Cherokee Women’s Resistance to Removal, 1817-1818
Figure 1: “But this is My Home,” a painting portraying Cherokee resistance to removal. Dorothy Tidwell Sullivan, Cherokee Master Artist, But This is My Home, http://www.southwestindianarts.net/
On May 28, 1830, the United States Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which authorized the president to negotiate land cessions from Indian tribes east of the Mississippi and forcibly remove Native tribes from the land. This act formalized a slower process that had been going on since colonial times. In 1817 and 1818, Cherokee women petitioned their warriors and headmen to stop negotiating with the United States and to protect their land. These petitions mixed the traditional language of matrilineal heritage and claim with the land to arguments of “civilization” in order to make a case against removal. Examining these women’s petitions demonstrates their place in Cherokee society as well as their role in resisting removal.
In 1817, when Cherokee women heard that the head council of warriors and headmen was considering ceding land to the United States, they gathered together to create a petition in order to stop them. The women began the petition by claiming that God provided them with this land “to inhabit and raise provisions.” The women viewed this land as sacred for God ordained it for them to cultivate and raise their children on this land. They desperately wanted to stay on this land because its sacredness extended back to the Cherokee myth of Kana’ti and Selu, the first inhabitants of the world. Kana’ti hunted animals, but Selu, the first woman, took control of the land. Selu farmed the land and, when she died, her blood poured over the ground and produced corn. Though many Cherokee women accepted the Christian God, they maintained this reverence and connection to the land of their ancestors. They so feared leaving this land for an unknown country that they claimed removal “would be like destroying your mothers.” Breaking this connection to their homeland would result in a spiritual, if not a literal, death.
Throughout the 1817 petition, the women referred to the warriors and headmen as their children, evoking a maternal image of influence and power. They pleaded with them, as mothers and sisters, “not to part with any more of our land. We say ours. You are our descendants.” The women claimed ownership of the land, based upon the matrilineal heritage of the Cherokee. Unlike the patrilineal heritage of the Americans, the land and identity these men were discussing descended from their mothers. The women wrote that it was their “desire to forwarn you all not to part with our lands.” These women reminded the council of the natural order in the Cherokee world: the land belonged to the women and any discussion of the land needed to include the women. The latent threat in their words intimated the cost of ceding the land—they would also be ceding their history, identity, and future.
In 1818, the Cherokee women once again petitioned the council to refuse land cessions to the United States. In this petition, the women appealed to both their own countrymen and, indirectly, American politicians. The language of this petition changed to more of a plea than a demand. The women reminisced over the progression of Cherokee society. They mentioned the many American customs they adopted and wrote of their fear that “by this removal, [we] shall be brought to a savage state again” because the Cherokee have “become too much enlightened to throw aside the privileges of a civilized life.” The appeals of the 1818 petition placed a responsibility of Cherokee survival on the Americans who must preserve this newly “civilized” nation. Yet, despite this plea, there remained one statement of entitlement to the land. The women wrote that “the Cherokee nation [was] the first settlers of this land; we therefore claim the right of the soil.” Using words that the American politicians understood, these women defended their “civilized” right to the land through both assimilation and their historical claim to the land that predated the Americans.
Ultimately, these petitions of resistance failed to stop removal. Nonetheless, they illustrated the importance of women in internal Cherokee politics and the perceived success of the civilization policy. As the Cherokee women petitioned their own government, and indirectly the U.S. government, they described their great progress in civilization, but they also emphasized the traditional matrilineal legacy of the Cherokee and their sacred connection to the land.
Women’s Experiences in the Forced Removal of the Cherokee, 1835
Figure 2 This painting depicts the emotion and prevalence of loss on the Trail of Tears. Source: Duane H. King, The Cherokee Trail of Tears, (Graphic Art Books: Portlland, 2007), 10.
