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The following article appeared in Missionalia, the journal of the Southern African Missiological Society.

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Frederick Hale 1

Perhaps more vividly than any epic historical event, the infamous "Trail of Tears" or removal of the Cherokee from the south-eastern region of the United States of America to Indian Territory (subsequently Oklahoma) in the late 1830s serves as a metaphor for the sordid history of conflict between Native Americans and European colonisers in North America. Ethnologists, historians, and other scholars have treated this saga of expropriation and exile in dozens of books and articles for well over a century. During the 1970s, and especially since the late 1980s, the Trail of Tears has also prompted the creative talents of Native American novelists who have described it in at least four works. Denton Bedford launched this sub-genre of historical fiction in 1972 with his Tsali. After a hiatus of well over a decade, William Humphrey completed No Resting Place in 1989, and three years later Robert Conley's Mountain Windsong appeared. The most recent novel about the Cherokee removal, Diane Glancy's Pushing the Bear, was published in 1996. Strong in narrative innovation and stronger still in terms of ethnic partisanship, these novels form a significant literary pillar of the "Native American Renaissance", i.e. the indigenous political and cultural awakening which stems from the late 1960s and featured inter alia the organisation of the American Indian Movement, or AIM, and the publication of many novels and other works by such authors as N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, and Gerald Vizenor.

Although historians have established that among the few Euroamericans who sought to ameliorate the plight of the Cherokee migrants through direct contact (as opposed to the outpouring of intellectual and journalistic opposition to the removal) were Protestant missionaries representing Baptist, Congregationalist, and other denominations, 2 Bedford, Humphrey, and Conley either ignored their ministrations or gave them relatively short shrift. Glancy, a professed Christian and enrolled member of the Cherokee tribe, was the first novelist to consider in detail the implications of interfaith struggles which took place as her ethnic ancestors trudged westward from North Carolina, Georgia,

and Tennessee, suffering great hardship and disillusionment after losing their homelands. In Pushing the Bear, she treats not only the tests to which the faith of both Euroamerican and Cherokee Christians was subjected under relentless duress but also some of the varying perspectives which Christians had of the Trail of Tears and how certain adherents of traditional tribal religious beliefs and practices gradually changed their perception of what they had earlier regarded as the white man's religion when their own seemed impotent to prevent the loss of their homes or to alleviate the tribulations to which they were subjected during some four months of marching through rain, snow, and mud to an uncertain future west of the Mississippi. In the present article, I discuss Glancy's treatment of these three interwoven topics against the backdrop of recent historiography of the Trail of Tears.


In his magisterial study of Christian missions to the Cherokee from 1789 until 1839, the eminent historian of nineteenth-century Anglo-American Protestantism William G. McLoughlin provided not only a wealth of historical details but also the rudiments of a theoretical framework for analysing the process of this tribe's acculturation during that pivotal period in its history. He employed fundamental concepts developed by anthropologists and historians earlier in the twentieth- century. Following the lead of Ralph Linton's classic differentiation of "non- directive" (i.e. voluntary) and "directive" (i.e. compulsory) acculturation, McLoughlin examined the processes whereby many Cherokee, increasingly surrounded by Euroamerican settlers and witnessing penetrating threats to their traditional mores and way of life, took the approach of "selective adaptation" in responding to what the rising numbers of Protestant missionaries in their midst offered in terms of Christianity, education, and other facets of their intrusive civilisation. Emphasising that this response was by no means uniform and that it was complicated through the decades by such issues as internal disputes about the wisdom of migrating westward and holding African-American slaves as well as by smouldering conflicts between economically prosperous and indigent Cherokee, McLoughlin found a key to understanding the history of Cherokee responses to missions in the phenomenon of factionalism. In the larger context of Native American responses to Euroamerican conquest, this was not an Archimedean discovery. Robert Berkhofer and other historians had long described how indigenes on the North American continent had often been at odds with each other in seeking ways to meet the challenges posed by the waves of settlers washing over their land and menacing their cultures. 3 What is particularly striking, however, when one reads Pushing the Bear against the background of McLoughlin's historical study of missions to the Cherokee, is how well the prominent theme of religious confrontation in this novel fits his two-fold ideational framework of selective acculturation and factionalism (McLoughlin 1984:6f).


