, Col. Martin Hagerstrand, to establish the Cherokee Heritage Center. In addition to a museum, an outdoor theater was built to produce a play called The Trail of Tears. An annual “Trail of Tears Art Show” was also initiated. The play was written by a white man, but Cherokee artists began creating Trail of Tears images with serious attempts at historical accuracy. Cecil Dick himself painted two Trail of Tears pieces and several of his followers fell in line. The literature followed a bit more slowly. In 1975, Gloria Jahoda’s The Trail of Tears was published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

In 1977, while I was working for the Cherokee Nation, I wrote a column for The Cherokee Nation News called “Is It Cherokee?” It was a small attempt at dispelling widely accepted historical and cultural inaccuracies and misconceptions regarding Cherokees. I had also begun to write poetry, short stories and novels, mostly with Indian Territory settings, with some success at publishing the poems and stories. There were other Cherokee writers at work, notably a group in Tahlequah that met for a time under the name of “The Tahlequah Indian Writers’ Group.” Cherokees in that group included Wilma Mankiller, Pat Moss, Julie Moss, James Grass, Robin Coffee, Julia Gibson and Renee Reed. In 1982, Echoes of Our Being, an anthology of their poetry, was published by Bacone College under the imprint, Indian University Press. I served as editor of that volume.
Although much of their poetry ignores the Trail of Tears, if the reader is familiar with the history, he will notice, I believe, reverberations from that sad historical episode.

Laughter of Our Children
by Robin Coffee

little indian boy goes to public school
dies of loneliness
plays alone outside
no one knew when he laughed he cried
celebrated columbus day
don’t they know the price he pays
for the ships that came ashore
when time came for a student play
avon lipstick was put upon his face
plastic feathers on his back
he was told to dance and make it rain
little indian boy goes to public school
dies of loneliness
the old men that lived through this
hang their heads in sadness
the warriors hang theirs in shame
on a quiet summer’s day
while all other students have gone away
listen, listen quietly
with avon lipstick on his face
and plastic feathers on his back
you can hear him dancing
then it begins to rain
. . .then it begins to rain


Uncried Tears
by Robin Coffee

where have you gone,
my land
with simple cool streams
remind me of uncried tears
the singing bird
takes away small cares
the wounded mother
me to her breast
where have you gone,
my land
your children are dying
and we need you
the wounds of your people
and the pain
of their lives
are treated with
burning alcohol
and promises of hope
that never came
where have you gone,
my land
your children are dying
and we need you
i catch glimpses
of happiness
through long-time saddened
i lean against an old stone
passersby look at me
with faces of disgust
where have you gone,
my land
your children are dying
and we need you
i walk on the hard
cement trails
and my spirit screams
for a well worn path
beside cool peaceful water
and the love
of my God
where have you gone,
my land
your children are dying
and i am among them


Children of the Earth
By James Grass

In future’s light
abstractions of right
Leaving signs of contradiction
the progress of “Destiny” begins
Leaving those humble lonely.

Soon to come the tears
and all the fears
That had once been dreamt
come to reality.

You left your mark upon me
for all the world to see.


On the Street
By James Grass

it’s hard to forget
it’s hard to forget
as you look into the past. . .
but they tell me it’s over
things won’t be the same
you can never return
to a time or place in
the back of your mind
maybe if i shut my eyes
and pray real hard
and learn the why–
“Will you help me?”
the young man asked
and the elder began to speak


Sometimes it’s done with humor.


By Pat Moss

Since the time of their
they seem to have
had one direction;
to try to outdo nature
(improve on its perfection).
They erect huge buildings of
glass and steel
To shut out the elements
and their brother animals.
But even with all their
There’s a june bug in the
flourescent light panel.

A few of the poems come much closer to the Trail of Tears.


Great Debate
By James Grass

you took the land of worship
and raped its intended worth
taxed the people and invented
false prophecies and gods
took my relations and shoved
them westward to be forgotten
yet, they would not die as you
had wished but instead they grew
america–you do not know me
nor will i allow you to
i will continue to grow, learn,
appreciating i was bred
to love the Earth and its animals


And one is direct.


