"Our Elder Brother, John Sevier"
Historical Portrait of a Scribe

Coming to terms

My topic is "coming to terms" in international diplomacy, or the accomplishment by nations of a deliberative discourse for negotiating their co-existence.

The negotiation that I consider is treatying. Treatying is stylized discourse that blends the ceremonial and the pragmatic. I will use an informal term, white-Indian rhetoric, to characterize transcripts from a treaty negotiation between the new United States and the older Cherokee nation in l789. In that characterization, the hyphen is intended to suggest the tensions of separate yet mutually dependent existence by Euro-Americans and Amer-Indians, as well as trans-cultural language influences. The names for people "white" and "Indian" were in contemporary use in l789. I will use the term white-Indian rhetoric, to identify language patterns evident in John Sevier's transcripts of Cherokee leaders' speech. My particular purpose is to exemplify micro-processes of change and continuity that linked native and settler political institutions in l789, as well as, more generally, to historicize the process of transcribing political speech.

The Scene: August 22, l789, in the US Senate

President George Washington came to the Senate for advice and consent regarding a treaty between the United States and southern tribes on an August Saturday in the first session of the first federal Congress. Waiting outside the door to the room in the old Federal Hall in New York city where the Senate deliberated was a Cherokee delegation made up by two headmen, Notonakey and Sheenuhteetah or the Rising Fawn Great Highwassa, along with a Scottish trader, Bennet Ballew, the Cherokee-appointed negotiator. They brought documents:a letter by Ballew, a position statement by a coalition of headmen, and a supporting statement. How were these documents created, given that Cherokee was not a spoken language at the time? For the headmen's position statements, understanding John Sevier's transcription is key.

Before taking up Sevier in detail, I want to give some background on this particular treaty. In l789, Cherokees had been dispossessed of large portions of territory they had long occupied or had used by inter-tribal agreement. Settlers uncontrollably encroached on their remaining land. Needing land on which to hunt, either for food or for the trade in deerskins that supported them by l789, the Cherokees were growing desperate. Settlers came from several countries but mainly from the new United States, a narrow strip of the continent's eastern coast with insufficient farmland for land-hungry immigrants from Europe. US borders, whether national or state, were ill-defined, un-mapped, and everywhere contested, especially by the weakened but still powerful Creek and Cherokee confederacies.

No longer self-sufficient by 1789, tribes depended on trade with the settler nations. The US, no longer supported by England, nearly bankrupted by its war for independence, and lacking a functioning economy, equally depended on trade with the tribes. Neither the tribes nor the United States dominated politically; they had to negotiate co-existence. At stake for both was sheer survival, as well as national identity.

The territory in question in l789 was southwest of the US, and contained all that was left of Cherokee territory. Included was all the land lying east-west between the Appalachian mountains and the Mississippi River and north-south between the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico. To Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, and Chickasaw tribes, this was ancestral or tribally-negotiated hunting ground essential to their continuing existence. Some headmen saw it as property for sale or trade. Cherokee rights to portions of the territory had been preserved by a prior treaty, Hopewell in l785, though the Cherokee claim was controversial among other tribes, who disputed it.

To the US, the territory was strategically important as a buffer against French, Spanish, and British expansion. This national aim, however, was controversial among southern states such North Carolina, which claimed the territory based on pre-revolutionary agreements or squatter settlement. In a further complication, parts of the territory (much of present-day Tennessee) had been leased, sold, or ceded, controversially, by some Creek and some Cherokee headmen to the British government, to the colonies of Georgia and North Carolina, or to speculators.

From US perspectives, the Cherokees had been defeated in l783 along with their British allies in the American revolutionary war. In l785 a coalition of Cherokee headmen had negotiated the treaty of Hopewell ceding contested land to the provisional Continental Congress in return for protection. Although it lacked constitutional authority and enforcement power, the Continental Congress in l785 had agreed to protect the Cherokees against encroachment. The first federal Congress in l789 was empowered by the new (not yet fully ratified) US constitution to enforce earlier agreements.

In the meantime, ignoring the Hopewell treaty, land speculators including John Sevier had agressively formed investment companies to acquire Cherokee land. Sevier and others encouraged North Carolina farmers, who were unaware of or indifferent to federal promises, to move agressively onto Cherokee holdings (Abernethy, l932). Killing and destruction continued unabated in Cherokee villages and on settler farms long after the revolutionary war officially ended in l783.

In l789, with the border wars ongoing, a coalition of Cherokee headmen appealed to the new federal US Congress to intervene on the basis of its now constitutional authority. North Carolina, which was not subject to federal law because it had not yet ratified the federal constitution, and because it was actively negotiating its own treaty with Cherokees, objected.

"Our Elder Brother"

Turning now to the Cherokee coalition's statement and the supporting statement delivered on August 22, l789, let me draw attention to the term "brother" and especially to the phrase "elder brother" in "our elder brother, George Washington," and "our elder brothers the Americans" and "our elder brother, John Sevier."