Spirituality and religious practices permeated much of Cherokee life before the colonisation stage, as indeed it did the life of many other Native American tribes. We can present only the rudiments of it here. 4 Natural and supernatural forces both played central rôles in this belief system. Cherokee spirituality presupposed a triple-tiered cosmology in which the flat, circular earth was suspended between an Upper World and a Lower World. The former encompassed numerous superior beings or spirits, many of whom were believed to resemble familiar animals, while others were humanoid. Many of them were remembered in a moderately elaborate system of tribal mythology. All helped to uphold natural harmony and order and were thus beneficial to human life. Below the earth, the land-based Cherokee thought, was a watery Lower World populated by demons, monsters, and other threatening forces of evil which could wreak havoc, not least when they rose up through springs and other channels.

The concept of maintaining balance between these spheres was central to Cherokee religion and life in general. Fallible people were susceptible to diseases, natural disasters, and other tribulations, in part because they failed individually or collectively to placate or enlist adequately the beneficent forces of the Upper World. At the centre of religious practice was an annual cycle of festivals linked to the seasons, the harvest, hunting, and the facets of life. Priests, often trained since childhood or adolescence in the lore of the tribe, presided over these festivals to ensure that the proper spirits were invoked and mollified. Their duties also entailed inter alia interpreting dreams, foretelling the future, and attempting to ferret out evil spirits, curing the sick, finding lost objects, and averting or lessening natural disasters, ostensibly by identifying the negative forces at work and thereafter invoking beneficent ones. In tandem with such spiritual practices, priests and healers employed familiar mosses, ferns, herbs, and other plants to cure a host of ailments. These natural medications were endemic to their mountainous region and further linked the tribe to its natural environment even after agriculture made more headway and surpassed hunting as the primary economic activity, a development which further changed society generally, not least because the adaptation of farming in the Euroamerican style ended communal agriculture and replaced it with much more individualised practices. This transition also tested the underlying mythic framework, which assigned the task of production to women rather than men. Unlike many other Native American tribes, the Cherokee did not create many prominent places for collective worship or graven images. By the early nineteenth century, the changes in Cherokee lifestyle, including its new, quasi-agricultural economic basis and a decline in the practice of hunting, had caused some of these practices to become irrelevant and fall into disuse, but much of the underlying belief system was still intact when increasing numbers of Christian missionaries brought the gospel to the Great Smokies around 1800 and brought explicit and ultimately partially effective challenges to that which remained.


The initial stage of the sustained Protestant missionary impulse which would help transform the world of the Cherokee coincided with larger movements on both sides of the Atlantic and, as far as this ethnic group was concerned, had only intermittent precedents during the eighteenth century. It followed hard on the heels of the termination of major military conflicts between the Cherokee, who had allied with the British Crown during the war of independence between 1776 and 1783, and white settlers who had pressed into their traditional lands before 1800. A treaty of 1794 virtually concluded armed resistance after approximately two decades of devastating strife. The missionary undertaking also went hand-in-hand with the initial policy of the United States of America under President George Washington to acculturate the pacified Cherokee, not least by hastening their transition into farmers. Sporadic efforts at various times during the eighteenth century to evangelise the tribe had not borne noteworthy fruit. In 1799, however, the pietistic, pacifistic, German-American Moravian denomination undertook a renewed campaign more than sixty years after initially commissioning missionaries to the Cherokee. The sustained endeavour never yielded many converts, but the Moravians thereby established a bridgehead by opening schools and staffing them with teachers. This educational undertaking, in contrast to more explicitly religious ministrations, was received with some enthusiasm. Presbyterians entered the field anew shortly after 1803 but also encountered considerable resistance. In 1811 Cherokee nationalism and traditional religion reasserted themselves for a few years. Alarmed Euro american missionaries and other observers witnessed a resurgence in tribal festivals, dances, and other practices which made it evident that the missionary and acculturation movements had made little impact. The newly constituted American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, an organisation comprising chiefly New England Congregationalists, sent its men to Cherokee country beginning in 1816. They brought with them modified Calvinism, a strong impetus towards education and, in the deepening sectional crisis which would eventually rend the United States asunder, anti-slavery attitudes which challenged the practice of many Cherokee of holding African Americans in bondage. Baptists and Methodists, many of them Southerners and defenders of slavery, added further chips to the missionary mosaic during the 1820s and eventually won considerable numbers of converts as resistance to Euroamerican Christianity softened. 5 Financial support for these various missions came from private donors as well as the federal government, which saw in the propagation of Christianity an important component in its policy of acculturating indigenous Americans.