Cherokee Trail of Tears
By Julia Gibson

Whisper quietly
In the night
General Winfield Scott
Trail of Black Fright
Four thousand Cherokees
Lay scattered there
Forgotten sight

Whisper quietly
In the night
Concentration camps
Disease, death
Whisper quietly
In the night
Lest you remember
And ask why


After I began to find publishers for my novels (beginning in 1986), for several years people asked me why I had not written about the Trail of Tears. The only answer I could come up with was that I had no plot. Then a friend sent me a cassette tape of songs written and performed by a Cherokee from North Carolina named Don Grooms. One of the songs was called “Whippoorwill,” and it told the story of a pair of Cherokee lovers separated by the Trail of Tears. I contacted Don and asked if I could use his song as an outline for a novel. He readily agreed, and I had my plot. Even so, I put off writing the novel for a few more years, telling myself that I could not do a proper job without making a trip to North Carolina. Finally I admitted that I was just putting it off. Why? I’m not sure. Was I afraid to deal with it? At any rate, I did finally write the novel. Mountain Windsong: a Novel of the Trail of Tears was published in 1992 by the University of Oklahoma Press.

Diane Glancy, a prolific Cherokee writer who lives and teaches in Minnesota, wrote a novel about the Trail of Tears that was published in 1996 by Harcourt Brace and Company. It’s called Pushing the Bear: A Novel of the Trail of Tears. Glancy’s novel is told through the voices of participants in the events, some Cherokee, both fictional and historical,

My own novel, Mountain Windsong, is perhaps instructive regarding Cherokee attitudes toward the Trail of Tears that continue to persist. Readers will likely observe various ways in which the experience of the Removal is held at a distance. Don Grooms’s song lyrics are presented at various stages throughout the novel, and they tell the story one way. A contemporary “Grandpa” tells the story to his grandson. The tale is a legend to the old man, of course, and his details do not always correspond directly to those of the song. Then there is omniscient narrative, and finally there are historical documents. Several different points of view are presented.

Robert J. Conley
Author, Mountain Windsong
Editor, Echoes of our Being
Tahlequah, Oklahoma

Textual Sources

Glancy, Diane, Pushing the Bear, A Novel of the Trail of Tears, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1996.

Conley, Robert J., ed., Echoes of Our Being, Indian University Press, 1982.

Conley, Robert J., Mountain Windsong: A Novel of the Trail of Tears, University of Oklahoma Press, 1992 (permission granted). Selections from Chapters 1, 11, and 14


Questions for Analysis

  1. Ask students to discuss various possible reasons why Cherokees did not write about or even talk about the Trail of Tears until the 1970s.
  2. Ask students to identify various things which came together beginning in the late 1960s to bring about a change in attitude toward discussing and writing about the Trail of Tears.
  3. Do the poems Conley has included in his essay have a wider extension than the Trail of Tears? What experiences, contemporary (early 1970’s) and of the past, seem to inform the voices of the poems? Upon reading these poems, what sort of breadth and what sort of focus do the poems, as representatives of Cherokee literature, seem to have?


Break the class into small groups for discussion of the above questions. Following the discussion, group leaders will present their collective thoughts to the entire class.
Possible Topics for Debate

  1. Is Cherokee literature on the Trail of Tears reflective of the reality of the Removal?
  2. How can it be said that Cherokees today are still affected by the events of the Trail of Tears?
  3. Discuss the Cherokee literary tradition in general, beginning with Elias Boudinot.
  4. For whom do Cherokee writers write? For other Cherokees? For white people?


Optional Question for Discussion and Linking the Lessons

  1. How might the translation and publication of private journals written in the Cherokee language affect the literature in general? Should this be done, or are there reasons for keeping the two separate?
  2. The selections from Mountain Windsong try to capture both a sense of the North Carolina home of the Cherokees and the imagined life of a resistant Cherokee, Waguli, separated from his love, Oconeechee, on the Trail of Tears. After a passage opening in North Carolina, two more passages follow. The first takes place in a prison stockade -- some would characterize these as temporary concentration camps -- where Cherokee were treated as prisoners before they were forced to move on the Trail to Indian Territory. The last selection is on the Trail and happens during a river passage. These selections can be related to earlier units and readings. Finally, the selections have been made not only to focus on the experience of the Trail, but to give a sense of how the story of Oconeechee and Waguli runs in the book. You’ll have to read the whole work, however, to learn the whole story.

