Friday, June 19, 2009

The tending of conscience

I was born and raised on land in Chattanooga, Tennessee, that once belonged to the Cherokee Nation. Beginning in 1838, the Cherokees were rounded up, herded into camps, then forcibly removed from their ancestral lands to new territories in Oklahoma. Their homes were burned, their farms distributed to whites.

Their transport west is known among the Cherokees and other removed tribes as "The Trail of Tears." Hunger, cold and disease took a heavy toll (nearly a third died along the way). This shameful episode was allowed, organized, and enforced by such American heroes as Justice John Marshall, President Andrew Jackson, and General Winfield Scott. White voices raised in protest were few and far between.

We learned about Marshall, Jackson and Scott in school, but nary a word about the forced expulsions that took place within a few miles of the classroom. The incident had been pretty much erased from the collective memory of the inheritors of Cherokee land. Nothing unusual about any of this. The Trail of Tears was a typical incident in the long colonial history of guns, germs and steel. The Cherokee were relatively fortunate compared, say, to the exterminated native peoples of Tasmania.

One assumes that the perpetuators of these colossal crimes knew in their heart of hearts that what they were doing was wrong. A justification was required, and as usual that meant defining the Cherokees as an inferior race having inferior rights. It was God, after all, who gave peoples of European extraction superior intelligence and moral dignity. The savages were blighted by divine approbation; it might even be debated whether or not they possessed immortal souls. Science too was often enlisted in the effort to show the subjugated peoples inferior.

Greed and injustice will no doubt always be with us, but science at least has been self-correcting. The anthropologist Jared Diamond, who traces the fates of human societies in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs and Steel, cites advances in genetics, molecular biology, biogeography, epidemiology, linguistics, geology, and climatology, among other sciences, to account for the successes of the colonizers. No reliable evidence has emerged from science to suggest intrinsic differences of intelligence or moral worth among the human peoples of the Earth. Tomorrow I will cite one extraordinary example of creative genius among the Cherokees, that of the self-taught linguist Sequoyah.

Several years ago I sat in the grass of a new park that was being opened on the banks of the Tennessee River at the place in Chattanooga where the Cherokees were herded aboard boats to begin their forced journey west. We were entertained with wonderful music by Cherokee musicians who had come from Oklahoma. On the rise above us was the stunning new Tennessee Aquarium, with its surrounding terraces and fountains dedicated to the memory of the Trail of Tears and Cherokee culture. The place is called Ross's Landing. John Ross was a Cherokee.