These various mission agencies discovered that neither Rome nor the Cherokee church was built in a day. Acknowledging the difficulties of calculating the number of converts to Christianity, McLoughlin estimated that by the time of the forced removal there were no more than 2 000. In 1837, for example, the congregations sponsored by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions encompassed only 167 members, while the Moravians had only a few dozen converts at four stations. Easily the most successful in quantitative terms were the representatives of the Baptist Foreign Mission Board, who had baptised at least 500 Cherokee by 1838 (McLoughlin 1984:314-319).

Qualitatively, most of the Cherokee congregations were reportedly still infirm on the eve of the removal. They were understandably quite dependent on continued support from older churches, and nearly all the ministers who served them were Euroamericans. Others had come from the British Isles. Evan Jones, for example, who headed the Baptist mission to the Cherokee for some four decades, was a native of Wales. Cherokee converts became visible in positions of leadership during the 1820s, especially in the Baptist mission, which generally required less formal education as a prerequisite to ordination than did, for example, the Congregationalists in the American Board of Commissioners. Several converts were thus licensed Baptist preachers by the early 1830s. Among them was a bilingual, mixed blood man named Jesse Bushyhead, who had converted to Christianity while at school in Tennessee in 1829. He eventually led a contingent of his ethnic fellows to Indian Territory and became the chief justice of the Cherokee supreme court. Both Jones and Bushyhead appear as characters in Pushing the Bear. The gradual transition to indigenous ministerial leadership was a key element in the religio-cultural transformation of the Cherokee nation. 6 TRADITIONAL CHEROKEE RELIGION IN PUSHING THE BEAR

Pushing the Bear is an innovative novel in narrative technique. Completely eschewing conventional omniscient narrator points of view, Glancy voices nearly the entire plot through participants in the Trail of Tears who speak their parts individually. The principal narrator is a young woman named Maritole. Her quasi- estranged husband, Knobowtee, is another. Numerous Cherokee representing at least two generations and varying degrees of acculturation complement them. In places this technique creates a disjointed effect and challenges readers to keep track of the relatively complex gallery of characters, but it creates a powerful sensation of intimacy with the events in which the displaced Cherokee are participating. The plot begins after the Treaty of New Echota, in which leaders of a pro-migration faction, chiefly in northern Georgia, had facilitated the removal by relinquishing tribal land in exchange for a new homeland west of the Mississippi River and material assistance in reaching it. Other Cherokee, especially in Tennessee, felt betrayed by this action and deeply resented the loss of their homes. Factionalism is thus an innate element of the migrating Cherokee. Individual chapters are devoted to periods and corresponding geographical stages of the removal, from a spell at a stockade at which the migrants are held to their arrival at their new home in Indian Territory. The overarching tone is one of almost relentless suffering by a downtrodden people who have lost most of their material possessions and whose culture, including their spiritual anchoring, is similarly in jeopardy.

