Another old bit of writing, submitted mostly for the benefit of the Bay Area Cherokees. A big hug to you allÖ I was making Kanuti this morning and thought someone might enjoy this bit of scribble.
Sitting at my desk in San Francisco, I got an e-mail from a friend. Could I be in North Carolina for a poetry readingÖ next Thursday? There was a womenís studies conference. Another poet had cancelled, family reasons. She knew that it was short notice. Everyone would consider it a favor. North Carolina, the homeland of my fatherís people and Iíd never been there. After some frantic online checking of flight schedules I agreed. No one in my family had been back in over 150 years. I had already scheduled a performance for the Wednesday night. I made it through in a total daze. Couldnít tell you how it went. I was already on my way home.
I stepped straight from the stage to a car and headed to the airport. Was singled out for special search because the under wires in my archaic bra set off the alarm. I didnít care. Had to subdue my desire to laugh out loud. I was going back to Cherokee. Search me if you like, security lady, my emotions are too involved to be agitated about something so small.
I spent the trip alternately reading a book about Mary Queen of Scots and obsessing about the order of poems for my performance. Shoehorned into the one tiny seat on the plane that had been available on short notice, I shuffled papers, made notes. Was this stage fright? Iíve been a performer all my life in one capacity or another. Couldnít remember the last time Iíd had stage fright. I probed at this strange emotion. Not stage fright, I decided, giddy anticipation. San Francisco to Raleigh/Durham is a long flight and I wouldnít have wanted to be seated next to me. It was nighttime, it would be 8am there when we arrived, and I could not sit still. I rustled papers the whole way. It must have been like trying to sleep next to a 150lb-nesting hamster.
Cherokee contact with European settlers is a strange story. Most people subscribe to one of two versions. Either we were invaded by a homicidal and felonious group of Europeans who through a combination of outright lies and superior firepower, defrauded us and forced us off our lands, or we mostly died off from imported disease to which we had a lack of immunity and it was very sad. The version I was taught differs from both. As more Europeans came flooding into our areas they brought with them a sense of entitlement to our lands that not only impacted us, but also created stresses between the different flavors of them. Finally we found ourselves in the middle of a war between the French and the English.
Originally we sided with the French against the English, considering them marginally better neighbors. They were also having trouble with Native nations that we consistently had trouble with, logical allies. The French lost and so did the Cherokee. All historical evidence points to us really disliking the English, in part because; at the time many of the invited European guests in our communities were Scottish. Many Cherokee families still wear Scottish names. The Scots and the English have a tradition of not always being loving neighbors. At any rate after the French and Indian War we were forced to sign treaties with the English, which meant among other things, that we had to fight with them against the United States in the Revolutionary War. We might have done anyway, the English looked as if they might leave after awhile. The Colonists seemed to want to stay.
Each time we wound up on the losing side in one of these skirmishes, we were forced to cede land to the winner. For the Europeans the cost was lines on a map. For us the costs were hunting lands, farmlands, sacred sites and villages. The costs were story sites, stones that had been people once, the first patch of strawberries created by the Thunder boys to lure back an angry wife, the original hunters cave and thousands more. After the Revolutionary War there were major cessions. Meanwhile we were, yes, struggling with imported disease. We were, yes, dealing with pettier larceny and smaller time crooks who flooded into our lands, raped, pillaged and were generally ignored by the US government who had sworn to punish such behavior. The thing that finally caused our relocation wasnít any of this really. It wasnít even the Georgia gold rush, though that was, admittedly, a problem. We fought the war of 1812 on the side of the US under Andrew Jackson. Most records suggest that the US would not have won that war without us. He ultimately betrayed us with relocation. Most folks scream racism. I am among those who think it was a more venal evil. Despite winning our case in the Supreme Court we were moved west so that the contemporary multi-national corporations could have roads through our territories.1 My family was relocated to Oklahoma. Some of them survived the trip.
My return was far less harrowing. Bad plane food aside, lack of sleep aside; I was terribly excited. The connecting time for the flight from Raleigh/ Durham to Greenville was quick. I had to jog through the terminal past the rocking chairs, gum/mint stands and cinnamon roll vendors. Part of my mind observed that I donít know the Cherokee word for breath mint.
