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The Rule Of Law: NPR's Steve Inskeep In Arkansas To Discuss Indian Removal Act Of 1830

Steve Inskeep
Michael Hibblen

When he's not on the air as co-host of the country's most-listened-to radio news program, NPR's Steve Inskeep is something of a historian.

His 2015 book Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and A Great American Land Grab focuses on the contentious relationship between Cherokee leader John Ross and the nation's seventh president, all while analyzing the conditions leading up to the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the subsequent Trail of Tears.

Inskeep spoke about his book at the UA Little Rock Jack Stephens Center alongside Sequoyah National Research Center Director Dan Littlefield and U.S Appeals Court Judge Morris "Buzz" Arnold on Monday. His lecture, titled "The Rule Of Law And The Indian Removal Act Of 1830," was hosted by the United States Marshals Museum, and sponsored by NPR, the Sequoyah National Research Center, and KUAR 89.1. 

In an interview with KUAR's Daniel Breen, Inskeep spoke of the legal principle known as the rule of law; how it was manipulated to disenfranchise Native Americans, and how the effects of which are still seen to this day.

To hear the full interview, click the audio link above.

Interview Highlights

What is the "rule of law" as a principle, and how was it was used within the context of your book?

"No individual is supposed to truly be in charge. We elect officials, we elect a president, and actually we're the boss of the president. But, that is governed by the laws that we have passed over time, and the principle is that everyone is supposed to do what they can under the law, and that the law governs, not… people.

"I think the argument can fairly be made that the form of the rule of law was sort of observed, but the fact was not. And that is the case of the removal of the Cherokees along with other Indians from the eastern United States, mainly in the 1830s." 

On providing an impartial account of one of the most controversial events in American history:

"This is a story that makes people really upset, and in this political time where people are really upset… this is something people feel really strongly partisan about, even though it happened almost two centuries ago.

"[Jacksonland] is less about the experience of walking the [Trail of Tears], which other people have told, I think, than the 20 years or so of democratic and legal fights that led up to the Trail of Tears… and I wanted to tell that story fairly. One of the most touching things I've seen in reviews of this book is someone who says that it seems somehow that the book makes John Ross, the Cherokee chief for all of this time, and Andrew Jackson each sympathetic characters. Which I don't think it necessarily means that you like them… but I would hope that by the end of the story, you understand who they were and why they did what they did."

What role did Arkansas play in the Trail of Tears?

"It was an early destination for Cherokees, because before Arkansas was a state, some Cherokees moved out here; there was a western band of Cherokees, even as the eastern band tried to hold on for a couple of decades more. Cherokee lands were ultimately moved out of Arkansas; they had to move west again, to what is now Oklahoma… but then, when the rest of the Cherokees were forced to move west, a great many of them passed

Credit Michael Hibblen / KUAR News
NPR Morning Edition co-host Steve Inskeep speaks with KUAR reporter/anchor Daniel Breen.

through here. There were a variety of routes by land and by water, and the water route passed right through here.

"John Ross, the Cherokee chief, passed through here, and his first wife died either on a boat near here or right here and was buried here in Little Rock, Arkansas. So this is a place that is very closely connected to that story, because the Trail of Tears goes right through and points right to where you can still find the Cherokee Nation today; their capital, Tahlequah [Oklahoma] is just a few hours' drive west of here."

What lessons can still be learned from the Trail of Tears? Do we still see impacts today, and where can we see them?

"The United States has always been a diverse country. We can overlook that because there was a time when the national leaders were all white men… and you don't realize how many different kinds of people were here, and were… part of our democratic tradition, and part of the making of the country that we have today. And the Cherokees were absolutely part of that, and other Indian nations were part of that, and African-Americans were part of that… You could argue, and people did on both sides, that it was necessary ultimately for the Cherokees to move west. But if it was necessary, surely there was a way to have done it that would have been legal.

"When the Cherokees still refused to move, an illegitimate treaty was imposed on them. The federal authorities went around their government and found a renegade faction of Cherokees to sign the treaty. That's not good. I mean, it’s one of the shameful moments in American history. I’m happy to tell that story, as an American, and remain very proud of my country as an American. But one of the things that you ought to be able to do with a country you love is tell the truth. And the truth gets us to a better place, and can make us better people, and better understand who we are."

Daniel Breen is a Little Rock-based reporter, anchor and producer for KUAR.
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