Dr. Rose Stremlau’s new book chronicles an historic tale of persistence against great odds.
“Sustaining the Cherokee Family: Kinship and Allotment of an Indigenous Nation,” by the UNC Pembroke historian and scholar of American Indian history, will be published in September 2011, by UNC Press. It is a project of UNC Press’s First Peoples: New Directions in Indigenous Studies.
In words and photographs, Dr. Stremlau’s book examines the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and its response to the government policy of “allotment.” The allotment program was the means by which the federal government divided Cherokee land among individual stakeholders, but for Dr. Stremlau it became a lens through which to view kinship and culture of the tribe throughout its history.
“By contextualizing the story of allotment into the larger fabric of Cherokee life, I’ve brought order to the story of an important, misunderstood policy that continues to have an enormous impact on Indian communities today,” Dr. Stremlau said. “The evolution of allotment was complicated; the administration of it was a mess, and the outcomes have been disastrous.
“Against that chaos, I emphasize the consistency of family life and explain how Cherokees adapted to remain a people connected by the values and behaviors associated with kinship,” she said. “I told a story of people surviving in difficult times.”
Using census data, government documents, newspapers, scant tribal records and two oral history projects from the 1930s and 1960s, Dr. Stremlau wove together her story.
“I also was really lucky that descendants of the tribe shared family photographs with me,” she said. “This is not a Hollywood movie but a good story. It is not a story of the law; it is a story of how people survive unjust laws. Every chapter begins with a family story emphasizing this theme.”
The allotment process required the federal government to investigate and publicly document the private lives of Indian landowners, a process that “caused heated conversations between Cherokees and government agents, to say the least,” Dr. Stremlau said.
“The U.S. government policy was legalized theft; it was a predatory financial system. When the land was privatized, it became easier for non-Indians to buy or rent land and to extract natural resources without paying Cherokee people a fair price. The policy was meant to eliminate the Cherokee culture by making it impossible for their families to survive outside of Anglo-American society’s margins.”
Before allotment, land ownership was communal, Dr. Stremlau explained. “They had a very distinct way of viewing land. They didn’t own the land as individuals but as a nation; individual families owned and were able to distribute as they saw fit the resources from the fields they farmed, from the forests in which they hunted, or from the streams in which they fished,” she said. “Resources were shared widely among kin, the circle of the extended family, especially among siblings. Family finances were controlled by women, particularly elders.”
By privatizing the Cherokees’ land, Stremlau explains, the government expected extended Cherokee families to fragment into the nuclear families idealized in Anglo-American society. Instead, Cherokees surprised everyone and adapted, Dr. Stremlau said. They continued to support one another, including selling land if necessary.
“To a large degree, families who maintained reciprocity and yet still incorporated elements of the new economy survived,” she said. “These are hardworking people. It is a story of poverty because of a predatory economic system Cherokees couldn’t control, but if not for the resilience of Cherokees’ kinship system, family-oriented values and labor ethic valuing hard work for the benefit of the extended family, Cherokees would not have survived this government experiment in wealth consolidation.”
The loss of access to communal land and resources impoverished the tribe, but it also it nurtured the Cherokees’ interdependence. Dr. Stremlau maintains that the persistence of extended family bonds allowed indigenous communities to keep a collective focus and resist the policy of assimilation during a period of upheaval.
The book was drawn from Dr. Stremlau’s doctoral research at UNC-Chapel Hill. But the personal connection to the subject started when she was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois.
“I was on a service-learning trip to the Lac du Flambeau reservation in Wisconsin,” she said. “We helped with a living-and-learning camp. The elders were very gracious, yet direct. They believed our school mascot mocked them, and they asked us to do something about it.”
The university’s sports mascot, Chief Illiniwek, was eliminated several years later thanks to a movement in which Dr. Stremlau participated. “It got me thinking about the way government institutions, including schools, work to marginalize certain kinds of people, particularly indigenous people who maintain ways of life that challenge accepted norms of western society. That was the start of this process,” she said.
The Cherokee connection came during graduate school. Cherokee elder Jack Baker, a member of the tribal council from Chewey, Okla., was acquainted with Dr. Stremlau’s advisor at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“He suggested that someone write a book about how Cherokee communities have survived into the 21st century against all the odds,” she said. “It was a great idea. The federal government, state and local officials, missionaries and reformers—everyone—wanted Cherokees’ ways to disappear at dawn of the 20th century, but at the dawn of the 21st, the Cherokee Nation is alive and well. There are lots of ways to answer this question. As a historian, I started with the documentary records.”
The city girl from Chicago’s south side struck gold in the solitude of the Cherokee Nation. This process has been a wonderful experience for which she said she is grateful. Many people have supported the project over the last dozen years.
Dr. Stremlau is pleased with her first book and feels lucky, too, for the opportunity to work with a leading press in American history and their new initiative to promote scholarship on native people in the South.
“I was fortunate that the First Peoples project had a slot for a book,” she said, “and they were very nice to a first-time author. I learned so much about being a writer and a scholar from the editors with whom I worked.”
So far her book has been well-received, with positive early reviews. “Complex” and “well-written,” wrote Bancroft Prize-winning historian Margaret Jacobs of the University of Nebraska. “An evocative story” and “an intimate account,” said Richard Allen, a policy analyst for the Cherokee Nation.
Dr. Stremlau, who teaches in UNCP’s Department of History and Department of American Indian Studies, has several ideas for future research, but plans to stay a little closer to home for her next project.
“I’ve looked at some census records investigating the multiracial economic history of Robeson County,” she said. “There is a lot of social history about this area yet to be written, and there are stories to tell here.”