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Civilization or Savagery in the West?

The West in Native American Letters Written during the Removal Era

Claudia B. Haake

Pages 51 - 66


This article argues that, in their letters, memorials, and petitions to the federal government, both Cherokee and Seneca proponents and opponents of the removal policy, which sought to resettle all Native Americans to the West of the Mississippi, portrayed the West as a type of absence. Removal’s proponents among the two tribes claimed the West to be their salvation and a place where they would be able to become “civilized,” just as the policy promised. In these written communications, the West became a sanctuary through an absence of white influences. Cherokee and Seneca opponents of the policy argued that removal was counterproductive and would be unable to make them more civilized. To make their case, they portrayed the West, the place they were supposed to remove to, as an absence of civilization, a place fit only for savages. They also characterised it by contrasting it to their own lands, to which they felt an emotional attachment, and thus described it as the absence of such attachment. Proponents as well as opponents of removal defined the West to suit the argument they sought to make but always described it as an absence, an empty place onto which they projected their own hopes and fears in their letters. However, in doing so, removal’s tribal adversaries as well as its advocates among the two tribes insisted on making their own decisions and determining their own destinies, even in a time when they were often depicted as being mere pawns in a larger political play.


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