|A Cherokee, called Galagina (buck deer) in his own tongue. Boudinot was born in Georgia and educated at a mission school in
Cornwall, Connecticut; he adopted the name of Elias Boudinot as an act of gratitude to the school's patron. In 1823 he helped translate
the New Testament into Cherokee and in 1828 became editor of The Cherokee Phoenix, the first newspaper printed for an Indian tribe,
and suppressed in 1835 because it criticized the official Washington attitude toward the Cherokees.
In the 1820s, Boudinot gained national recognition as the progressive spokesman of the Cherokee Nation and his editorship of the
Phoenix from 1828 to 1832. His writings include his documented version of events leading up to the Indian Removal treaty, which were
written in reply to charges leveled by Principal Chief John Ross against him and the treaty party. He wrote in an elegant and smooth
style which reflected his education and status.
Boudinot early became convinced and maintained throughout his life that the survival of the Cherokee people was dependent upon the
abandonment of Cherokee traditions and culture and the adoption of white ways.
Factors shaping this conviction included his progressive father and kinsmen who had already abandoned traditional Cherokee ways,
his white missionary teachers who stressed almost complete rejection of Cherokee culture, and his exposure to militant white racism
beginning with his engagement to the daughter of a Connecticut physician.
Boudinot believed until 1832 that the cultural transformation essential to Cherokee survival could be accomplished without removal,
and his writings to this point reflect an optimistic faith in the progress of his people toward "civilization," defense of their national rights,
and resistance to state and federal pressure for their removal. He loved his homeland and his people, but President Andrew Jackson's
failure to enforce the Supreme Court's decision in Worcester v. Georgia convinced him that to save the people the homeland must be
In 1833 he published a novel, Poor Sarah, or, The Indian Woman. Meanwhile the Cherokees continued to suffer one grave injustice
after another from the federal government and from the state of Georgia, and in 1838 were driven off their lands, on which gold had
been discovered. Boudinot, under unfortunate influence, signed a treaty which agreed to this removal, and was assassinated soon
after his arrival in Indian Territory, now Oklahoma.
At this point he became an advocate of removal cost him the editorship of the Phoenix, which printed there- after only the resistance
view of the removal controversy. This suppression of dissenting opinion, while consistent with traditional Cherokee ethics, promoted in
Boudinot's view unity through ignorance.
Therefore, he chose in 1835 to disregard the majority will and sign the removal treaty. Fully expecting retributive execution as his
reward, Boudinot asked, "Oh, what is a man worth who will not dare to die for his people? who is there here that will not perish, if this
great Nation may be saved?"
Ambivalent Loyalties In His Writings
Elias Boudinot is somewhat problematic for many who analyze his writings. On the one hand, his writings as editor of the Cherokee
Phoenix—the first bilingual American Indian newspaper—in the years leading up to Cherokee removal establish him as a foremost
Cherokee intellectual and, since the word was important to his self-understanding, patriot. On the other hand, his admiration for the
United States as a model for culture and government, his Christianity, his belief that civilization grows from savagery to civility, and his
disdain for any definition of Native culture that might include traditional practices or beliefs has caused him to be seen as a tragic figure
caught between conflicting cultural values.
Finally, his signature on the Treaty of New Echota, which set the stage for the "Trail of Tears," and his execution by his countrymen for
treason against the Cherokee Nation, has branded him a traitor. Boudinot was a Christian of mixed white and Indian descent, educated
in missionary schools in the Cherokee Nation and in Connecticut. For Boudinot and many others of his class, Cherokee civilization
meant turning away from older cultural and governmental structures and modeling the Cherokee Nation after the United States.
However, during his four-and-a-half-year tenure as editor, Boudinot's admiration for the United States went hand in hand with his efforts
to protect the Cherokee Nation against U.S. incursions into land and political autonomy. As editor, Boudinot stood publicly against
removal to lands across the Mississippi. But in 1831 and 1832, while away on a fundraising trip around the United States, he changed
his mind. It is that change of mind, that momentous turn in support of removal, which interests me here.
After he returned to the Cherokee Nation from the United States, in July of 1832, Boudinot signed his name to a petition circulated
among Cherokees calling for removal. He wanted to use the Cherokee Phoenix as a platform for explaining and arguing his new
opinion. Principal Chief John Ross insisted that Boudinot refrain from publishing pro-removal arguments, and in response Boudinot
resigned as editor. The passage I have taken as an epigraph comes from Boudinot's defense of his changed opinion, which he
expressed in a letter written to the Phoenix after his resignation.
The newspaper—under new editorship—refused to publish the letter, thus answering with silence Boudinot's query: "May I not, with a
patriotism true and commendable, make a question?" The question was whether or not removal was now the only option and should
therefore be embraced. The letter was not printed and the question remained, for a long time, unasked in a public forum.
Boudinot calls his argument—that the Cherokees should agree to be set adrift from their land-base— a "question." This is important
because unlike a straightforward argument, a question suggests an answer deferred to a future point of articulation. Boudinot asks if
Cherokee land should perhaps disappear between one printing of the Phoenix and the next. "May I not," he asks, "with a patriotism true
and commendable, make a question for the safety of the remaining object of my affection?" He neatly palms the disappearance of
Cherokee land between one printing of the Phoenix and the next, between call and response. If a question is posed this week (shall we
remove?) and answered the next (we've already gone!), then the seriality of the newspaper has carried the nation across the gap. The
physical disappearance of the nation that Anderson so lightly conjures occurs in the twinkling of an eye, but the mass-death that is, in
Anderson's formulation, disappearance's correlative is neatly avoided. Or so Boudinot imagined.
