Oblivion’s Altar

Oblivion's AltarOblivion’s Altar
New American Library/Penguin Group USA, 2002
Goldminds Publishing, 2013

Winner – 2003 Spur Award – Best Original Paperback
Finalist – Oklahoma Book Award

Critical Praise for Oblivion’s Altar

Read an interview with David about Oblivion’s Altar

History comes to life in this epic novel of a Cherokee chieftain’s final struggle for freedom.

The Audio version of Oblivion’s Altar can be found here.

Author’s Introduction to Oblivion’s Altar

E Pluribus Unum! Out of many, one.

This uniquely American ideal met its first great challenge when the young Republic confronted a thousand tribal nations that spread across the whole of the North America, the same continent that Anglo-European immigrant majority aspired to dominate with their culture and law. After a century of escalating violence, the founders of the United States advocated a more enlightened policy toward the Native American inhabitants: assimilation into the Union through education and agriculture, a process estimated by them to consume at least one hundred years. George Washington called this policy civilization, and the most influential leaders of the Anglo and Native races immediately embraced it as American’s greatest hope for her future.

No tribe responded to Washington’s benevolence better than the Cherokee. A core group of young, ambitious, (and in some cases mixed-blood) chiefs emerged in one generation from a Stone Age culture to educate their children in the arts and sciences, organize a constituted government and judicial system, develop a printed language and publish their own newspaper and books, and adopt a plantation-style surplus crop and manufacturing-based economy.

At the heart of this remarkable transformation stood a warrior and chief known as Major Ridge. His unprecedented journey toward “civilization” astounded the world. His success, however, only alienated him from his own people, and targeted him as America’s most dangerous Native American leader, the illiterate “savage” whose campaign for justice forced Andrew Jackson’s America to the brink of civil war.

Oblivion’s Altar is his inspirational story.

Andrew Jackson ascended to the presidency in 1828. The first “westerner” and second military leader since Washington to hold office ran on a cynical platform of expansionism and Indian Removal. Despite the miraculous efforts of the Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw Nations (among others) to transform themselves in only one generation, the policy of Civilization was described by Jackson’s political machine as an abject failure. Removal to the Great American Desert (now known as Oklahoma) was considered to be the most humane and most expedient method to clear the way for American expansion and realize her destiny to control the northern hemisphere and rule “from sea to shining sea.”

Indian Removal was a highly charged, deeply emotional issue, second in its time only to slavery and every bit as acrimonious as the abortion debate is today. Bitterly contested, the Indian Removal Act passed into law by only one vote. Stunned Indian leaders watched on as the President of United States blatantly broke the founders’ faith. Progressive chiefs like Major Ridge, who had fought alongside Jackson in the Creek War, found themselves between two fires—the Anglos who had lied to them, and the full-blood majority among their own tribes who believed they had been misled.

For a man of Major Ridge’s nature, sophistication, and resources, however, the fight was far from over. Along with his New England-educated son and nephew, Major Ridge waged a brilliant campaign on two fronts—he battled Jackson’s administration all the way to the Supreme Court; and went head-to-head with Principal Chief John Ross (who was only 1/8 Cherokee and did not speak the language) for the hearts and minds of the full-blood Cherokee majority. He won the first battle, only to be betrayed by his former friend and ally, Andrew Jackson, who trampled treaties and ignored his own constitution to crush Cherokee resolve. Ridge lost the second, which branded him as a rogue and outsider at the exact moment when the Cherokee needed his leadership most.

And still Major Ridge battled on. Aging, ill, and politically isolated, Ridge realized that Jackson had left the Cherokee little more than the choice between two evils. He alone understood that Cherokee culture was equally at stake along with their ancestral home. His final act of defiance was to personally sacrifice everything to preserve the people above the land. For some, his efforts seemed heroic, the stuff of legend. For the Cherokee majority, however, they were a capitol crime.

Many contemporary Cherokee revile the memory of Major Ridge. History has largely swept him aside as a footnote. But in his day he was the most remarkable chief the Cherokee had ever known and the most dangerous American Indian leader the United States ever faced. Major Ridge defined vision, charisma, and virtue. His life was a testament to the strength of the human heart and the courage of the human spirit. Even Andrew Jackson could not defeat Major Ridge and the Cherokee without ignoring the constitution and tarnishing the American ideals of basic human rights and justice for all. If nothing else, Major Ridge deserves recognition as one of America’s greatest tragic heroes.