In Glancy's fictional recreation of the Trail of Tears, traditional Cherokee religious beliefs and, to a lesser extent, practices are still alive amongst many of the exiles, including some of those who have converted to Christianity. One character after another voices lines which establish the continuing viability of pre-contact spirituality. While still in North Carolina, for example, one traditional believer, a woman named Anna Sco-so-tah, proclaims her belief in sorcerers (p. 11). The central myth of Selu, the ancient woman who gave the Cherokee maize and who resides in the Upper World, is also on the lips of a woman at an early point on the trek (p. 55). Holy men had interpreted such phenomena as a meteor shower in 1833 and a solar eclipse the following year as warnings that white people in Washington and closer to the Cherokee homelands "could not be trusted" (p. 41). The priests continue to minister to their ethnic fellows en route to Indian Territory. When Maritole's infant daughter falls sick, for example, the holy men pray for her, and as an assumed consequence of their meditation Maritole believes the girl's health improves (p. 57). After crossing the Ohio River into Illinois, Knobowtee's sister, Aneh, dreams that she has been bitten by a snake. Her mother consequently summons a conjurer who performs a healing ritual (p. 147). As they wend their way westward, the exiles seek emotional strength in memories of their religious traditions as practised before they lost their homes. Knobowtee recalls how he and his brother had performed the eagle dance and "how we had been when we danced half naked in the town square." His memories help him to strike back mentally at the whites who are exercising their power over him as he visualises "our painted bodies sending the missionaries and Christian preachers back to their church to pray" (p. 151). His brother-in-law, Tanner, employs a memory in his efforts to understand the tribulation which has been inflicted on him and his people. Apparently referring to the well-documented revival of Cherokee traditional religion beginning in 1811, he recalls that "nearly thirty years ago there had been a Cherokee ghost dance.... A prophet named Charley said to get rid of the white man's ways. Then hailstones would fall and kill the white man, and the Indian could farm his land unharmed again" (p. 75). 7 The failure of the tribe to heed this advice evidently troubles Tanner and the men with whom he discusses it around a campfire in Tennessee. He questions, however, whether anything could have been done to reverse the Euroamerican assumption of domination over Native Americans. Tanner notes that "White Path and Fly Smith also had led a rebellion against the white man's culture. But the two men were now in the line of the removal ..." (p. 75). Tradition also offers hope for the uncertain future. In Missouri, relatively near the end of the trail after thousands have succumbed and morale is apparently at a low ebb, the Cherokee celebrate their Keetoowah new fire ritual and an unidentified leader seeks to bolster spirits by recounting the legend of the phoenix and predicting that the nation would rise again in its new home (p. 165). Practically from start to finish, some of the Cherokee declare that ancestral and other spirits accompany them on the trail. These beings, residents of the Upper World, are said to encourage them, provide companionship, and help them to cross the Mississippi River (pp. 123, 161, 179, 210).

Particularly significant in this regard, however, is the gradual waning of commitment to traditional Cherokee spirituality as the migrants march west. Doubts begin early. Before leaving North Carolina, Maritole's father, who appears repeatedly as a traditional voice of a surrending, colonised society, states that after hearing rumours that his property might be confiscated, he had "removed the brain of a yellow mockingbird, . . . put it into a hollowed gourd, [and] buried it in front of the door." His attempts to marshal the powers of nature against those of man had failed, however: "But the soldiers came anyway. Now we are walking." Another dimension of Cherokee spirituality seemed equally ineffective. Maritole's father asserts that he "could hear the ancestors murmuring beside us as we walked" and hopes that they might intervene to change the course of history. His faith in his departed forefathers is apparently for naught. He concludes that "something bigger was happening here.... Even the ancestors had no power. They could only walk unseen beside us" (p. 19). This elderly man retains his belief in the efficacy of songs and prayers, if only as vehicles of Cherokee tradition and not as instruments of power and change (pp. 20, 60). Even the tribal holy men accept the trail of exile west as an inevitability against which they could do nothing (p. 33).

Notwithstanding the widespread belief in the abiding presence of ancestral spirits, moreover, relentless suffering causes various characters question their efficacy or beneficence. One woman, identified only as "the Basket Maker," insists that "the trail needs stories" but is convinced that the spirits who had given the Cherokee their legends had fallen silent. "I think they're mad at us now," she suggests. "Why else would we walk the trail?" (pp. 153-154). After reaching Arkansas, Maritole and some of her relatives and friends discuss the inconsistent fortunes of the migrating Cherokee. "Why do we survive when others die?" she wonders. Her brother Tanner suggests that part of the answer lies in the guidance which their departed ancestors have provided: "They directed us on the long path when were were born. They spoke us with their words." Anna Sco-so-tah disputes his conviction: "They didn't speak us here. No, they wouldn't do that" (p. 214). The erosion of commitment to once axiomatic religious beliefs is a major theme which Glancy thus develops throughout much of Pushing the Bear as one principal factor in explaining why some Cherokee became more willing to consider Christianity as a viable alternative, despite the fact that many apparently regarded it as the religion of the Euroamericans who were oppressing them.