The call received a response, but it was one that stopped the presses for Boudinot; he was silenced and disappeared from the
newspaper altogether. Then, on 29 December 1835, he signed a document much more active than a petition and more final than a
newspaper editorial. The Treaty of New Echota, which bears twenty Cherokee signatures, among them Boudinot's, actually signed
away the Cherokee homeland, and did so without the consent of the Cherokee National Council, Principal Chief John Ross, or the
The Treaty aided the process of removal and helped justify it in the United States. Boudinot's signature on the Treaty is the opposite of
asking whether he can "make a question." Rather than staging a rhetorical question in order to draw a narrative line across
disappearance as he imagines a newspaper might, this signature destroys one narrative and founds another. It also stands as the
moment of treason. As such the signature invented the "traitorous Boudinot," who has become such an object of fascination, and set in
motion the events that would, among other things, lead to Boudinot's execution and thereby to the invention of the "tragic Boudinot."
His "signature invents the signer," à la Jacques Derrida: "This signer can only authorize him- or herself to sign once he or she has
come to the end [parvenu au vout], if one can say this, of his or her own signature, in a sort of fabulous retroactivity." Before the
signature on the Treaty, Boudinot had changed his mind, a fact that, without the Treaty signature, would have been merely
unfortunate, rather than devastating, for his reputation. He had asked, in a telescopic set of demurrals, if he could ask a question he'd
already asked, and ask it in a forum—the newspaper—peculiar for its instant obsolescence and therefore for the non-fixity of the
opinions stated in its pages.
But with the signature, Boudinot is produced retroactively as a self, a man who would, did, and had become a traitor. The moment of
Boudinot's question as a question is undone by his signature—a signature here acting to cancel any priority, any possible alternative,
even any complexity. Boudinot becomes a retroactive if confusing self—a traitor or a tragic figure—and, in fact, disappears into that
appellation. Boudinot's question—and the fact that he did question, had questioned, will have questioned—indeed the fact that he
changed ossifies here into his (tragic?) treason.
Some believe that "the signature invents the signer" comes from his discussion of the United States Declaration of Independence. The
Treaty of New Echota is a photonegative of the Declaration. The Treaty's signers were acting illegally not against the colonial power but
against the people whom they wanted to save/invent as a nation from that colonial power, the same people whom they took it upon
themselves to represent in signing the Treaty. The new legality they founded in the act of signing was the legality of the colonial power
and the illegality of the colonized, rather than vice versa. They were signing the Cherokees further away from geographical and political
independence and closer to complete legal and geographical ingestion by the colonial power.
The Treaty is nevertheless like the Declaration because, in its interstitial relationship to competing legal paradigms and the power of its
so-called representative signatures, it is foundational of a new order, and Boudinot's signature on it fixes him to that new order. He is
no longer in the changeable but eternally continuous realm of national reiteration through question-and-answer. He has put his name
at a moment of rupture.
The Treaty signature, for all that it ultimately condemned Boudinot, did not spell the end of the 1832 unpublished letter. It turned the
letter expatriate and defensive. The letter finally appeared in print in 1837, but not in a Cherokee newspaper. It was printed in a
collection of Boudinot's writings aimed specifically against the Principal Chief, entitled "Letters and Other Papers Relating to Cherokee
Affairs: Being a Reply to Sundry Publications Authorized by John Ross" and published under the aegis of a white publisher in Athens in
the Creek Nation/Georgia.
The compilation spoke against the cause of the Cherokees remaining in the southeast, and as such it was taken up by the United
States government in its defense of removal and became public record in the United States as Senate Document 121, 25th Congress,
2nd session. By the time it appeared in the United States press the question that was never published in the Phoenix read as a defense
of Boudinot's answer to that same question: the Treaty signature.
The letter is transformed from a document suppressed by the Cherokee government to a document gathered to the bosom of the
United States government, from a question framed for the consideration of the Cherokee public to an answer provided for the American
public. A few months later, in the summer of 1838 the Cherokees were under forced march. More than 4,000 would die. On 22 June
1839, Boudinot was executed for his treasonous, illegal signature by fellow Cherokees in a surprise attack near his new home in the
new Cherokee Nation.
Why did he do it? Why did he change his mind, why did he sign the Treaty? These tempting, immediately available questions adhere
persistently to studies of Boudinot. Two foremost scholars of Boudinot's life and work, Bernd Peyer and Theda Perdue, each position
Boudinot's life and death as emblematic of a colonial subjectivity torn between U.S. and Cherokee cultures.
Boudinot, J. J. Life, Public Services, Addresses And Letters Of Elias Boudinot. 2008.
Dale, E. E. Cherokee Cavaliers: Forty Years of Cherokee History as told in the Correspondence of the Ridge-Watie-Boudinot Family.
Gabriel, R. H. Elias Boudinot, Cherokee, & his America. 1941.
Writings of Boudinot
Boudinot, Elias. An address to whites 1826.
Boudinot, Elias. Cherokee editor : the writings of Elias Boudinot. 1996.
Boudinot, Elias. Poor Sarah : or religion exemplified in the life and death of an Indian woman. 1818.
Boudinot, E. The Age of Reason. 1794.
Boudinot, E. The Age of Revelation.1801.