“Chief Corn Tassel” by Mitzi Dorton

With thorough research, Mitzi Dorton brings the inspiring story of Chief Corn Tassel to life. Much of Chief Corn Tassel (Finishing Line Press, 2022) is told through the Cherokee chief’s own words and recorded speeches. An impressive section of illustrations appends the book. Known as “the best statesman” and “the greatest orator of the late eighteenth-century Cherokees,” Corn Tassel strived to deliver peace between the Original People and Whites. His story is one of diplomatic perseverance and appalling betrayal, a story that provides a fuller understanding of the history of the United States.

The Cherokee mountaineers were the largest tribe of Native Americans in the South, according to Dorton. She explores Cherokee family life, depicting many aspects not widely known. For example, if a father belonged to a different clan than the mother, he was not allowed to punish his children. Instead, Dorton explains, “the most significant bond of the Cherokee males was not between father and son, but between the sister’s sons and her brothers.” Both men and women cultivated and harvested their family and community gardens. Families lived quite comfortably in “hot houses,” which kept perpetual fires burning.

The book illustrates how, time after time, Chief Corn Tassel deliberated with Whites to effect a treaty that would protect the tribal lands. Every time, more settlers would arrive and broach the treaty boundaries. This created tension, not only between the tribe and settlers, but also within the tribe as younger warriors pressed for more aggressive action to preserve their lands. Older tribal members recalled the stories of Attakullakulla, who had traveled to England and witnessed the enormous numbers of Whites, many of whom were sure to come to the colonies. Because of this knowledge, they believed compromise was the only solution possible.

Chief Corn Tassel’s speeches were frequently punctuated by presentations of strings of white beads, which symbolized a wish for peace, truthfulness, and mutual happiness. Unfortunately for the Cherokee, none of these goals were reached long term. In treaty speeches Corn Tassel complained that Whites encroached on their lands to the point that the Cherokee scarcely had “room to turn around.” And as treaty after treaty was violated, he rightfully complained about the lack of truthfulness of the negotiators. He also pointed out that the “Great God of Nature . . . has not created us to be your slaves.” It also seemed unfair that Whites viewed it as criminal if the Cherokee killed a settler’s domestic animal to eat, but they thought nothing of killing without compensation the wild animals the Cherokee needed for survival. The great chief puts forward an argument that should have persuaded his Christian opponents: “We wish, however, to be at peace with you, and to do as we would be done by.” He is asking for no more than the Golden Rule set forth in the bible to be followed.

Dorton also has gathered the words of Nancy Ward, Corn Tassel’s cousin. She gives one of the first public speeches by a woman in White pioneer society:

You know women are always looked upon as nothing; but we are your mothers; you are our sons. Our cry is all for peace; let it continue. This peace must last forever. Let your women’s sons be ours; our sons be yours. Let your women hear our words.

Her speech made a strong impression on all who listened.

Treaties proved to be mere words from leaders on paper and had little effect of creating boundaries that settlers would observe. As more incursions on Cherokee land occurred, some warriors began to retaliate with raids, followed by Whites burning villages. The result: war, rather than the peace Corn Tassel had worked so hard for.

One more time Chief Corn Tassel and a few other Cherokee leaders were summoned to peace talks, both sides arriving with white flags signifying peaceful intent. But instead of negotiating, Major Hubbard handed a tomahawk to a White man whose family had been killed by Indians. Without resisting, the Indians attending the peace talks were slaughtered, “unarmed, peaceful, and under a flag of truce.” Once again, injustice prevailed as no one was punished for this heinous violation of a peace talk.

Dorton has performed a true service to the Cherokee people by gathering these facts and speeches to preserve the efforts of a great man and his diplomatic efforts. The words of Corn Tassel offer the perspective of the invaded, a side of history that should never be overlooked.

Mitzi Dorton is a multi-genre writer, a former postsecondary learning specialist and educator. As an adult, she often hung out in history rooms of local colleges. It was there in some antiquated books, that she found herself introduced to Chief Corn Tassel. Samuel Cole Williams, historian in William Tatham, Wataugan, complained that other than James Mooney’s description, there was “no other sketch of this able chief.” Dorton travelled to the old Cherokee towns and various treaty sites, acquainting herself further with his background. By the time she reached Chota, Chief Corn Tassel was simply the hand of an old friend felt along the path, and she wanted to share his story.

For more information, check out the Southern Literary Review interview of Mitzi Dorton about the writing of this book.




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