In the first decades of the 19th century, the Cherokees did everything possible to adapt to the white settler culture that was encroaching on their homeland. They established farms, cooperated with missionaries, developed a written language, elected a government. When they were threatened, they lobbied Congress and won a Supreme Court case.
It made no difference. Enabled by politicians like Andrew Jackson, the settlers believed they were entitled to Indian land. The federal government ignored the court ruling, reneged on every treaty and forced some 16,000 Cherokees onto the Trail of Tears, the 1838 trek west to Oklahoma from their appropriated properties in Tennessee and Georgia. At least 4,000 died.
It’s a particularly horrific chapter in the consistently shocking record of the United States’ treatment of Native Americans. Brian Hicks, a South Carolina journalist, adroitly relates this tragedy in Toward the Setting Sun through the experiences of the Cherokees’ principal chief John Ross and his fellow tribal leaders, as they struggled with their no-win choices.
Ross, elected chief at 38 in 1828, was emblematic of the tribe’s attempts to come to terms with the new order: He was only one-eighth Cherokee, the scion of Scottish traders and their part-Indian wives. He barely spoke the native language, and was indistinguishable from any successful plantation owner. But Hicks argues that Ross, though not perfect, was the statesman among his peers, always putting what he perceived as the tribe’s best interest first. Sadly, too many of the other chiefs behaved more like violent gangster bosses.
Toward the Setting Sun culminates with Ross’ desperate, and only marginally successful, efforts to alleviate suffering along the Trail. It’s a gripping story, told by Hicks with perception and sensitivity. The author rightly compares it to Gone with the Wind or The Godfather in its scope and drama. Ironically, Hicks notes, the real-life equivalents of Scarlett O’Hara’s father stole their land in Georgia from the Cherokees.