Journal, Summer 2008, Walking the streets of the Cherokee

My mother is writing a book about her Cherokee heritage.  It is a love story, about a Cherokee woman who was rescued from the removal by a white man and how the two of them began a family that would eventually wind its way to me and my children.

She wants to investigate every possible Cherokee thing in North Georgia and East Tennessee.  We travel to New Echota, the last place the Cherokee lived until they went on the Trail of Tears.  I’m surprised that they had houses, and spinning wheels, and dressed, mostly, like the whites that they’d come in contact with.

She, my mother, doesn’t want to get into the grit and pain of the removal . . . that’s not what her story is about.  She just wants to tell that her heroine escaped, narrowly, and made her way to the hills to pass as a white and pass her children as white until we, in the 21st century, want to declare our Native Americanism. 

She sings a song to me as we walk the paths of New Echota.  Her father sang it to her when she was a little girl:

All I want in this creation
is a pretty little wife and a big plantation
… away down yonder in the Cherokee Nation

I’m incensed at the things I discover (my history classes didn’t cover the white man’s greed, the gold lottery, the stockades that families were placed in to die); I can see myself trekking through the hills to get away from the whites, perhaps long before they showed their true colors. I’m shamed somehow, that they took up the ways of the white man, gave up huge tracts of land, and it wasn’t enough.

The difference in the two us, my mother and myself, is again evident as we look at the houses, read about the plantations, the treaties, the lies and inhumanity of the government of the United States.  If I were to write of the Cherokees it would be with the heat and passion of my anger.  I have no inclination to simply put the removal out of my mind; pretend it didn’t happen.  It was the largest act of genocide in the history of the US.  Cherokee Blood or no, I’m horrified that my country treated my people thusly.

She tells me, my mother, that when she was growing up, no-one would admit to being Cherokee.  There was a time when the Federal Government wanted to make right what they had done to the Indians in the Cherokee Nation and were paying large sums of money to people who were on the Dawes Rolls census as Cherokee.  Many of them didn’t take reparations because they knew that the white men lied about their intentions, and they feared that if they admitted their heritage, there would be new tears. 

I wonder if I can, at 56, travel the Trail of Tears in protest.  I know it only matters to me, but I want to follow them.  To know them.  I wonder how long it will take me, and if I can afford to be away from my work that long.

I learn here on their land that I have even more Cherokee than my mother and her sisters: my father has a “full blood” in his lineage much closer to him than my mother’s.  She does, however, have Sequoyah in her family tree, and I like to think we (my mother, my daughters and I) write because there is a bit of him in all of us.  We don’t know if our Sequoyah was the Sequoyah who designed the Cherokee alphabet, but the idea that he may have been, that those genes are a part of mine, and my children’s is somehow heartening.

The Harley Obsession: Foreword

© 1999 t gregory
all rights reserved


Foreward

There were once, in this land, great nations of people the white man called Indians. Among themselves they had respected cultures and their own names. The Cherokee lived in the East and were an educated, farming people, with their own alphabet. Before they walked the Trail of Tears. The Sioux nation, a part of the larger Tetons lived in the West, beyond Missouri and to the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Each of these cultures was known as savage, when in fact they had a civilization that is still unknown to the white race. They considered it honorable to protect the helpless, aid the weak, feed the hungry. They treated their children with respect due a human being. There was no child abuse, there was not even physical punishment.

The Sioux were fierce warriors against other Indians who would take their food or occupy their land. And eventually against the white man for the same reasons. In battle, they left their mark on or about their victims as a warning to others who might think to steal from them.

Sometimes it was a Sioux arrow in the ground, or a missing scalp. And, sometimes, in a gesture of true hatred, and as a warning to his enemies, a Sioux warrior would rip the heart of a man out of his chest and offer it heavenward as thanks for his triumph.

The Harley Obsession ~ Chapter One

© 1999 t gregory
all rights reserved

There was a volunteer fire department in Laramie, with one pumper. The burning cabin was far enough out of town that no-one was worried the fire would spread. Laramie’s volunteers hadn’t had much excitement lately, though, and when the alarm bell rang, they rushed to the fire house for entertainment as much as anything else. They rode to the smoldering ruins of the cabin, in cars and pickups, behind the pumper. Wetting the cabin down for practice (there was no saving it), they would refill the tank from the river in the morning.

“Think there’s anybody in there, Jeb?” A tall man spat, then asked the fire chief.

“If there was, there ain’t’ now.”

The cabin was reduced to a blackened outline of the form it had been. Occasional rafters lay at angles from the roofline to the floor making odd geometric shapes. The stone fireplace rose from the rubble unscathed, the chimney pointing to the sky, oddly exposed in the moonlight. And the ruin.