In the decade following the federal Indian Removal Act of 1830, American soldiers forced an estimated 100,000 Native Americans, of the Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole tribes, from their eastern homes to the territory west of the Mississippi. If native men and women resisted and refused to leave their home, they were “gathered up and driven, at point of the bayonet, into camp with others.” Reverend Daniel Sabine Butrick described the forced removal of the Cherokees as equivalent to the herding of brute animals, with men, women, and children forced to lie on the naked ground in the open air. Exposure to rain, wind, and other elements resulted in the premature deaths of thousands of Cherokees. While Cherokee men, women, and children all suffered on this trek, women, because of their sex, faced particular physical threats and emotional hardships during removal and women held the responsibility of recreating Cherokee traditions in the new territory.
The Terrible Trek
One prevalent threat for Cherokee women was their vulnerability to be raped by American soldiers. Reverend Butrick recorded the story of a young married woman who found herself at a camp with some of her family, but not her husband. One night, a group of soldiers “caught her, dragged her about, and at length either through fear or other causes [she] was induced to drink, and yield to their seduction” and, since she was a married woman, he wrote that she became “an outcast, even in the view of her own relatives.” Similarly, Butrick noted how six soldiers surrounded two young women at the creek, enticing them to drink. The women resisted at first, but Butrick insinuated that they eventually surrendered to the men’s lewd suggestions. 
The biological constraint on women’s travels was childbirth. If a woman went into labor on the march, she stopped with one or two people and then, immediately following labor, resumed her hike with newborn babe in arms. One woman “seized with the pains of childbirth” stopped for an hour with her mother to give birth and then, with her newborn, caught up with her friends. Another woman stayed in her house, confined to childbed, as her husband and family were driven away by soldiers. This poor woman and her newborn infant were perhaps forever separated from the rest of the family. Even after the act of labor, a woman faced trouble trying to care for the child. Bettie Perdue Woodall’s mother witnessed a young mother who was unable to soothe her newborn baby. The baby, only four days old, continually cried and a soldier, annoyed by the baby’s wails and the mother’s inability to quiet it, “took [the baby] away from her and dashed its little head against a tree and killed it.” As these stories indicate, native women faced the biological hardship of childbirth, which forced them to stop their travels and threatened to separate them from the rest of their family and friends. At the same time, the harsh conditions of the trek prevented them from properly caring for their newborn children, and, oftentimes, the child died.
The immense feeling of separation, from family and home, defined both women and men’s journey. Yet for women this separation held two great consequences for their identities. The first of these consequences grew from the relationship between women’s identity and their families. As a matrilineal society, women passed their identity to their children. Furthermore, the civilization policy emphasized women’s responsibilities and identities as mothers and wives, and thus the loss of children and husbands damaged this traditional and new identity for women. The second consequence revolved around the relationship of women to the land. Reverend Butrick described the experiences of a sick, older woman who was forced “from her peaceful house, from her aged husband, from her children and grandchildren” as the soldiers “hurried her away, far away from all the scenes of her childhood.” In this passage there was a sense of both separation from her family, but also a distance between her and the land, the home, she had known her entire life. To the Cherokee, who held on so dearly to this sacred connection to the land and family, separation resulted in spiritual death and a warped identity.
Post-Removal: Reconstructing Cherokee Life
Removal challenged the gender identity of both men and women, but it was women’s responsibility to reconstruct customs in their new home. On the road of removal, men no longer provided food for their families. They became dependent on quartermasters, not hunting or farming, for sustenance and rations. Simultaneously, the inability of men to protect their women and children from the cruelties of soldiers resulted in a crisis of masculinity. Many of them turned to alcohol to drench their sorrows. This made it even more important for women to reestablish gender roles and traditions in the new territory.
Once in the new territory, Cherokees began to rebuild their community, families, and traditions; women held a great responsibility in this task. Sarah H. Hill examines one aspect of this task by studying the continuity and change in basket weaving in her monograph Weaving New Worlds: Southeastern Cherokee Women and Their Basketry. Women maintained their role as basket-weavers, but the materials for the baskets changed with their location: women had to incorporate white oak instead of the traditional rivercane. The baskets retained the same spiritual, historical meaning, but women adapted the baskets to match their new landscape, much like they themselves adapted. Once again, women played a key role in protecting traditional culture while adapting it to new circumstances. Despite their traumatic experiences on the Trail of Tears, women fulfilled their responsibility to maintain traditions and identity in this new land.