I interpret "elder brother" in Raymond Williams' sense of keywords, or common words revealing deep semantic shifts in cultural meanings driven by political conflict and change. (Williams,l976)

What changes underlie "elder brother" in these transcripts? Possibly, one is the shift from ancient national heritage law toward inter-nationally negotiated law. In traditional Cherokee law, an elder brother had specific responsibilities. Cherokee governance was by family and clan. Closest to a Cherokee were the members of the blood clan--mother, siblings, mother's siblings, sisters' children, and mother's sisters' children. This blood clan was the first line of support, particularly for avenging or seeking restitution for loss by death of any of its members. The obligation fell upon the closest male relative on the mother's side (an older brother of the deceased or his mother's brother). Known as "the law of blood" or "blood revenge," this process was so clear, so well defined, that its execution required no court, no police. (Strickland, 1975, 27-28; Reid, l976, 1-12).

Consistent with this meaning, I suggest, the Cherokee headmen ask, in their statement, that George Washington and the Congress act as symbolic elder brothers to avenge the murders of Cherokees. The chiefs also ask the federal government to protect Cherokees from state landgrabs such as North Carolina's. The request possibly melds Cherokee traditional law, in which only the blood clan had coercive power, with new US constitutional law, in which the federal legislature had coercive power (over-riding states' powers) in relations between the republic and Indian nations. Reference to an elder brother's obligation may have been primarily nostalgic for the Cherokees in l789. The Cherokees had agreed to give up blood law retaliation in accepting the Hopewell treaty of l785. But that does not mean that its practice had ended. (The headmen acknowledged that their "young and Inconsiderate men too much encouraged by bad white men" still retaliated.)

However, the philosophical incompatibilities between the two systems were probably insurmountable. Revenge law had a matrilineal basis; US law did not, though it was familial in some respects. In those respects, the headmen's reference to elder brothers' responsibilities probably would have misfired with the US senators, anyway. Some senators were attorneys who, like Vice-President Jefferson, had enthusiastically re-written their states' constitutions to rid them of English common law most resembling Cherokee blood law such as primogeniture, or oldest sons' privileges and duties (Bedini, l990).

John Sevier

Not so artfully as "brother" metaphors, other trans-cultural tensions are expressed in Sevier's transcripts. They are economic. To identify them, it is useful to know more about John Sevier.

As a land speculator; settler association leader; settler militia leader; clerk of Washington District (US) court; state (NC) legislator; appointed (US) treaty commissioner; self-appointed governor of a secessionist state carved out of Cherokee territory (Franklin) later elected first governor of Tennessee, Sevier was a quintessential white male frontier democrat. He was notable, by his own account and by his contemporaries' estimation, for Indian-killing or genocidal intentions toward the Cherokees (Driver, 1932; Strickland, l975; Henri, l986). Franklinites, and possibly Sevier himself as militia leader, murdered Little Tassel, a strong advocate of peace with the United States and the principal Cherokee negotiator in the Hopewell treaty deliberations (Abernethy, l932; l959).

Denounced by the Congress as a reckless disturber of the public peace, by l789 Sevier had nonetheless been pardoned by the US and elected to the North Carolina state senate. Taking advantage of the Federalist trend, he supported North Carolina's ratification of the US constitution and argued for ceding disputed land to the federal government (Dictionary of American Biography, 938)

Thus, going into the l789 treaty negotiation, Sevier and the Cherokee coalition shared a desire--both wanted the contested land in western North Carolina to be ceded to the US--but they had very different motivations.

The Cherokee wanted the US to remove squatters and return the land to them, thereby enforcing the 1785 treaty of Hopewell. Sevier wanted to protect his investments. Sevier and his financial partners had bought up thousands of the land grants issued by the new Congress to revolutionary war soldiers in lieu of pay for military service. Sevier and company held IOU's for hundreds of thousands of acres of Cherokee land (Abernethy, l959; Driver, l932). The speculators knew that their claim to ownership, based on possessing the soldiers' Congressional IOUs, would likely be honored if the federal government took control of the territory. If the state of North Carolina retained control, both the Cherokees and Sevier would lose.

In short, John Sevier had personal financial interests in the outcome of this treaty. His transcriber's role at the headmen's council in May l789 gave him opportunity, by persuasively stating the Cherokees' appeal, to bring his investments under federal protection in the new treaty if the appeal were effective.

I should say that, in his economic self-interest, Sevier was like other treaty negotiators. On the US side, President George Washington, former Indian fighter in the British colonial army and surveyor of Virginia's state boundaries, held large claims to Indian lands west of Virginia. On the Cherokee side, some headmen had agreed to sell the land if they regained control of it (Abernethy, l959).

But economic interests are not the whole truth about treaty rhetoric. Washington, for example, established a presidential policy of purchasing Indian land for US settlement. It was a policy of intentional fairness that succeeding presidents Adams and Jefferson abandoned, substituting land seizure for purchase.

Too strong a focus on John Sevier's economic motives obscures his significant rhetorical, and thereby political, accomplishment. Though he individually transcribed with bloody hands, so to speak, Sevier contributed to a rhetoric for sustaining Cherokee-US survival as nations in l789 by enabling continuance of negotiation under crisis conditions.