“Think we oughta poke around in there anyway? Just to make sure? Old truck’s still parked under the tree there.”

“Who lived here, Jeb?” asked another.

Jeb ignored Tom Blake’s questions and answered the second man. “Della and that good for nothing Barnes from upriver. Had a young-un, too. Little girl, I think.”

“Think there’s bodies in there, Jeb?” Blake asked again, ghoulish in his eagerness to find carnage.

“They’re a might crisp if there are, Tom. You aimin’ to go in there pokin’ around them coals?”

“No. Thought I’d wait’ll it cools.”

“Uncle Jeb! There’s been riders here tonight!” A boy, fifteen or sixteen, broke into the circle of men, interrupting them in his excitement.

“What’s that you say, boy?”

“There’s been riders — eight or ten looks like — they took off west. One of ’em went through the woods alone, you can see where he crashed through the branches.”

“Riders? Branches? Teddy, where do you come up with this stuff, boy?” his uncle put him off.

“I’m learning to track, Uncle Jeb, and there’s been horses here tonight,” the boy insisted.

“Tonight? How would you know that?” Blake interjected, in disbelief.

“Soft dirt. Moist, holds the print. Uncle Jeb, we’ve messed up a lot of them with the pumper and all, but they tore in here and tore out. In a hurry!”

“Onliest people around here who would ride at night is the Sioux, Jeb,” one of the volunteers remarked a little shakily.

“Aw, they wouldn’t be this far afield at night . . . and on horses!” another strove to reassure the others (and himself).

“That Della, she’s from the reservation. She left with Barnes three, no four years ago.”

“I bet it was a raiding party, Uncle Jeb. I bet it was!” Teddy still seemed the only one pleased with the thought.

“Teddy, you read too much — a raiding party! This is the ’40’s. Them Indians have been peaceful 50 years or more.”

“That one rider, Uncle Jeb, he followed someone into the woods. I saw the footprints. He was riding alongside ’em. Then they disappeared. The woman’s prints. Like she was snatched up!”

“Teddy, that’s enough of that! We’re turning this over to the Sheriff. Tom, you want to dig in them ashes, you come back with Sheriff Tate. Anybody’s in there, can wait till morning.”

“Uncle Jeb. . .”

“Hush, boy! I’m goin back to town. And you’re goin home,” he cut Teddy off.

They climbed back into the odd assortment of cars and trucks and made a great commotion turning around to go back to town. The boy, Teddy, tried his best to keep them off the hoof marks he’d discovered in the half-light of the moon, to no avail. After an early morning shower even the prints of the woman and the horseman who’d chased her down were obscured by rain and falling leaves.

Teddy was back with the Sheriff when the rain cleared off the next morning, knowing his evidence was most likely gone. Tate was greatly relieved. He wanted the pension that came in another two years. The idea of a problem with the Indians now seemed an obstacle to that monthly pittance that could stand in his way forever.

Tall, thin Tom Blake was back too, even more eager in the daylight to search for bodies.

“Honestly, Tom, somebody’d think you got paid for bringing bodies in to bury.” The Sheriff waved him into the debris.

He stepped gingerly, afraid that there might still be coals even after the rain. It was a small place, one big room really: a sleeping corner, a table in front of the fireplace where the stones were still standing.

Teddy watched a moment or two and started into the cabin’s ruins behind the lanky Blake.

“You, young ‘un, stay out of the way there!” the sheriff called, but it was half-hearted and the boy knew he could proceed.

The bed was empty, he saw, picking his way through the rafters.

“Fire probably rolled right out of the fireplace and caught a rug or something. After that the place went quick.” Looking around, Blake called out, “Lookit this! A bottle of whiskey. Still got some in it! Musta been drinking himself to sleep and didn’t notice the fire.”

At the time Teddy’s eyes caught sight of a charred hand, Blake was lifting the remains of a table next to it. “Sometimes hard to distinguish remains in a fire, son,” he said, of a mind to impress Teddy. “Not a pretty sight when you find ’em either.”

He groaned with the weight of the table and when he’d moved it he looked from Teddy to what was left of Barnes slowly and incredulously.

“Table musta kept the fire offa him, ‘cept for that hand, what’s left of it.”

The boy looked at Barnes, eyes wide as saucers. “Where’d all that blood come from,” he asked, aloud and of himself. Blake gaped as the boy pulled Barnes’ shirt away from his chest, slowly at first and then with some strength as it was stiff and board-like from the bloodstains.

“Lord above, Boy!” the man gasped as they looked in a great gaping hole in the man’s chest. “Where’s his heart?”

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