The rôle which Evan Jones plays in Pushing the Bear hardly corresponds to his part in the evangelisation of the Cherokee during the 1830s, but it is nevertheless a key to understanding Glancy's treatment of the confrontation of Christianity and traditional religion. While still at the stockade, he optimistically voices his gratitude that "the gospel is making advances altogether unpre cedented in the Christian history of the Cherokees." The proliferation of his faith amongst them allows Jones to believe that the ends justify the means: "The pressure of their political troubles appears to be overruled to the spiritual advantage of the people." Evidence of the effectiveness of his proclamation of Christianity seems abundant; he and Bushyhead had baptised "fifty-six hopeful believers" the previous day (pp. 35-36). Nothing is revealed about how this Baptist missionary believed their new faith would relate to their plight as outcasts from their homelands about to trek westward under armed guard to an uncertain future beyond the Mississippi River. Accompanying another detachment along the trail, he prods the Cherokee into crossing the Ohio River in winter by declaring that they would all die if they simply continued to huddle on its souther bank. Some did in fact succumb there, while others expired in the cold water (pp. 142-143).

Malcomb Mackenzie, a principal character in No Resting Place, is a minor one in Pushing the Bear, a vaguely identified missionary of unspecified denominational affiliation and national origin whose personality and faith emerge with slightly more nuances than those of Evan Jones. Like Jones, he accom panies the expellees voluntarily. Trying to make sense of what seems senseless, Mackenzie preaches that the removal might be God's punishment of the Cherokee for worshipping the earth instead of God (p. 56). En route to Indian Territory, Mackenzie is painfully aware of the hateful division within the Cherokee ranks and, while leading the encamped trekkers in prayer, asks God to forgive those from Tennesseee and prompt them to forgive their ethnic fellows from Georgia who had signed the Treaty of New Echota. Much of his ministry along the Trail of Tears inevitably consists of officiating at the burial of people who die of various causes (p. 80). Whereas in No Resting Place the relentless suffering of the removed Cherokee causes Mackenzie to lose his faith in God's providence, in Pushing the Bear he remains a sincere Christian who, upon reaching Arkansas, suggests that the number of people who have converted to Christianity during the march possibly justifies the ordeal (p. 212). He does not elaborate on his understanding of this presumably redemptive suffering, however.

Before turning to Glancy's employment of Jesse Bushyhead as a pivotal ministerial figure, we must consider a third white Christian voice which she quotes at length, namely a denominational periodical, The Baptist, a monthly published in Nashville, Tennessee. After four groups of migrating Cherokee passed through that frontier city, which was an early point on their way west, and some of them did business there, the editor of The Baptist availed himself of the opportunity to speak with them and reported that "more lovely and excellent Christians we have never seen." He seemed particularly impressed that "several" had attended a monthly missionary meeting in Nashville, and indeed a few had addressed the people assembled there. This Baptist journalist gave no indication that he understood the terms under which the Cherokee were leaving their homeland or was aware of the tribulations they were suffering on their migration. Instead, he paraphrased favourably Bushyhead's remarks on the benefits of Euroamerican civilisation and its impact on the Cherokee pp. 110-111).

The contours of this perception and the editor's insensitivity to the suffering of the exiles stand out in bold relief when juxtaposed with the remarks of another Euroamerican observer which Glancy quotes at length. Strategically placing this witness only eleven pages after the Baptist report, she allows an otherwise unidentified "white traveler from Maine" to describe the affliction of some 1 100 "poor Cherokee Indians" in graphic detail as they camped on the "cold, wet ground" of a forest seeking shelter from high winds and winter rain. "Many of the aged Indians were suffering extremely from the fatigue of the journey and the ill health consequent upon it", he related. "Several were then quite ill, and an aged man we were informed was there in the last struggles of death." This observer also describes how "even aged females, apparently nearly ready to drop into the grave, were traveling with heavy burdens attached to the back" and reports that according to residents along the trail approximately fifteen deceased migrants were buried at every point of encampment (pp. 122- 123).