The author, David Marion Wilkinson

A Talk with David Marion Wilkinson: Oblivion’s Altar

How did you learn about Major Ridge?
I intended to write a novel about Sam Houston’s lost years in the Indian Territory (early 1830’s). Knowing that Houston had lived with the Cherokee as a teenager and spoke their language fluently, I knew that I had to have a fair command of Cherokee history and culture to do a decent of job of getting inside his head. I had grown up with some Cherokee people in my hometown in Arkansas, but I was ignorant of whom they were and all they’d been through in the shadow of a belligerent United States. To orient myself, I picked up a used copy of Marion L. Starkey’s Cherokee Nation. Ms. Starkey’s timeless voice first told me the powerful story of Major Ridge and I forgot all about Sam Houston.

What inspired you to write this story?
First, even as true history Ridge’s life was beautiful, compelling, dramatic and haunting. Next, with the fate of an ancient culture hanging in the balance the stakes could not have been higher. I also believed that Major Ridge possessed some remarkable human qualities that shined through this unparalleled period of social upheaval, natural disasters, political conflict, and all out war. Last, I felt that in some quarters Ridge had suffered a bum rap in history that is completely unjustified. While Oblivion’s Altar is my attempt to introduce an extraordinary American historical figure to a mainstream audience, it is also my response to Ridge’s critics.

What sort of research was involved in writing this novel?
I pride myself in historical accuracy and any story tells you what you need to know as you write it. I gave a full account of the best primary and academic sources in the novel’s “Acknowledgments” section, but I can easily say that I consulted close to twenty-five books, numerous journal articles and websites, and spoke personally with as many experts as I could find. In the end, however, my take on Cherokee history and Major Ridge’s struggles becomes a matter of my own perspective.

Did you travel to some of the places described in the book?
When I was a child, my family vacationed each summer in the Blue Ridge. I grew up in Arkansas, not too terribly far from where the book begins. So I was vaguely familiar with the Ridge’s old haunts. But my connection with that land was not strong enough to bring the setting back to life or attempt to describe the Cherokee’s attachment to their ancestral home. I had to go there and get a sense of the place myself. Among other places, I went to the Chieftain’s museum in Rome, Georgia, which is Ridge and Sehoya’s last home in the old country. Subsequent owners added on to the structure, but by and large it remains as it was when Ridge’s family lived there. I loved walking the grounds alone one crisp autumn afternoon. I visited New Echota State Park, Vann House, and then drove north and east from there into the heart of the southern Blue Ridge, where the Eastern Band of the Cherokee still live. I spent some time in other places of grave importance to Ridge’s life, but to explain these in detail would ruin the end of the novel. You should read the book to get a sense of these special places and maybe go see them for yourself.

How did you know about the details of Ridge’s life—the clothes, food, household items, and decorations?
I had written another novel set in the same time period and read over sixty books to get a feel for the era. I felt like I understood very well how the pioneers lived from day-to-day. To a certain degree, some of the mixed-blood Cherokee adapted some of these methods and used these devices. In addition, the missionaries kept meticulous diaries. I read three separate missionary accounts to get a sense of what it was like to be neighbors with the Cherokee during this period. The research on Ridge’s life and times is also very rich and detailed. The culture of so many Indian Nations was devastated in the 18th and 19th centuries, which means that much is lost forever. But for over a hundred years, certain individuals—both red and white—have sacrificed to preserve as much as they could. Basically, I read everything I could get my hands on about the Cherokee way of like and then attempted to weave in as much as I could into the fabric of the novel.

Who do you feel is responsible for the Trail of Tears?
I don’t think you can put the finger on any one individual. Certainly one shouldn’t blame Major Ridge—although he emerged as the villain. What makes this period of American history so compelling is the violent confrontation of a technologically advanced European culture that had evolved over many centuries coming face to face with the Stone Age. These conflicting societies had no idea of how to deal with each other. The Indian Removal Law was so controversial in its time that one can’t even say the Trail of Tears was the collective will of Anglo America. No one really knew how to incorporate Native American Nations into the feuding family known as the United States; and no Anglo American politician advocated that the United States government should recognize the tribal nations like independent countries. Cynical politicians and military leaders never took Indian treaties seriously. They were simply the first step toward defrauding Indians of their land.

The sad truth is that Asian- and European-based nations only recognized each other. Any culture or society that didn’t play by a ruthless set of established international rules and wasn’t strong enough to defend itself fell prey to colonization. What happened in America was happening throughout the world. The difference with the Cherokee was that they put up a heroic fight and although they were “defeated,” misled, lied to, and utterly oppressed during this shameful era of American history, they would not allow themselves to be destroyed. This makes their struggle the stuff of legend.

