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Walking on a trail on Moccasin Bend, a nice level nature-walk in an area just beyond the golf course, and I begin pondering the Cherokee inhabitants of the area from a couple centuries ago.
I ponder how peaceful it must have been to live within such quietness, interrupted by songs of birds, rather than background freeway sounds. I wonder how it would be to go out hunting daily with a group of men and for longer overnight trips. I imagine a village with the fires burning and wonder how much firewood they would collect for the winter and how they kept firewood dry. Or did they gather wood daily as needed? When I go camping, I have a plastic tarp to cover my firewood from the inevitable rains. What would they think of a plastic tarp that could keep firewood dry? My experience with wet firewood is pretty miserable, so it is natural to consider such things. When winter rains came and lingered for days how did they stay dry? But really, all humanity dealt with these things from the dawn of human history, not just the Cherokee of this land. But still, being in this space provokes contemplation of history not so far away.
When I camp and fish along the Hiwassee River there is a V shaped stone formation visible in the river that was used by Cherokee to catch fish, and I realize again that this camping area, so popular for modern folks, was the space of a thriving community, not too long ago. And I ponder the life style of those people, and their loves, and losses, and daily habits, and friendships, and the joy of eating fresh fish from the river, and how they kept their firewood dry, to cook fish.
Then as I walk, my mind drifts to Chief John Ross and the PBS documentary on his life, which I saw before coming to Tennessee, and I ponder his noble character compared with President Andrew Jackson, and ponder some more.
And I hear the word “Ooltewah” pronounced by locals as “OOL-ta-wah” and think that the Cherokee may have pronounced it, “ool-TEH-wah.” And I wonder if it matters to anyone in this modern world.
2. Going to Water, The Funeral of a Boy
“Ees, what is this place?” Banner turns full round three times. I knew he’d love it.
We drove the go-kart to get here. Well, Banner drove it—well, if you can call it that. He sped about, careening wildly to test the turning radius and nearly the roll bar as well.
Now we’re on foot in this lush, green glen where the trees grow further apart than in any other area of the wood. Sunlight filters through the branches, turning everything yellow. The river is swollen, but it rolls in smooth, gentle mounds, not in turbulent, hammering falls.
“Nana used to say that it was a place like this where King David wrote the twenty-third Psalm. You know the one? ‘The LORD is my shepherd?’”
“‘He leads me beside quiet waters.’” Banner turns around yet again. “‘He restores my soul.’”
Several stacks of large, moss-covered stones surround us. In this secluded landscape, they seem to have grown as organically as the trees, and yet there is no natural explanation for them. Banner inspects each one with his usual curiosity. He walks between them, measures the distance in steps, and finally gives his attention to me. “Burial ground?” he guesses, and he’s right.
“Cherokee. Most of the Eastern Band live in North Carolina now.”
I find the newest stack of rocks which is still over a decade old. “This is the grave of a little boy named Onacona. I know because I chanted his name about a million times during his funeral.”
“What was that like?”
“It was long. It lasted for seven days.” I search my memory for details that Banner would find intriguing and brush the tops of the tiny, white flowers that grow among the graves.
“A holy man cleansed the boy’s body right here on a blanket.” I show Banner where, beside the grave, the little boy was laid. “He used a lavender-scented oil and wrapped him in a white cloth.”
The scent of that oil is as strong in my memory as it had been in reality, and I swear it hangs in the air now, allowing me to view the event like a photo gallery.
“The trees provided a sparse canopy, as they do today. Ferns speckled the hillside and those tiny flowers—all around where the body lay.”
Before Banner can ask, I say, “No. I do not know the name of the flowers.”
“How can you not know that?” he laughs.
This has become a thing. He wants me to identify every wildflower, every bulbous mushroom, every twisting tree root.
“We slept outside, at the funeral. I only went home to eat—and only then because all the mourners fasted. Nana said it would be rude to eat in front of them. But otherwise, I joined in as if I was part of the tribe. It was beautiful and eery. Prayers and songs were offered continually, even through the dark. The moon came up through the clouds like in a movie, this moment hidden, this moment revealed. And I chanted the boy’s name for hours—all the women did. The men went off and came back with ashes drawn on their faces.
“On the seventh day, the holy man took us to the river where we filed in, as silent as could be. We were told to immerse ourselves seven times, lifting hands to the east and then to the west. It must have been a sight, tens of us rising from the water like we were rising from our graves. Can you imagine? They called it ‘going to water,’ and it was meant to release Onacona’s soul to Creator. The Cherokee have no word for religion, did you know?”
He shakes his head.
“But their spirituality is built into everything. Onacona’s family was given new clothes and jewelry made of sanctified stones from the river. And that was that. We cooked and ate.”
3. My Mama is a Cherokee Indian
Mama says she’s a Cherokee Indian, but I just don’t see
She claims that, her great grandmother was a Cherokee
woman. That would make her an eighth Indian. She could
actually live on a reservation. I’ve seen a grainy old
photograph of a woman; gray hair in braids, a long
straight nose, high cheekbones, and leathery dark skin.
