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The Slaughter of the Cherokee : NO RESTING PLACE by William Humphrey (Delacorte Press/ Seymour Lawrence: $18.95; 250 pp.; 0-385-29729-7)

June 25, 1989|Louis Owens | Owens writes often on American Indian literature and history

"No Resting Place" is a novel every American should be required to read. In this book, William Humphrey has brought to intimate and painful life one of the major acts in America's own seldom-acknowledged holocaust: the Indian Removal.

The facts of the Removal have long been available to those willing to ferret them out. Beginning in the 1820s, it became federal policy to satisfy a growing clamor for Indian lands by forcing tribes to pick up and move west of the Mississippi, to what would be called "Indian Territory."

Among the tribes forced to relocate were those who had been astonishingly successful in adapting to Anglo-American life styles: the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole. Flourishing farmers and plantation owners, these Indians included doctors and lawyers sometimes indistinguishable in appearance from--and better educated than--most of their white neighbors.

Spurred by the genius of Sequoyah, the Cherokees had accomplished the incredible feat of springing from illiteracy to universal literacy in half a generation. These were surely the most "civilized" Native Americans on the continent, living in their own towns with their own schools, newspapers, libraries and churches, often sending their children away to universities and frequently intermarrying with their white neighbors.

So civilized and confident of the ultimate justice of American society were the Cherokees that they argued the case against removal in the Supreme Court of the United States and won. It was unfortunate for the enlightened Cherokees, however, that the nation's President happened to be the less-than-civilized Andrew Jackson, who simply dismissed the Supreme Court decision, declaring: "Chief Justice John Marshall has rendered his decision. Now let him enforce it."

Amos Ferguson, the protagonist of "No Resting Place," is the blond, blue-eyed son of a Cherokee physician educated at William and Mary. Amos' mixed-blood Cherokee grandfather, David Ferguson, wears his Highland-clan kilt and sporran to make Scottish guests feel at home, complementing the Highland costume with the beaded moccasins and fringed buckskin vest of a Cherokee. In the extensive library of his plantation home, David Ferguson--"Agiduda" to his grandson--relishes "The Spectator" and "Paradise Lost."

In spite of his wealth and education, Ferguson loses everything when a white drifter forges a bill-of-sale to the plantation. According to Georgia law, anyone with any proven degree of Cherokee blood could not testify in court. Thus Amos watches as his grandparents are stripped of all they own. Amos then joins his grandparents in one of the concentration camps set up to house the thousands of Cherokees who would undertake the long march to the Territory.

Amidst the filth and constant death of the concentration camp, Amos becomes Noquisi, identifying fully with his Cherokee self. It is Noquisi with whom we experience the horror of the imprisonment and the even greater horror of the trek that would come to be called "The Trail of Tears."

All who identify as Indian, from pale mixed-bloods like Amos/Noquisi--with mere drops of Cherokee blood--to dark full-bloods from remote mountain hideaways, are force-marched westward. As the young, the old, and the weak die quickly from exhaustion, starvation and epidemics, Amos becomes the adolescent doctor for his people, more than a quarter of whom will perish before reaching what the Cherokee think of fearfully as the "dark land" in the West.

"No Resting Place" is framed as a first-person narration, a tale told by a contemporary 20th-Century descendant of Noquisi. Unaware of his Indian blood until he hears the story from his father, who has heard it from his father, the narrator passes this dark moment in history along to us. Implicit in Humphrey's framing device is the fact that, handed down over the generations, Amos/Noquisi's story has become part of the oral tradition by which a people defines itself.

By the end of the novel, we learn that Noquisi has seen his father--the fair-haired physician--murdered in Texas simply for being "Indian." At that moment, Noquisi, mistaken for white and adopted by his father's killer, becomes Amos Smith. Because this particular genocidal facet of American history is not found in history texts, Humphrey suggests, only the story passed from one generation to the next keeps the truth alive.

More at home in his fiction in the oil-field badlands of Texas than in the Cherokee country of Georgia, Humphrey has done a superb and convincing job of research in "No Resting Place." The very impressiveness of the research, however, occasionally gets in Humphrey's way here as he undertakes the task of educating his readers. Attempting to shoehorn too much exposition into a dynamic plot leads at times to rather turgid prose and a feeling that at least a portion of this necessary information might have been blended more deftly into the mix of the story.

Nonetheless, "No Resting Place" is a powerful, absolutely essential novel. I would have it read in every school in America, for this, too, is our history, a dark and shameful affair.

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