    In Chapter 1 there is a conversation between Chooj and his Grandpa. Don’t you think that it is a curious conversation –
    the view of the sky and Chooj hearing the windsong, the brief discussion of the democratic Cherokee, the love of Oconeechee’s parents, the centering on Junaluska, the vision that maybe wasn’t a dream but real – all appear at the beginning of the book only to have Grandpa say, “But this story’s not about him—not about Junaluska… It’s about Junaluska’s daughter, Oconeechee…That’s the place where the story really starts. The story of the windsong”? Why does Conley give us this first chapter?

     Read the selections from Mountain Windsong (see link above).

    Watch the many changes of names in the first passage. Why do you think this might be important for understanding what you read in the last two passages? Why is naming important – and who names?
  3. Robert Conley has written, above, about the reluctance, except in secret journals, of Cherokee to write about the Trail of Tears, and a review of Professor’s Fogelson’s second lesson of Unit 1 elaborates on that reluctance. Yet, Conley has written a novel about that experience. Perhaps, his effort is a way for students and teachers to think about the role of art in human life and, specifically, in cultural recovery.

    You will have read the Butrick Journal selections by a minister on the Trail of Tears in Unit 5. The passages in Mountain Windsong have a minister. You can read the selection in James Mooney that speaks of a warning by a Cherokee to his people about keeping to Cherokee ways - Cherokee Alphabet and the Warnings of Cherokee Conservatives. The passages in Mountain Windsong contain a warning by an elder, conservative Cherokee about the need for the Cherokee to cast off ways of the white man. You have read the parable about an Indian view of a train and the white view of a train on the landscape and you can link that to passages at the end of Unit 3. Also, you have read Wood’s Unit 2 on the importance of stories in Cherokee culture and the legendary stories about creation that have been passed down by the Cherokee. Clearly, Robert Conley knows his Cherokee history of events.

    Yet, he also knows his Cherokee history of art. You’ll see in the next Unit 8 a painting by Cecil Dick, the artist that Conley credits with historically accurate paintings of the Cherokee (link). Conley, himself, was an editor of a book of poems by other Cherokee artists (see the poems above from Echoes of our Being). Yet, for all the historical accuracy which Conley and other artists use in novels and poetry, in their art, in Mountain Windsong and Echoes of our Being, the reason why we think these works are both valuable and a building of Cherokee culture cannot rest in historical accuracy. That might be important, but it’s not enough. Conley took his plot from a song by another Cherokee. He never personally knew Oconeechee or Waguli and there is no known record of them. They might never have actually existed. Even if they did, it would be hard for anyone to know what was going on in the living Waguli’s mind. Something of the same can be said about Grandpa and LeRoy-chooj who introduce the story of Oconeechee and Waguli. Conley knows North Carolina mountains well and he has talked to many Eastern Band Cherokee. He may have had a grandfather like Grandpa, and he may not have. Read the passages of Mountain Windsong provided in this Unit: what does art do for us that history cannot? Why might both art and history be necessary for cultural recovery after an event like the Trail of Tears? Including the Female Seminary and the Cherokee Heritage Center in your thinking, why, then, would education matter?

    Can you relate the poems Conley cites to Unit 2 on the importance of stories to the Cherokee?


Suggested Papers

  1. The Long Silence: Cherokee Avoidance of the Subject of the Removal
  2. Cherokee Renaissance: the 1960s and 1970s
  3. How Cherokee non-Trail of Tears literature Reflects the Trail of Tears
  4. How Can Anyone Find Humor in the Trail of Tears?


Comments and Suggestions by Readers of this Unit:

1/3/09:Thank you to ACTC for such a valuable resource! However, you have omitted a recent publication by John Milton Oskison (published posthumously) titled “The Singing Bird”. The text will provide an interesting discussion of the Trail of Tears and may serve to answer some of the unit's questions regarding why Cherokees tended to not mention the Trail of Tears, or more accurately perhaps, are not remembered for such, for here is one such text that has survived. The text was published as Volume 53 in the American Indian Literature and Critical Studies Series in 2007. The publishing house is University of Oklahoma Press. Please visit OU Press for more information: <>.
If you'd like to see an excerpt, google books offers a glimpse of the Introduction.