Like his Euroamerican counterparts in the ministry, Jesse Bushyhead simply emerges in the narrative and remains undefined with regard to his past and his denominational affiliation. Glancy underscores in her first mention of him, however, an account prepared by Chief John Ross, that as a "conductor", i.e. the leader of a detachment of nearly 1 000 Cherokee, he is a relatively privileged member of the migration who has received $890 from the United States government for his co-operation (p. 23). Bushyhead is not presented as an opportunist collaborateur, but as a sincere man of God who seeks valiantly to minister to the people he is leading while struggling with his self-identity and the challenges to his faith which trying historical circumstances pose. While still in the stockade in Tennessee, he attempts initially to cope with his situation by explaining that he had not chosen his position, but that the imprisonment of Elizur Butler and Samuel Worcester (two representatives of the American Board of Commissioners who had been sent to jail in Georgia for ministering to the Cherokee during an era when Euroamericans in that state were clamouring for the removal of the tribe) had necessitated his taking on additional respon sibilities, notwithstanding the limits of his theological education and the occasional scoffing of "holy men and conjurers" who apparently regarded him as a cultural traitor to his tribe (p. 24).

That the mixed blood Bushyhead – like many of his fellow Cherokee – exists in an ambiguous tension with regard to the question of how beneficial contacts with Euroamericans had been is a prominent dimension of his tale. When addressing the previously mentioned Baptist missionary gathering in Nashville, he reportedly lauded the advent of Euroamerican civilisation: "He detailed to us some particulars of their [i.e. the Cherokee's] past religious opinions, and method of spending their time, their habits, and domestic manners, and contrasted them with the present condition and character of his people, and thus illustrated the happy effect already produced among them by the gospel" (p. 111). Bushyhead's views, to be sure, are refracted through the prism of a Euroamerican Baptist's perceptions and prejudices, but elsewhere in Glancy's complex narrative he struggles to maintain his belief that however pernicious the expulsion of the Cherokee may seem and however severely their plight appears to contradict the message of Christianity, the hand of God lies behind contemporary events. Initially, Bushyhead attempts to see the tribal exile as a kind of Exodus, though he also leaves open the possibility that it was divine punishment for holding black slaves: "Did not the Cherokee follow a stick to where we were? Did not Israel follow a pillar of fire? ... There would be a sign for the Cherokee from this God whose healing medicine was blood" (p. 56). When his detachment encounters snow in Tennessee, Bushyhead preaches that this "manna" is the "sign that God is leading us to the new land. Did not the children of Israel also grumble?" (p. 103). Reflecting the many tribulations he has faced, and after reading Psalm 73:2, he concludes near the end of the trail, "How often my life joined up with the scriptures" (p. 185).

Bushyhead's onerous months as the leader of a migratory regiment do not make him focus exclusively on himself or on his pregnant wife, who gives birth in Arkansas. Glancy portrays him as a conscientious if not fully stable clergyman and concerned guardian of his followers. When crossing a mountain pass with wagons seems virtually impossible, he prods them on with prayer (p. 67). When rations run low and the old and infirm migrants require special assistance, Bushyhead writes a lengthy letter, quoted in toto in the novel, formally requesting relief (pp. 70-71). When his people face exhaustion but the military escort nevertheless wants them to press ahead every day, he successfully insists that the detachment would not walk on Sundays (p. 81). When factionalism persists amongst the Cherokee, Bushyhead admonishes in a sermon, "We can't walk the trail divided" (p. 99).

In harmony with her general presentation of the Cherokee as a people in a state of religious transition during the 1830s, Glancy portrays Bushyhead as a Christian who still embodies various tribal beliefs and customs. Maritole relates how in a sermon about Creation on the first chapter of Genesis he had explained that "there had been a world that dissolved and then become earth again" (p. 149). Bushyhead related that at his Christmas service in Illinois, "I offered prayer to the four directions", an unambiguous vestige of Native American spirituality which reminds this Baptist clergyman of the respective meanings of the directions, namely "strength, defeat, death, and peace." He believes, however, that "in the end, it wasn't the powers of the four directions, or the winds, but the strength of our utterances" (p. 159).

