Moore on Denson, 'Monuments to Absence: Cherokee Removal and the Contest over Southern Memory'

Andrew Denson
Ethan Moore

Andrew Denson. Monuments to Absence: Cherokee Removal and the Contest over Southern Memory. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017. Illustrations. xii + 289 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-3082-3; $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-3083-0.

Reviewed by Ethan Moore (University of North Carolina - Greensboro) Published on H-AmIndian (October, 2017) Commissioned by F. Evan Nooe

Si Otsedoha (We are Still Here)

On Columbus Day 2010, artist James Luna stood in Washington DC’s Columbus Plaza (located in Union Station) and invited passersby to have their picture taken with him: a “real Indian.” Luna, a Puyukitchum (Luiseño) and Mexican American, has been encouraging participation in his performance piece, titled Take a Picture with a Real Indian, since the early 1990s in an effort to examine “people’s interaction with American Indians ... and the selective romanticization of us.”[1] The theme of Native peoples and their history as performance, a concept bolstered by an archaic and pervasive view of American Indians as lost or vanished people, is jarringly apparent in the sublime and subversive work of Luna and is underscored in Andrew Denson’s deft monograph Monuments to Absence: Cherokee Removal and the Contest over Southern Memory.

Like Luna’s artwork, a central component to Denson’s exploration is the scrutiny of non-Native expectations and appropriation of American Indian history. His specific focus in the book is how the tribulations endured by the Cherokee people during Indian removal have been memorialized and publicly remembered, primarily in the eastern United States, from the early twentieth century through the beginning of the twenty-first. In seven chapters, an introduction, and an epilogue, Denson draws from an impressive mixture of sources and scholars to show how these public commemorations are a manifestation of popular historical misconceptions about American Indians (especially the racialized “vanishing people” mythology), products of a rising tourist economy, celebrations of regionalism, and occasionally, an affirmation of “Indianness.”

Denson, an associate professor of history at Western Carolina University, identifies three distinct chronological periods of removal commemoration, and the chapter configuration charts their development. The first period, the 1920s and 1930s, shows the phenomena of removal remembrances developing in tandem with the proliferation of the National Park system and accompanying tourist interest in the natural environment and regional history. The second, beginning in the postwar years through the 1970s, identifies how public memorials to removal are given new context by the Cold War in America, the civil rights movement, and arguments over the US Indian policy. Finally, the third period, beginning in the mid-1980s until the present, reveals removal commemoration to be part of a broader trend of memorial propagation that exposes an American public that has “become obsessively concerned with issues of memory and heritage” and displays how a pervasive need to “acknowledge historical trauma and shame has helped drive this trend” (p. 10).  

During the 1920s and 1930s, many Appalachian and southern communities were keen to benefit from the burgeoning tourist attention given the region and began mounting concerted efforts to highlight the distinct environmental, historical, and cultural characters of the area. Denson examines this period with an analysis of tourism in the southern Appalachians and the southeastern Tennessee city of Chattanooga. The decision to juxtapose Chattanooga with the southern Appalachians is intentional and dexterous as both areas are steeped in Cherokee lore and history, but the memorialization of removal manifests itself in the locales in profoundly different ways. The departure in commemoration between the two places can be chiefly attributed to the continued presence of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians who reside in and around the Qualla Boundary, an area of western North Carolina close to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Having “real Indians” within the locale proved to be a tourism coup for event organizers and tribal members of the region. For areas outside of the Qualla Boundary, celebrations, monuments, and publications emphasized the Cherokees living in the region as a relic of the place’s past—a living Indian as testament to the uniqueness of the southern Appalachians. The presentations viewed the Cherokees who had avoided removal very much in the mode of Fredrick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis (1893): vestigial remnants of a wildness that was conquered and Americanized. However, it was not just non-Cherokees in the region that employed public memorialization of Indian removal. With successful historical “pageants” (interesting sociocultural phenomena that Denson thankfully details in depth) and festivals, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee employed the story of removal to highlight the perseverance of their culture and history as well as to emphasize their unique tribal identity.

Having no local Indian presence for their one-hundred-year commemoration of the Cherokee Trail of Tears meant that the public memorial in Chattanooga had a very different presentation than those of the southern Appalachians. Like the Tennessee monuments to the Cherokee created by historical societies and the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Cherokees in the public memory of the city of Chattanooga very much transformed the Indians’ history into a progressive and consensus Tennessee historical narrative. Without a hint of the paradoxical absurdity of the co-option of Cherokee history, Chattanoogans used the commemoration as a way to express regret. That expression, per Denson, “allowed them to feel that they had somehow atoned for old crimes,” and that act of remembering the history of the Cherokees “strengthened white residents’ ties to a land their people conquered. It helped them to possess this place as a home” (p. 108).