White-Indian Rhetoric

Oral Cherokee political metaphor constituted the rhetoric of treatying between the Cherokee nation and the US in l789. Metaphor--the projection in treaty protocol of kinship terms and other representations of everyday life--was the fundamental principle of Cherokee political rhetoric, as it was with other eastern Iroquoian peoples (Fenton, 1995; Druke, l995). Metaphor was functional. "Elder brother", for example, made mass murder discussable.

Treatying replicated native council procedure, which relied on stylized diction, gesture, symbolic uses of space and objects, symbolic enactment of events (Fenton, l995).

Sigificant symbols were expected to vary in meaning according to the distinct nations and cultures involved in the transactions. The dissemination of deliberations, whether communicated in a document or in beaded wampum belts, was expected to re-stage, in words or images, the architectonics of face-to-face events (Druke, l995).

To be authoritative, then, a written transcript had to demonstrate awareness of oral dramatic conventions. US scribes, like their British colonial counterparts before them, learned the proper rhetorical moves from native negotiators (Fenton, l995).

Sevier evidently knew the moves. He may have been trusted by Cherokee headmen as transcriber because he knew them, making him more likely to succeed in Cherokee advocacy. (Cherokees frequently employed bi-cultural individuals such as their former prisoner Benet Ballew to speak for them.) Certainly the pathos of the headmen's statement suggests sympathy with Cherokee worldviews. Cherokee ethos is explicit in the headmen's endorsement that "this our instrument and writing" should be construed "in the same manner and form as though we were present ourselves, in as full and ample manner." That the transcriber had, likely, murdered one of the speakers in the earlier stages of the same treaty, was not germane to the l789 discussions, evidently.

Such are the historical complexities embedding written transcripts on which our present-day understanding of past 'Indian oratory' depends.

Two American Democracies

Native rhetoric shaped US rhetoric just as native confederations influenced US federalism (Lyons, l992) and native footpaths underlay colonial roadways (Wallace, l987). Examples of symbolic exchange, or native-settler trans-cultural adoptions of code were common in everyday life. Cross-dressing illustrates. Settlers adopted native dress for more than its practical utility. When English colonials resisted a royal tax on tea by tossing boxes of it from ships in Boston harbor, they did it disguised as Mohawk warriors to signify resistance (Weatherford, l991).

Also illustrating rhetorical crossover, to signify persuasion, US treaty commissioners in l789 wrote to Chickasaw headmen:

"Brothers, we rejoice to inform you of many good things which have happened to our Nation since [the Hopewell treaty in l785]. We have been fast recovering from the Wounds that were made upon us by the British, in the late War. Our people are increasing in number every day. The white Men in the other Continent begin more and more to respect us. We are at Peace with all the World. A new and great Council Fire is kindled at our beloved City of New York; where the old and wise Men from all our States come to consult and promote the prosperity of all America. Our union is strong. For, Brothers, we think and act as like one Man. Our great Warrior, General Washington, who, you very well know, drove our Enemies all beyond the great Water, is now the Head Man of all our Councils and the Chief of all our Warriors. He, by the advice of his wise Counselors, has commanded us to tell you, that the United States regard the red Man with the same favorable Eye that they do the white Men. . .We wish you all the happiness and prosperity which we wish to our fellow Citizens the white men of the United States. . . ." (DePauw, l974, 214-215).

Conclusion: Ironic Democracy

The 1789 Cherokee-US negotiation discussed here affirms the truism that politics is local. Democracy does not transport well, as recent (l990s) world experience with democratization in central Europe, central and South America, and Africa has reminded us. While a new democracy's design may be imported (perhaps from the US), its development will be determined by local conditions. Just so, the United States developed a democracy influenced by European ideals but conditioned by older North American ideals, even as it displaced and dispossessed the culture that held them.

John Sevier's transcription discloses the messy realities of deliberative discourse in times of political change. Those realities overwhelm classical rhetorical theory of deliberation. Extending Aristotleian categorization of "deliberative" to include "demonstrative" or "epideictic" so as to comprehend treaty rhetoric won't quite do it. Treaty rhetoric better fits Richard Lanham's concept of rhetoric as non-transparent reality, or the reality we see when we look at words, not through them (Lanham, l993). Treaties are virtual reality in this sense. They are a public reality. As Hannah Arendt says, "public" means "seen and heard by all, albeit by each differently" (237). The efficacy of treatying language seems to depend on collectively acceptable, or ceremonial, representation allowing for variability, or pragmatics, in interpretation.

Arendt notes that treaties offer "the [cultural] stabilization inherent in the faculty of making promises" (243-4). Cherokee-US treaty deliberations in l789 created ritual space in which separate societies could negotiate co-existence and continuance in the face of uncontrollable change engulfing both. John Sevier helped to "write" that accomplishment in 1789.

Now, two hundred years later, the Cherokee nation and the United States continue to negotiate their co-existence in North America.

This commentary is a revision of C. Smith, l995 and l996c