From the outset, the self-doubting Bushyhead's faith erodes when undermined by a stream of personal tribulation and dissonant circumstances which do not harmonise neatly with what he has been taught about Christianity. A Cherokee suicide by gunshot to the head requires him to bury one of the first victims of life at the stockade. His own belief in God's providence threatens to become the second. "Was it only a few nights ago I woke in my bed and felt doubt lapping my faith?" he asks (p. 25). Indeed, the potential erosion of Bushyhead's trust in God's ultimate victory becomes a Leitmotiv in Pushing the Bear. On the one hand, in a sermon preached outdoors in Kentucky on a cold day in November he implores fellow migrants that like fellow Christians who were simultaneously worshipping in the comfort of warm chapels, they, too – or at least a "remnant" of them – would again find homes: "Our journey – the one ahead – the one after the walking – will begin again from nothing. This is how we go. Always back to nothing." But he too has doubts and, stammering through his tears, cannot finish his sermon (p. 127).


Glancy's adherents of traditional Cherokee spirituality have differing perceptions of Christianity, which help to explain their reluctance to convert. The pillars of their world have begun to shake, and in their anomie they seek to understand both the precarious nature of their own lives and the complexities of the Euroamerican civilisation which has so profoundly challenged them. Confusion stemming from denominational discordance is one reason for their unwillingness to accept Christianity. "They say their different ways. Presbyterian. Moravian. Methodist. Baptist", laments one such migrant bearing the tribal name Bird Doublehead: "How many gods does the white man have? They can't agree on anything" (p. 22). Some are willing to acknowledge that Christianity evidently worships a powerful deity. Lacey Woodard, whose Euroamerican husband has remained on her farm while she was forced into exile, perceives evidence of the Christian God's might in the fact that Mackenzie has elected to accompany the Cherokee to Indian Territory and endure hardships en route. On the other hand, she cannot overlook the cruelty of the soldiers, who she assumes are Christians, to both the Cherokee and the oxen pulling their wagons. Moreover, Woodard asks herself, "What kind of God would let some of his men be soldiers and kill his son?" (pp. 55-56)

Among the most bitter of the traditionalists is a man named War Club. Before leaving North Carolina, he expresses his disaffection with religion generally and especially his resentment of that of the Euroamericans. "The white men. mehpush. They come. Take the land. Say we don't have the truth." War Club's attitude is one of revenge: "Well, put their god on a cross. Leave him there" (p. 25). Maritole's older brother, Tanner, has also homogenised Euroamericans and believes that Christianity is an integral factor in their hypocritical behaviour: "What kind of God was this who had some of his men talk of loaves and fish while others took the land and beat an old man to get him to walk?" (p. 40)

Given the assumption in the perceptions of some of the Cherokee that Christianity was an inherent component of the land-grabbing whites' behaviour and that the God of Christianity countenanced the expropriation of their home lands, their rejection of Bushyhead's efforts to justify the removal on biblical grounds is virtually inevitable. To one Cherokee holy man who apparently has had previous exposure to Christianity, this rhetorical exercise is simply unin telligible: "He tried to make sense of everything, but the trail we marched didn't make sense. It didn't fit into an understanding of the Christian God" (p. 128). In a similar vein, Tanner's wife, Luthy, finds no cogency in Bushyhead's latter-day Year of Jubilees explanation of the removal. It, too, leaves her scratching her head: "Bushyhead had talked about giving back the land because the Great Spirit didn't stay in one place either. What was Bushyhead talking about? Who farmed the land then?" The only credible answer she hears to her second question comes succinctly from the lips of O-ga-na-ya, Knobowtee's brother: "The white man" (p. 138).


As McLoughlin has pointed out, the years of tribulation immediately before the Trail of Tears "effected what so many missionaries had longed for, a great revival of religion. But it was not, as they wanted, a revival of orthodox Protestant evangelicalism." Yet many had been profoundly influenced by biblical imagery, taken not least from the Old Testament, which they often amalgamated with their own spiritual traditions (McLoughlin 1984:351). The seeds of religious transition had been sown, and they germinated in the Great Smokies, along the trek westward, and in Indian Territory. Eventually Christianity in many denominational forms became very widespread among the Cherokee.