In the subsequent decades, postwar political and sociocultural elements altered and deepened the public memorialization of Cherokee removal. Denson uses Georgia’s 1962 opening of the New Echota Historical Site (a Colonial Williamsburg style living history reconstruction of the short-lived early nineteenth-century Cherokee Nation’s capital) as an illustrative example of white southerners’ employment of Cherokee removal to contemporize political and social issues and sustain racial supremacy. Like the Chattanooga commemoration over a generation earlier, the New Echota Historical Site was an interpretation of Cherokee history from an exclusively white perspective. However, unlike the 1938 presentation, New Echota was not a localized memorial as its connotations spoke to global issues. During the Cold War, the United States sought to position itself as a moral authority in the world’s affairs but was constantly beleaguered and undermined by criticisms by the Soviet Union regarding the systemic oppression of racial minorities. New Echota, for Georgian politicians of the period, offered a safe way to counter that criticism: veneration of a marginalized people (who had no visible presence in Georgia at the time) and the historical grievances against them showed that “modern Americans had improved upon the society and politics of their forebears, and they suggested that the act of recognition would help to ensure continued progress” (p. 130). Interestingly, in Denson’s estimation this “progress” was particularly sheltered in that it did little to counter white supremacy; by apologizing to an absent people for historical maleficence, southern white elites were effectively reassuring themselves “of their own propriety and sound moral judgment” without having to analyze or acknowledge contemporary racial issues (p. 133). Thus, New Echota’s creation marked a continuation of the self-serving white narrative of Indian removal that saw the Cherokee people as secondary actors in their own history.

After the exploration of the New Echota Historical Site, Denson shifts his attention from white presentations of Indian removal in the Cold War years to Native ones through an emphasis on the historical dramas Unto These Hills (1950) and The Trail of Tears (1969). Written by white playwright Kermit Hunter, both productions were used to great success by the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians (for whom Unto These Hills was written) and the Cherokee Nation (who requested Hunter to create Trail of Tears as a sequel to Unto These Hills). In addition to the popularity of the plays (Unto These Hills is still performed during the summer in Cherokee, North Carolina, and Trail of Tears ran from 1969 until 2005), they both served as reactions against Bureau of Indian Affairs’ (BIA) proposals and engagements with the Cherokees. According to Denson, both plays have strong historical consensus messages that reinforce themes of homogenization and were profoundly influenced by the Cold War’s theme of unity (i.e., solidarity of democracy against communism). For the Eastern Band, the wild success of Unto These Hills helped them resist the BIA’s termination campaign (a policy that sought to eliminate tribal lands from federal trusts and “encourage” Native peoples to assimilate into American society) by showing how commercially viable, especially needed in the region, the unique history of the Cherokee peoples could be. Similarly, the Cherokee Nation used Trail of Tears and its conservative reinforcement that “established political structures were proper and legitimate” to advocate support for the nascent tribal government and dismiss dissident voices (p. 187).

Finally, Denson assesses the National Park Service’s Trail of Tears National Historic Trail as a public history phenomenon in an effort to understand the message and purpose behind the modern commemoration of Cherokee removal. The trail itself winds through nine states (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Tennessee) and remembers everything in the sad history of Cherokee removal from the military eviction in 1838 to the settlement in what is now eastern Oklahoma. Though the success of the trail and the myriad of partnerships supporting it is commendable, Denson finds that the underlying message of the monuments and memorials is not too divergent from the earliest public remembrances of the Cherokee peoples: that of a vanished people. Though the modern trail seeks to promote historical verity, regardless of the horror, it nevertheless suffers from a historical revisionist perspective that eliminates the fact that, in order for modern America to exist, the United States had to have Indian lands. The adoption of the history of the Trail of Tears by the National Park Service and white American citizens goes about “defining removal as a tragic error [and] acknowledges injustice, but, in doing so, it redeems the United States and erases the colonial origins of American nationhood” (p. 220).

Monuments to Absence is an important work that highlights an often overlooked aspect of southern public history: the presence and remembrances of the Native peoples of the South. Denson’s work is thoroughly researched and merges elements of public, cultural, political, and Native histories to produce an impressively cogent and cohesive whole. The writing is engaging and approachable without being overly pedantic. However, there are some inconsistencies and omissions that blemish slightly what is, overall, an excellent monograph. First, the Cherokee peoples in Oklahoma are mostly muted throughout the work with the exception of a later chapter on public memory in Oklahoma. The chapter, though an interesting recount, is an anomaly that reads like a forced addition due to the dearth of information or analysis linking modern Oklahoman Cherokees to the South elsewhere in the writing. Second, the complexities of racial identity and “Cherokeeness” are never really explored to a significant degree. Though Denson does note that African American history (and the history of slavery in Cherokee lands) is mostly neglected in public commemorations, he does not examine, beyond a few anecdotes, how divisive and acrimonious the debate about who is a “real Cherokee” has been. Third, little attention is paid to museums and the cultural representations and interpretations that such institutions offer. The scarcity of analysis on the subject is surprising as there are a significant number of museums throughout the South and West (run by both Native and non-Native) that detail the history of removal. Though neglected in Denson’s work, the subject is covered well in Christina Taylor Beard-Moose’s Public Indians, Private Cherokees: Tourism and Tradition on Tribal Ground (2009). Regardless of these minor issues, the work fills a void in the literature of public memory, especially in the South. Monuments to Absence appeals to a diverse audience and could easily be incorporated, in part or whole, into an undergraduate or graduate-level course on public or cultural history, American Indian history, or the history of the American South.


[1]. Jess Righthand, “Q and A: James Luna,”, (accessed May 20, 2017).

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Citation: Ethan Moore. Review of Denson, Andrew, Monuments to Absence: Cherokee Removal and the Contest over Southern Memory. H-AmIndian, H-Net Reviews. October, 2017. URL:

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