Indigenous people and Southern tensions: how a professor connects two conflicting narratives

Georgia State professor Gina Caison’s long-awaited book, “Red States: Indigeneity, Settler Colonialism, and Southern Studies,” is available at Georgia State’s Library North. Photo by Unique Rodriguez | The Signal

“The stories we tell each other and ourselves matter,” Gina Caison, an English professor who specializes in Southern and Native American Studies at Georgia State, said. “Sometimes we think, ‘Oh, they’re just stories,’ but obviously they’re not. We do shape a lot of our reality through language and storytelling, so it’s important to gather as many perspectives as we can.”

Caison bridges two estranged narratives: Southern Literary Studies and Native American Literary Studies, and tells a new – and very old – story that matters.

The result is “Red States: Indigeneity, Settler Colonialism, and Southern Studies,” Caison’s recently published book, which she started in 2009.

“What year is it, 2018? That’s a long time,” Caison said. “I don’t want to say that to discourage student readers at The Signal with how long it takes to do something. But you know, sometimes you have an idea and you have to stick with it.”

That long-planted idea grew from the disconnect between fields that practically sat on top of each other. Numerous Native writers root from the Southeast, which underscored the question Caison sought to answer: “Why have these two fields never really talked to one another?”

Caison, a North Carolina native, grew up in a town that is Occaneechi-Saponi territory and was inspired in undergrad by the people she grew up with and a novel titled “Green Grass, Running Water” by Thomas King, a Cherokee author.

“I just knew Native people growing up. It didn’t seem strange to me that someone would know Native people and when I was an undergraduate at Auburn,” Caison said. “When I was reading this book in class, I realized that some of my classmates maybe just hadn’t had that interaction, and I thought that was weird.”

Realizing there was a different context in Alabama, Caison became interested in Indigenous and Southern issues.

And many of those from the South — and even those not from the South — know the word prompting centuries of anxiety: land. As colonialism raided the South, the idea of land seldom resulted in anything but warring and removal of Indigenous people.

“We are currently on Indigenous land, it was Indigenous land in the past, and it’s going to be Indigenous land in the future,” Caison said. “Southern writers were really obsessed with this idea of ‘land, land, land.’”

Hungry land-grabs consume most of the South’s past, and in turn, eats the most white-space in history texts. Southern Literary Studies shifts between pre- and post-Civil War dates, which often overlooks groups of Native writers.

“I wanted to shift the focus on Southern Literary Studies away from this obsessive look at the Civil War and say, ‘What happens if we center around the Indian Removal Act and Indigenous Removal in the Southeast?’ and see how both Native and non-Native writers are talking about that,” Caison said.

The title Red States nods at the modern idea of conservative states and the history of the Red Power movement, which was an Indigenous resistance power movement out of the ‘60s.

“I’m playing on two things: Red States, this political, CNN, colloquial-name for the South, or conservative regions, as well as this Red Power that suggests Indigenous ownership and resistance,” Caison said. “It’s a play on words, but it’s also a recognition of how frequently if you look through the history of what we think of as ‘Red State politics,’ these obsessive renderings of Native history pop again and again and again. So that kind of reveals maybe an anxiety that Red States have about that.”

I-85, the Southeast’s most loved (and hated) interstate, has Indigenous roots. I-85 follows the Great Trading Path from North Carolina, established by Southeastern Native people.

“That’s why 85 has this crazy route through the state and through the Southeast because it followed the train line, but the train line followed the trade route that was there before Europeans got here,” Caison said. “So, you don’t even have to look far even when we’re talking about the contemporary issue to see connections to Indigenous history.”

“Red States” tells narratives from Indigenous history to the contemporary, largely in the Southeast. It works chronologically from 1587 to today with a historical event jumpstarting each chapter. The first chapter, ‘Recovery,’ details the lost colony of Roanoke Island and the recovery of Indigenous stories, setting the tone for Red States.

“I start with this scholarly impulse to consistently imagine these Indigenous stories are going to be recovered from the archive and that completely ignores that there are millions of living Indigenous people who could also tell you stories,” Caison said. “So, sometimes there’s a scholarly blindness to living Native communities.”

Scholarly emphasis on archives has its limitations. Many authors, though they may believe the stories they tell themselves, are not always accurate.

“More than any other question I’ve asked, ‘Is this real? Is any of this real?,” Caison said. “We act like every person in the history of the world, as soon as they put pen to paper, only told the truth. So, we sometimes tend to maybe give the archive this credit, like, ‘I found it. It’s written down in the archives.’ Sometimes you’re dealing with records that fallible humans made. And there’s probably both intentional and unintentional lies in those, so sometimes we can’t know.”

Yet, the combination of archival research and words from living Native communities provided a more comprehensive narrative.

“I look at several things that happen on the ground, so I visited a lot of outdoor dramas. The Lost Colony is one — it’s the longest-running theater performance in the country. It’s going into its 80th-81st season or something,” Caison said. “So, I went to all those outdoor dramas multiple times across multiple years. I’ve talked to people from various Native communities. I went into archives in Massachusetts and Chapel Hill and wherever the story led me.”

Often, stories of Native removal have been simplified and don’t accurately portray Native removal from colonization.

“A lot of readers of the book may not be aware of how active Indigenous people and communities and nations are today in the Southeast,” Caison said. “I think that’s the way some Georgia history is taught — that we get to removal and then it’s like, ‘Oh, no more people.’ And that’s just not true. There are Catawba people, there are Cherokee people, not only federally recognized tribes, but also state recognized tribes all over the Southeast and Indigenous people who may be citizens of federally recognized tribes in Oklahoma who have moved back.”

Many of the Chickasaw have made efforts to buy back land in Mississippi. Tribes have made both national and individual efforts in present-day Oklahoma to do the same.

“Southeastern Native people called this region we call the South ‘home’ for thousands of years. Removal was not even two hundred years ago. You’re not going to cut thousands and thousands of years connection in two hundred years,” Caison said. “So, you do see people coming back. So, that’s the story I attempt to tell at the end.”

With Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland as the first Native American women recently elected to congress, Native influence in politics may shape the stories Red States begin telling.

Caison recently gave a talk at the Wren’s Nest, hosted by Literary Atlanta, and was asked, “Should we elect more Indigenous women?”

“We should only elect Indigenous women. The first two hundred or so years was largely governed by non-Indigenous men,” she said. “Indigenous women get things done.”

1 Comment

  1. After reading this article, I have noticed that folks who publish such articles on the topic of “Native Americans,” as well as folks who post comments with rare exception that all ignore the elephant in the room that as of the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, they are U.S./State citizens. Period.

    The elephant being ignored is our United States Constitution’s fierce protection of ones’ citizenship from being abused, restrained, regulated, interfered-with, marginalized, diminished, made inferior, made superior, et al., because of gender, race, or religion by assertion of statutory state/federal laws that regulate from the womb to the tomb a select group of U.S./State citizens because of their Indian ancestry/race!

    Our United States Constitution’s 14th Amendment foreclosed politicians-state and federal-from regulating from the womb to the tomb a select group of U.S./State citizens because of their “Ex-slave ancestry/race” in Brown v. The Board of Education 1954. And yet, politicians-state and federal-regulate from the womb to the tomb a select group of U.S./State citizens because of their “Indian ancestry/race!”

    No one sees this ‘elephant’ in the room…politicians can’t regulate citizens with “Ex-slave ancestry/race,” but can regulate citizens with “Indian ancestry/race” and no one questions that Constitutional absurdity!

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