The Trail of Tears, in my opinion, was a worst-case scenario that played out in the most tragic manner possible after a number of events, decades in the making, had set it in motion. It is my firm belief that Major Ridge had no idea that his plans for the Cherokee would even remotely resemble the debacle of the Trail of Tears. That being said, Andrew Jackson bears the lion’s share of responsibility for this human disaster. He felt like removal was truly the most humane way to deal with the Indian “problem.” He was dead wrong.

There seems to be trend now that Native American stories belong only to Native American authors. Would you like to comment on that?
Yes, the culture club…Well, I can’t imagine telling another novelist what story he or she can or can’t write. It’s simply not my place. And I don’t respond well to someone making similar determinations about my work. I invested four years of my life to tell Major Ridge’s story. Anyone who can do it differently or better can have at it with my blessing. I certainly don’t buy into the notion that any one group or race of people has a literary franchise on their history. There seems to be this terrible guilt over this era by mainstream America that indulges this racist elitism. We shouldn’t feel good about what happened to the American Indian Nations as the United States spread from sea-to-sea, but I’ll be damned if I’ll take the wrap for it. I’m no more responsible for the Trail of Tears that I am for southern slavery or the Viet Nam War. This river was running long before I stuck in my toe. And I have never believed that it’s a positive response to meet racism with racism. For me, the modern world is hungry for great leaps of understanding and tolerance. Excluding Anglo writers from Native American culture doesn’t help a thing. I’m certainly willing to debate the themes presented in Oblivion’s Altar with anyone who has read it. But I won’t listen to anyone who condemns the novel solely because of its Anglo author. That’s prejudice, not criticism.

The reality is that Cherokee and American Indian blood has mixed with Anglo-Europeans on this continent for over three hundred years. Both races are forever entwined. We now share a mutual destiny. The past belongs to us both. And any writer who can muster a passion for any story owns it. Oblivion’s Altar has no other ambition than to celebrate the life of a remarkable human being who lived in tumultuous times, believed in himself and in his people, fought a good and just fight, and then made the greatest personal sacrifice so that others could live beyond him. I stood over Major Ridge’s grave and promised him that I would give him everything I had to tell his story. My obligation was to him and no one else. As far as I’m concerned, I kept my word. I make no apologies. I have no regrets.

I’m going to write about the Chinese next and I suppose I’ll have an argument waiting for me in Beijing. I’ll be ready for it…

Critical Praise for Oblivion’s Altar

From Publishers Weekly
All men were not always created equal in the eyes of the federal government, and the Cherokee fared particularly badly in the 19th century. In his passionate third novel, Spur Award-finalist Wilkinson (Empty Quarter; Not Between Brothers) spans six decades-from 1776 to 1839-in addressing the plight of Ridge, a great Cherokee chieftain. Ridge was originally called Kah-nung-da-tla-geh, the Man Who Walks the Mountaintops. He was born in Georgia, where the Cherokee were known as the Civilized Tribes because they adapted easily to the white man’s customs of dress, language and farming, with a parallel government and their own constitution. Ridge, a warrior and chief, is also a rich Cherokee farmer who believes in the strength of the treaties and the words of Pres. Andrew Jackson. What he does not understand is that the treaties are merely paper and that Jackson will not raise a finger to help the Indians in a vicious land dispute with the states. Ridge encourages education as a means to beat the whites at their own game. His son becomes a lawyer and represents the Cherokees in court. Even when the Cherokees win the court cases, however, the government ignores the law and the Cherokees are driven from their lands by force, following the Trail of Tears westward. Ridge is a tragic hero, a good man who did everything he could to protect his people, but who is ultimately betrayed by both the whites and his Indian brothers. Solidly based on historical fact, Wilkinson’s tale packs a strong emotional punch and cannot help but make readers wonder which side was the most civilized after all.

From The Austin Chronicle
Accept the premise that no work of historical fiction dealing with American Indians can match Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, and you’re on your way to appreciating David Marion Wilkinson’s Oblivion’s Altar for what it is: an entertaining, imaginative, and historically informed story about the ruthless displacement of the Cherokee Nation from its Georgia homeland. Wilkinson’s third novel might not win accolades for mellifluous prose or subtlety of expression, but the author’s deeply researched narrative goes where historians — shackled as they are to the documentary record — have quietly failed to venture. Through plausibly reconstructed dialogue, an impressive attention to material culture, and a cinematic eye (a la John Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy), Wilkinson effectively, and at times brilliantly, illuminates the blood and guts of a Cherokee history seen from West to East.

