Sovereignty and Citizens

Despite more than five centuries of colonialism, indigenous communities in what is now the United States have retained their sovereignty. Indeed, contemporary American Indians organize themselves not as a race or ethnic groups, but as citizens of Native American nations. What does that formulation of sovereignty and citizenship imply culturally, legally and politically or otherwise?

Wheatpaste Statue of Liberty

Statue of Liberty Wheatpaste

Life at the Vann House

Joseph Vann, anonymous 19th Century artists, from postcard sold @ Vann House

Joseph Vann, anonymous 19th Century artists, from postcard sold @ Vann House

The Vann House in Georgia is a site that can tell multiple stories. The mansion was a plantation where famous visitors stayed; the Vann family was wealthy enough that they had enslaved Africans. Cherokee life prior to 1830 was clearly very varied in terms of class and other distinctions and needs to be described in nuanced ways. If the question of who gets to write history is always in play, a related question is who gets to own and interpret such sites. In this case, the interpretations are very much those of the State of Georgia. It is worth reflecting on how that shapes the story officially told about this site.

Historic Maps and Documents

Maps and legislature tell stories much like everything else that is descriptive and authored. These are some noted historic maps (such as Timberlake’s) and other documents which in different ways tell stories of what was marked as Cherokee homelands. They may also tell stories as to the rationales and methods for removing Cherokee from their homelands. To see more historic maps, click here

EPA-HISTORY2 Indian Removal Act of 1830 OCR

Finley’s 1827 Map of Tennessee with Cherokee Homeland

Cherokee_Country_1900 Mooney Map This map should be seen in a contested historical context of the stories/folklore that James Mooney collected ~1900. Barbara Duncan’s newer maps can be read as a “corrected” as well as contemporary indigenous version of Mooney’s map.


Trail of Tears

How do you describe the forced removal of Cherokee from their homelands? What do you say now about something that has changed every facet of Cherokee life? What was said at that time? What’s in play whether in folklore, history, collective memory, and in contemporary life?

It’s a complicated topic within the Cherokee community since people say “we’re more than the trail of tears.” At the same time, it’s a touchstone of Cherokee identity. Gaps and the need to piece it together are both involved. Arguments of removal and renewal…

This map shows the Northern Route for the Trail of It. It is part of the Cherokee Nation’s journey; following it by learning in place is part of the Burch seminar’s journey as well.


More thoughts on Sovereignty

Legal Scholar Peter d’Errico argues that “Indian Law” in the U.S. powerfully brings together many of the confusions built into European legal understandings of the concept. Legal rulings have varied greatly in case law as to whether the Cherokee were an independent nation prior to the existence of the United States.

…the foundational federal Indian law decision in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, 5 Pet. 1 (1831) that the Cherokee were not sovereign as a “foreign nation….the idea that indigenous nations have at their roots some aspect of their original, pre-colonial status as independent nations operates — sometimes directly and sometimes by implication — throughout federal Indian law today. This idea is accompanied by the colonial legacy of superior authority claimed over indigenous nations by the federal government. Both these ideas have been part of federal Indian law from its inception, and are the reason why Chief Justice Marshall could say, in formulating the foundations of this law in the Cherokee Nation case, “The condition of the Indians in relation to the United States is perhaps unlike that of any other two people in existence.

SOVEREIGNTY: A Brief History in the Context of U.S. “Indian law”. Copyright Jeffrey D. Schultz & Co., Colorado Springs CO (USA), with all rights reserved.



Tennessee is part of original Cherokee homelands. It is home to a number of Cherokee sites of historic and cultural significance including Clingman’s Dome and Sequoya birthplace. It is also where Andrew Jackson made his home: The Hermitage. Jackson personally intervened in the U.S. Senate and military actions aimed at eradicating the Cherokee presence from the Southeast. Tennessee likewise is home to the Fort Cass, Rattlesnake Springs Internment Camp and other military sites where Cherokee were rounded up after being forcibly removed from homelands across a three state area which included North Carolina and Georgia. Ross’ Landing is where the Northern Route starts for the Trail of Tears.

Finley’s 1827 map of Tennessee with Cherokee Homelands

Henry Timberlake 1762 Map

Map of Georgia

Maps tell and accompany stories. This map of Cherokee lands speaks to the forced migration routes that criss-cross Georgia and nearby states. Removal forts and roads were built on confiscated Cherokee land and land that Cherokee were forced to surrender as part of treaty negotiations. State and national military forces worked together in Georgia to uproot Cherokee from their homelands and capital of New Echtoa. The 1832 gold rush and land lottery in that part of Georgia rapidly hastened the interest in moving Cherokee out of their lands.

Karen Carr Studio, North Carolina Museum of History


Who is a citizen? What does it mean to be a citizen of a sovereign “homeland?” If indigenous people are literally the first Americans, are they treated as citizens in a democratic republic founded on their lands? What happens to Eastern Cherokee in fighting for the right to Qualla Boundry hinges on the question of who is a citizen. That in turn governs to a large degree who gets to stay in North Carolina. It is central to the question of who gets to buy the Cherokee land that Qualla Boundry represents so that Cherokee can live there. It’s not until after the Civil War that the State of North Carolina eventually agrees after years of litigation that the remaining Cherokee are indeed citizens.


What is Sovereignty Today?

What did it mean for 5 indigenous nations that wrote treaties with the U.S. Federal Government and with various states? These nations were called the Five Civilized Tribes. They all had recognized homelands. They were all forcibly expelled from the Southeast; some populations manage to remain due to a combination of resistance and legal fighting. We can think of sovereignty as a system of governance within an older system of nation states. Typically a sovereign power can govern its own affairs as well as has obligations to police its own borders. Sovereignty allows for the right to treat with other (equal) sovereign authorities in signing binding treaties. In thinking about Indian Country, what does and can it mean to demand sovereignty now? What differences are in play between the U.S. and Canada in this regard?