Glancy foresages the acceleration of this religious transition as the migrants reach the end of the Trail of Tears. No character embodies it more lucidly than Knobowtee, Maritole's embittered husband whose resentment of Euroamericans is profound and whose disillusionment with Cherokee traditional spirituality has become evident on the path west. He wrestles with the question of theodicy in trying to come to grips with the distress he and his ethnic fellows have suffered. Experiential reality does not harmonise with the proclamation of the missionaries: "I had lost my land and there was a just God. Just try and reconcile that", Knobowtee declares. He is aware of a common element in his own spiritual tradition and the Old Testament concerning the ultimate relationship between God, mankind, and the earth and believes that he understands this better than do the Euroamericans who have dispossessed him: "Maybe that was the Great Spirit's lesson. Nothing was mine. I could receive and lose in the same breath. The burden the white man carried was that he didn't know the lesson yet" (p. 207). Apparently to this doubter the gap between the two faiths, which initially seemed poles apart from both Cherokee and missionary perspectives, is not unbridgeable. By the time he reaches Missouri, he can consider accepting the seemingly more powerful deity of Christianity. "Should I just swallow my pride and say their God was my God?" he asks himself (p. 186). Very shortly thereafter, Knobowtee believes that part of his personal salvation lies in distancing himself from the bitterness of the traditionalists and the factionalism of which they are a part. Perhaps the Christian alternative was the only viable option: "Weren't all things possible according to the Christians? ... Listen to Bushyhead. Even Maritole thought it was true" (p. 196).

Glancy thereby indicates the existence of a spiritual grey zone in which many Cherokee may have found themselves during a time of tribulation and religious transition. She also opens the door to a gradual acceptance of much that Christianity had to offer, a "selective adaptation", to use McLoughlin's term, born of necessity and not accompanied by universal enthusiasm for the new faith. The religious ways of the Cherokee forefathers yielded centre stage to those of the colonisers, chiefly after the removal to Indian Territory, where they often became incorporated in a syncretic amalgam not unfamiliar to the hybrid faiths of many other tribes which had been subjected to extensive missionary endeavour (McLoughlin 1984: chapter 8). In this way, among others, tribal mythic traditions remained on the scene and continued to influence the minds and behaviour of the players to varying degrees. In this way too, the historical experience recreated in Pushing the Bear is a microcosmic rendition of the dramatic confrontation of Native American and Euroamerican cultures.


Glancy, Diane. 1996. Pushing the Bear.

McLoughlin, William G. 1979. New Angles of Vision on the Cherokee Ghost Dance Movement. American Indian Quarterly, 5(4):317-345.

McLoughlin, William G. 1994. The Cherokees and Christianity, 1794-1870. Athens: University of Georgia.

Mooney, James. 1900. Myths of the Cherokees. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

Perdue, Theda. 1979. Slavery and the Evolution of Cherokee Society, 1540- 1866. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Satz, Ronald N. 1985. Cherokee Traditionalism, Protestant Evangelism, and the Trail of Tears, Part I. Tennessee Historical Quarterly, 44(2):285-301.

1 Dr Frederick Hale is a Norwegian by birth and is a regular contributor to our journal. He has recently completed a doctoral thesis in missiology at Unisa on "Literary and cinematic representations of Jesuit Missions among the Guaraní, with special reference to the film and novel of 1984, The Mission." His address is ...

2 McLoughlin (1994:103f). This posthumous work by McLoughlin incorporated research findings which he had published earlier.

3 For a fuller description of this theoretical framework, see McLoughlin (1984:1-12).

4 See such classic studies as James Mooney (1900) for detailed treatments of traditional concepts of the world and religious beliefs and practices.

5 The most detailed historical treatment of Cherokee slaveholding is Theda Perdue (1979).

6 For an incisive summary of many of the fundamental points about both Cherokee traditional spirituality and the missionary endeavours among the Cherokee which synthesises recent and older scholarship, see Ronald N. Satz (1985:285-301).

7 This may be a curious memory based on an incorrect interpretation of the phenomena it recalls. Mooney, who also did significant early research on the Lakota Ghost Dance movement of the late nineteenth century, did in fact believe that he had found an analogous precedent in the Cherokee religious revival of 1811-1813, but William G. McLoughlin (1979) has challenged this.

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