The grimness of that perspective is prefigured in Andrew Jackson’s all too accurate Cherokee appellation: Sharp Knife. “I wish there was some other way to settle the Cherokee question,” Wilkinson has Jackson apologetically tell us after assuming the presidency. Sharp Knife evidently longs for “some mythical ground between degradation and banishment.” But, he concludes, “I assure you there was none,” which is bad news for Wilkinson’s protagonist, Ridge Walker, a man who knows better than his kinsmen that “where [Americans] walked, they ruled.” Ridge, or Kah-nung-da-tla-geh, is a “mixed breed” who was called by the native elders after the Revolutionary War to preserve the homeland at any cost. His veins pumping “with the blood of two worlds,” Ridge abandons his battlefield exploits and opts for the path of peace, moving “the battle into the American courtrooms.” His decision to accommodate white interests through strategic resistance rather than bloodthirsty warfare endangers his reputation within the Cherokee community. Nonetheless, Ridge perseveres in the face of internal opposition tenaciously enough to send his son to an East Coast missionary school where, in the crucible of “civilization,” John Ridge takes his father’s philosophy of negotiation to a new extreme.

“The Indians know their value,” the precocious John writes in a Boston newspaper editorial, “and with fond delight, anticipate a time when liberality will place them on a footing with other nations whose merits have not been sacrificed by prejudice on oblivion’s altar.” As these hopeful words, scrawled across “talking leaves” disintegrate in the raging and complementary fires of Cherokee dissention and white greed, Wilkinson’s fine novel leaves behind a thick screen of smoke that clarifies a chapter long obscured.

“This book was among the very first that I read and became the standard by which I judged the others. An account of Cherokee history from 1776-1839, it focuses on the history of one man and his family – Major Ridge – a lesser known but important, yet controversial, individual in the history of the Cherokee people. Although it is a work of fiction, I was impressed by the author’s account of a tragic period in American history. I was even more impressed with his writing ability – eloquent use of language. The characters were well-developed and were a reflection of the era they represented.”
Lillian Turner, 2003 Spur Award Judge, Best Original Paperback

“I haven’t read prose as compelling and beautiful as David Marion Wilkinson’s applied to a western subject since I exhausted the last of Willa Cather. His words eddy like clear mountain water and his characters spring out of the ground as fully fleshed as warriors grown from dragons’ teeth. The American Western has found its first important 21st-Century voice in OBLIVION’S ALTAR.”
Loren D. Estleman, Multi-award-winning author of BLACK POWDER, WHITE SMOKE

Oblivion’s Altar is a well written book and I really enjoyed reading it. My favorite part was how you brought them to life. It was like getting to meet them which was a great experience for me. I’m glad people can read and understand why they signed the treaty and see them as real people…part of a real family. In fact, I got so attached to Major Ridge I was sad at the end even though I knew what was going to happen! Major Ridge, John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot have deserved to have their story told for such a long time…I think it was meant to be that you were the one to tell it. Great Job!”
Dorothy Doyen Ridenour, Fourth Great Granddaughter of Major Ridge (through Ridge’s youngest daughter, Sarah (Sally))

“We have not met, but you know my daughter and son-in-law, Dottie and Paul Ridenour. From Dottie and Paul, I received a copy of OBLIVION’S ALTAR. I would like to express my personal gratitude, that this excellent novel has been written about my forebears.

“Not many families have had real martyrs of conscience, who were then maligned for generations. We have had to learn patience, and maintain hope that their story would come to public attention someday. The writings of Wilkins and Ehle brought much progress, I believe, but there are many people who don’t pick up what they perceive to be a “history book.” A novel is less intimidating, and perhaps more likely to reach the common man and woman.

“When I read OBLIVION’S ALTAR, I was amazed at how well the facts were enchained with imagination, to bring forth a realistic characterization of Major Ridge. It was very much in keeping with the personality described to me by my grandfather, as he understood it from his grandmother Sarah Ridge, Major Ridge’s daughter.

“Many thanks for writing this fine novel.”
Dorothy McNeir Horner (Great-great-great granddaughter of Major Ridge)

Oblivion’s Altar is a stunning work of imagination and scholarship. The author dares turn to an oft-told tragedy, but finds an under known story whose telling enriches our knowledge and empathy about Cherokee — and American — history. Wilkinson is the most deeply emotional and yet controlled author writing about Western themes that I know, masterly with epic narrative, sensitive to character, with a keen sense of the way moments build myths. He is proof that stories ‘belong’ to all the writers and readers who care about them.”
Sandra Scofield

Oblivion’s Altar is a terrific book. The research is sprawling yet precise, the writing is always polished, the story and the characters just grow and grow. I loved the first-person insets — Jefferson and Jackson and then Charlie Blue. That last is a masterpiece in miniature. All of it’s really powerful.”
Jan Reid, author of The Bullet Meant for Me and The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock