Memory  /  Comment

Unsettling Histories of the South

Social movements that have pushed for inclusion and equality in the South have often evaded or ignored the issue of Native land and sovereignty.

Native people and topics appear infrequently in much conventional southern history—even that which takes race and ethnicity as its primary lens. When they do appear, they often do so spectrally, are set apart from other subjects, and are presumed to have played only minor roles in the development of the field’s big-ticket topics: slavery, the Civil War, and civil rights.

Despite considerable scholarship on indigenous peoples of the U.S. South, as Andrew K. Frank and Kristofer Ray noted in a 2017 retrospective for the journal Native South, “If survey texts and university syllabi are guides, the contours of southern historiography have largely remained static.”

Colonization and dispossession—sometimes referred to as “settler colonialism”—continue to influence the South and those who study it. As Gina Caison points out, “Much of the best new work on the U.S. South never quite reaches a sustained investigation of how the region emerges from the logics and logistics” of the settler-colonial apparatus. Paradoxes and potentially unresolvable tensions inhabit southern histories. Social movements that have pushed for inclusion, equality, and full citizenship, and are rightly celebrated in histories of the South, have often evaded or ignored the issue of Native land and sovereignty.

Unsettling the histories we narrate cannot restore lost lives, lands, or labor, but it can reestablish historical complexity, even if that means confronting actions that confound notions of power and privilege. Some Native people owned African-descended slaves and bore racial ideologies not unlike those held by the white southerners who forced them from their home-lands. Black southerners were not immune to stereotypes of Indians and could and did use them to their advantage when they had the chance. The very discomfiting feeling that such tensions evoke can itself be a way of interpreting the South and its complex pasts. In other words, I am not just advocating for a new southern history full of forgotten characters. I am asking that we embrace the uncertainties, complexities, and contradictions that their stories bring forth. The tendency to think of the region’s diversity as a new development, to cling to romantic visions of a past that never was, and to speak as if we all mean the same thing when we say “the South” obscures the multiplicity of worlds embedded in the region and silences many of its people, in the past and in the present.