But Mama looks nothing like her great grandmother.
Somehow, the generations have filtered out the straight
nose and dark hair. Momma is short with red hair and
freckles. The woman in the picture is lean and sinewy
but Mama is soft and round in places.
The woman in the picture, Mahala, looks old. Her hands
are calloused and her back bent from years of hard work.
Mama says that Mahala pulled her own plow. All of
Mahala’s babies are buried in the family cemetery near
the cow pond. She grew her own food and slaughtered
her own livestock. She faced prejudice and disdain in her
community. The rest of her Indian family was burned
alive in a barn by another part of Momma’s family.
Mahala had a hard life.
Mama says she’s a Cherokee Indian, but her life was
nothing like Mahala’s.
Mama grew up on a tobacco farm. Her mother died
when she was three. When she wasn’t in school, she
worked in the fields, prepared meals, and cared for her
eleven siblings. When she was thirteen, she was struck
by lightning. When she was fifteen her father died,
leaving her with a stepmother who threw her out at the
point of a knife.
When Mama finished high school, she and my father got
married. She was eighteen and they barely had a nickel
between them. She sewed her own wedding dress, but
never finished it because she could afford the buttons.
She gave birth to me and sat by my bedside as I struggled
to live. She raised my brother and me while my father
fought in Vietnam. She took her first airplane flight from
Birmingham to Stuttgardt, Germany alone, carrying an
infant and a toddler across two continents.
She made a home and life in a foreign country without
speaking a word of German. After the war, Mama
followed my father from job to job as he worked his way
up the corporate ladder. Boxes were packed and
unpacked, again and again. Curtains were hung. Shot
records were transferred. I never heard her object or
complain once. We lived in nice neighborhoods and went
to good schools. We learned to ride bicycles and went
skating on Saturday nights.
In 1979, our house burned down. We lost everything
and had to start over again. We moved in to my great
grandmother’s rickety old wooden four room house.
Mama got jobs sewing curtains, or shirts, or bras for
Playtex so that my brother and I could continue our lives.
She did what she had to do, but she must have wanted
more from her life. I know she had dreamed of
becoming an art teacher. A decade later, she finally
earned a teaching certificate and taught special
education. She helped hundreds of children learn to
spell and add, but she also helped them escape abuse
and neglect. She made sure each of her students had the
things they needed—from beds and food to school
clothes and new shoes. She poured her heart into
everyone of her students and mourned the ones she
Mama says she’s a Cherokee Indian, but I cannot see it.
None of the westerns I’ve watched on television have red
headed Indians. Her life was nothing like Mahala’s. She
never had to face the loss of a child, or the bias of a
community. She never pulled a plow.
But I believe her anyway.
My mama is a Cherokee Indian.
4. A Living Culture
I often see people wearing shirts that say, “You’re in America, Speak English.” Perhaps we should design a twin for this shirt that says, “ You’re in Tennessee, Speak Cherokee.” This would not be easy since I am not Cherokee and neither speak nor read the language. Still, it seems appropriate for a state that takes its name from the Cherokee village of Tenasi.
Speaking of another culture with a different language and religion puts me on shaky ground, so I will endeavor to proceed as respectfully as possible. I rely heavily on the book, Selu, Seeking the Corn Mother’s Wisdom by Cherokee/Appalachian poet and essayist Marilou Awiakta.
Awiakta was born in Knoxville and grew up in Oak Ridge, where her father worked as an accountant in the growing nuclear industry. Her first book was a poetry collection titled Abiding Appalachia: Where Atom and Mountain Meet. She now resides in Memphis and has designated the University of Tennessee as the recipient of her personal and professional papers.
Her grandfather gave her the name Awiakta which means “eye of the deer.” She tells the stories of Selu, who brought the gift of corn to the people, and of Selu’s husband, Kanati, the mighty hunter. She speaks of the chief of the deer people, Awi Usdi, Little Deer, who punishes hunters who are disrespectful when taking animals. She says that these stories are not metaphors. They are the truth.
Awiakta also speaks of Nanyehi, Nancy Ward, the beloved woman, and presents an interview with Wilma Mankiller, the first woman to serve as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. She focuses on the honored role of women in Cherokee culture. She also speaks of sacred things which I should not discuss.
Awiakta’s discussion of the Tellico Dam, also named for a Cherokee town, is perhaps the most revealing part of this book. As the dam was built on the Little Tennessee River, a small fish named the snail darter achieved fame in conservation stories. White and Cherokee landowners resisted the sale of their land to the Tennessee Valley Authority. Some of that land was later sold to real estate developers, reigniting the controversy. TVA admitted that the small amount of electricity generated by the dam is not a significant contribution to the grid.
Awiakta’s story of the Tellico dam includes all these things but focuses on Chota, a Capital and Mother Town of the Cherokee Nation before the Trail of Tears Removal. Chota and Tenasi are now under water. Awiakta considers the Tellico Dam a continuation of the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee removal, and the taking of Cherokee land.
The final unit of the book is nearly 100 pages on living with a sound mind and surviving in contemporary culture. The previous 200 pages are history and prologue.