Andrew Denson was a graduate student at Indiana University Bloomington back in the mid-1990s when, on a drive through Georgia, he decided to make a stop at the New Echota State Historic Site, which marks the location of what was once the capital of the Cherokee Nation.
Located near the north Georgia town of Calhoun, the historic site features the partial reconstruction of a Cherokee town and interprets various facets of Cherokee history, including the Trail of Tears, the forced removal of the Cherokee people from their homeland to Oklahoma in the 1830s.
“I had read some of the historical literature on Southern commemoration in one of my seminars in Indiana, and, based on that reading, I wondered why the state of Georgia, which had worked so hard to drive the Cherokees into the West, decided to establish this historic site commemorating the Trail of Tears,” Denson said. “I was particularly curious about why Georgia would commemorate Native American removal during the 1950s, the era of the African-American civil rights movement.”
Those questions remained in Denson’s mind as he returned to graduate study at Indiana, where he earned master’s and doctoral degrees. However, he ended up choosing a different topic for his doctoral dissertation, which developed into his first book, “Demanding the Cherokee Nation: Indian Autonomy and American Culture,” published in 2004.
That same year, Denson joined the faculty of Western Carolina University’s Department of History. “I always wanted to return to this question of commemoration,” he said. “After finishing my first book and moving to North Carolina, I had a chance to do that.”
The result is “Monuments to Absence: Cherokee Removal and the Contest Over Southern Memory,” published by the University of North Carolina Press in February 2017. The book, which explores how Cherokee removal has been remembered in the public landscape, was announced in late November as co-winner of the 2018 Malcolm and Muriel Barrow Bell Award, which is presented by the Georgia Historical Society for the best book on Georgia history.
Denson, an associate professor of history at WCU, began conducting research for his prize-winning volume around the time he arrived at WCU, thinking that work would yield an article or two. “As time went on, I ran into more and more examples of Southern communities commemorating Cherokee removal, so eventually I decided to turn the work into a book project,” he said.
The act of memorialization is an important topic for students of Southern culture, and occasionally debates over the public memory make the news, as the recent dispute over the “Silent Sam” statute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill illustrates, Denson said.
“My goal in the book was to examine the commemoration of Cherokee removal as a way of placing a Native American topic in discussions of Southern memorials and monuments,” he said. “Those discussions almost never include Native American history, even though there are a great many historic sites, memorials and monuments related to that history scattered across the region.”
In the book, Denson examines a series of case studies of removal commemoration from the early 20th century to the present, including examples from Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Western North Carolina. He also takes a look at development of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, which stretches from WNC to Oklahoma and includes interpretation of historic sites in nine states.
In addition to winning the Georgia Historical Society Award, Denson’s latest book was a finalist for this year’s Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award. A native of the Chicago area, Denson also was honored earlier this year as recipient of WCU’s Hunter Scholar Award, which promotes and supports faculty research that integrates the resources and services of the university’s Hunter Library.