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Teaching Civic Ideals Using Primary Sources: Cherokee Removal and Federalism

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This post is by Jen Reidel, 2019-20 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

When the founders created a constitutional structure, they limited and divided power among several levels of government. Specific powers were assigned to states with all others left to the federal government in a system known as federalism. Primary sources related to Cherokee removal offer a rich and complex story detailing how the systems of federalism and separation of powers failed to protect Cherokee treaty rights.

In the early 1830s, President Andrew Jackson and the State of Georgia believed the most effective way to, according to Jackson, “civilize” Native American tribes and encourage white settlement was to relocate tribes from Georgia to west of the Mississippi River.

A map of that part of Georgia occupied by the Cherokee Indians… John Bethune, 1831

To achieve these goals, maps were created detailing resources on Native lands. Show students A Map of that part of Georgia occupied by Cherokee Indians and using the Library of Congress’ Teacher’s Guide to Analyzing Maps  prompt them to consider the following as they evaluate the image:

  • What does the map show?
  • What words are on the map?
  • What does this map tell you about the perspective of people who made and used this map?

Introduce students to congressional action relating to Cherokee removal through analysis of the title and text of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 from the Library’s Century of Lawmaking.

Indian Removal Act of 1830

Direct students to review this legislation, beginning with the title. Guide student conversation about the Act with the following questions:

  • What year was this law passed?
  • Why would Native American tribes exchange their land with the federal government?
  • Why did Native tribes have land to exchange?
  • What was the intent of the Indian Removal Act?
  • What was on the land that might be desirable?

Students might consult the Constitution to determine the part of government responsible for overseeing relations with Native American tribes and how this is reflected in the Act. In addition, students should read Article VI pertaining to the Supremacy Clause focusing on treaty rights.

At the same time the Indian Removal Act was passed, Georgia enacted several laws giving the state the power to require non-Cherokee to be licensed to live on Cherokee property. Samuel Worcester (non-native missionary) was prosecuted by the state of Georgia for living on Cherokee lands without a permit and encouraging the Cherokee to resist Georgia’s efforts to obtain native lands. His appeal in U.S. Reports: Worcester v. the State of Georgia, 31 U.S. (6 Pet.) 515 (1832) challenged Georgia’s jurisdiction over Cherokee lands.

Direct students to evaluate an excerpt from Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion (beginning in the middle of page 561), and ask them:

  • Which side of the case is Chief Justice Marshall ruling for?
  • What is his main argument supporting his ruling?
  • Using your knowledge of history, was the ruling enforced?

Asking students to study documents created at both state and federal levels helps to illustrate how the system of federalism failed to protect Cherokee land, lives, and culture. Evaluating primary sources through a civics lens offers students tangible examples of how the United States has lived up to and sometimes fallen short in fulfilling its civic principles.

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