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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,144

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This is the grave of Elias Boudinot.

Born in 1802 in the Cherokee Nation in what is today north Georgia, the boy who was then known as Gallegina (or Kilakeena, depending on how one transliterates the Cherokee) grew up in the Cherokee elite. An elite had developed in the Cherokee during these years, as the wealthier of them took up English-style plantation agriculture, replete with African slaves and Christian conversions. Gallegina’s younger brother was Stand Watie, who we have already covered in this series. This family played a critical and controversial role in Cherokee history as that people faced the reckoning that no matter what they did and how they copied white American demands, said white Americans were not going to leave them alone. Also, most of the families involved in this Cherokee elite were already mixed-race, with significant European ancestry, including Gallegina.

In 1808, Gallegina started receiving a Christian education. In 1817, he was among the first children selected to go to a new mission school in Connecticut that would educate both Native and Black children in white Christian values. This was a pretty elite deal, coming out of the Yale School of Divinity originally and part of the larger global mission effort of the early nineteenth century. It was considered a big enough deal to be selected for this civilizing mission that the kids such as Gallegina had a big trip north where they met with Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe as they ended up in Connecticut. On the way up to the school, one of the people they met with was a man named Elias Boudinot, who was the president of the American Bible Society. Gallegina asked Boudinot if he could use his name as his new Christian name. The ABS president agreed and Gallegina would now be known as Elias Boudinot in the present and into the future.

An aside here: one thing that’s always bugged me about missionary Christianity is how it presses people to take Anglo/American names. I saw this when I taught in South Korea in 1996-97. As many of you know, South Korea has a large Christian population, though it is rapidly aging. It was a major center of Protestant missionary work in the decades after the Korean War. Well, whatever I don’t really care. But what I didn’t like and still don’t is how many of the Protestants also wanted to go by their “Christian” by which they meant American name. Why is that conversion to Christianity must also mean the abnegation of your entire identity? That’s the imperialist part of missionaries that drives me nuts. Believe what you want but there should be some level of cultural respect out there. After all, there’s most certainly nothing in the Bible that the Protestants claim to read so much that suggests one needs to reject entire identities when converting.

Anyway, Boudinot was all-in on his new Christian identity. In fact, he even married a white woman from a prominent Connecticut reforming family. If this was like most of these marriages (which were more common than you might think) between a Native man and a white reformer woman, the parents didn’t quite expect this when they decided to support indigenous-Christian causes and definitely didn’t approve of the marriage. In fact, there were local protests against it, though the parents eventually came around. This, as well as the similar relationship that his cousin John Ridge had with a white woman, also caused consternation within the Cherokee community. It was entirely expected that white men and Cherokee women would have children. This was common from the beginning of the fur trade and in a matrilineal society, it really didn’t matter much. They were Cherokee, period,. But what about from a Cherokee man and a white woman. No white woman had any rights in Cherokee society and neither did their children. So the Cherokee had to create a new law basically giving the wives of Cherokee men citizenship and thus their children. In any case, they ended up back in the Cherokee capital of New Echota, where she eventually died from pregnancy complications while having their 7th child, which was stillborn.

As part of the Cherokee elite, highly based upon copying American and particularly southern cultural norms to protect their sovereignty from greedy whites, Boudinot had a big role to play. He became the editor of the first Native newspaper ever and working with the missionary Samuel Worcester, he published the first Cherokee-English dictionary in 1828. Again, it’s worth noting the near impossible situation the tribes were in and how the Cherokee leadership handled it. Forever now, white children have learned about Sequoyah because he created a written language for the Cherokee and thus they were “civilized.” Is there anything more racist in American life than the entire term “the five civilized tribes?” Hard to beat that for pure condescending racism. In any case, the point of this has been completely missed by the generations of whites. What Sequoyah, Boudinot, and the others intended with this project was to use the tools of whites against them. The newspaper was intended to unite the Cherokee in a political project against white encroachment on their lands.

Boudinot also took advantage of his reformer friends in the North to raise money. He would go on long speaking tours about the need for Christian northerners to support Christian enterprises in Cherokee Nation. While he was on one of the tours in 1832, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Worcester v. Georgia, when John Marshall upheld Cherokee rights that Andrew Jackson immediately rejected. At this point, Boudinot realized that the game was up and that the Cherokee should get what they could from the government and move to what is today Oklahoma.

What to do about removal tore the Cherokee nation into a civil war. People such as Boudinot and Watie were on one side and John Ross on the other. Ross forced Boudinot to resign from the newspaper for advocating removal. He became one of the leaders of the Treaty Party who signed the Treaty of New Echota in 1835, selling out the Cherokee people against the will of the majority and moving to Indian Territory. Again, this was just a horrible situation on all fronts. I think there’s little doubt that Boudinot thought he was doing the right thing, but then he was also an elite and pretty disconnected from the everyday Cherokee who had not so invested in white Christian culture. So he moved out there. Then, in 1839, he was assassinated outside his home by a member of the Cherokee who opposed removal and thought of Boudinot as a sellout. We actually don’t know precisely who it was, but it’s also not particularly important as there were several assassinations of the Treaty Party Cherokee. Boudinot was 37 years old.

Elias Boudinot is buried in Worcester Cemetery, Park Hill, Oklahoma. The original grave is behind the modern marker, you just can’t see it in the picture.

If you would like this series to visit other Native leaders of the early 19th century, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Black Hawk is in Burlington, Iowa and Tecumseh is in Walpole Island, Ontario. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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