Small planes are loud. The stewardess barely had time to pass out water and honey pretzels, shouting her offers over the engine sound, before we were headed down again. Down to a very small airport. The shuttle to my hotel might just as well have been a cab. I was exhausted. Hadnít slept. It was light outside again. It was sort of like the daze I felt during labor. After the pain faded somewhat, there was an extreme sense of disconnect, a sense that something important was going to happen with or without my permission; ready or not I was there. On the way to the hotel I noticed trees Iíd never seen. I knew some of their names in Cherokee, but not in English. Is this what a homeland is, unmediated connections with things? Experience untranslated? I felt like I was swimming, and not just because water likes to pretend itís air in the South East.
As a technical point, my Cherokee family was originally from Northern Georgia. I consider that whole area of the South East a homeland because, and I apologize if this is a bit basic for some of you, the borders between those states were established according to a political entity foreign to my familyís perspectives. In the same way that some of my Polish relatives would now be considered Ukrainian based on their home towns, but not according to their sense of identity; Cherokee was a place that didnít have anything to do with those imposed borders and for the purposes of my pilgrimage, I didnít have to recognize the new divisions if I didnít want to. I was looking at the trees.
The hotel was in the middle of a sort of mall area; many of the familiar chain stores were visible. I wanted to go out, to find a terra incognita. I wanted to see if, in fact, I had some sort of organic connection to this place, but I was afraid that Iíd get distracted and be late for the eveningís events. I also knew I was on a knife-edge of exhaustion. When I got the hotel I checked in, went to my room and tried to take a small nap. It would be hours until the other people I knew would arrive. Mostly I rumpled bedding, watched bits of disappointing movies, and dozed off and on until my roommate wrestled the door lock open with her key card.
It rains in Oklahoma. It rains in San Francisco. Iíve been rained on in much of the United States and in significant parts of Europe. The first night I was in North Carolina it rained in a way Iíd never seen. The water was blood warm. There was no wind and it fell drafting angle straight. I knew stories about this rain. I thought they were some kind of hyperbole in service to the meaning of the story, but here it was. I was dazzled. The eveningís events were a reading and a performance of music. I, now over stimulated and over tired, developed a ringing headache and a pressing desire to be out looking at the rain. I made it through the music, which was actually great, but I knew Iíd be ill if I sat indoors any longer. I went outside and cuddled in a stairwell, dry but with a view of falling water, and told myself damp stories until the events ended and one of the musicians gave me an analgesic tablet and a glass of lemonade. After another bleary hour or so shaking hands and sucking ice cubes we returned to the hotel room and I finally got some real sleep.
The only dreams I remembered when I woke up were about splitting river cane for weaving. The images were so vivid that my fingertips stung and my wrists ached. I took a blood warm shower and thought about the rain.
Counter to all logic, having traveled 3000 miles East, I had woken up early, both by local time and by Pacific Standard Time. My reading was one of the first events of the morning. That anticipatory rush was coming back. I began to fuss with my papers again. My roommate was a woman who knows me pretty well. She took one look me, my sticky tabs in four different colors, my assortment of pens, the absurdly large pile of work I had brought to share during what was really only going to be a medium sized presentation of my writing, and shook her head. ĎLet me get a shower and we can go have breakfast.í Fifteen minutes later we were at the hotel restaurant having coffee and peering at menus. Offered there, on the menu, were eggs and grits. My whole body shivered.
I live in San Francisco. Eggs, where I live, come with a thing called Ďhome friesí. For those who havenít had them, home fries are chunks of potato in one shape or another treated with a fat of some kind, often tossed with a spice, and then fried, usually on a grill. In Noe Valley home fries are frequently cooked in olive oil and have recognizable bits of herb sticking to them, rosemary being a primary favorite. My breakfast place in the Castro tends to dice them and dust them with a paprika blend; it gives them a nice color. I used to go to a place in the Marina, where I often did workshops on Science education, they fried them in butter and dashed on what had to be season salt. Yesterday I was in the Haight and had some that did the Noe foliage route one better. There were actually twigs in my fries. I think that they were thyme stems. It was interesting, but not a personal culinary treasure. Point being, the substance on your plate next to your eggs in SF will vary, but most of the time it will be some sort of fried potato thing. I donít mind them. I like home fries, preferably without bark, but I love grits.
I am aware of two places in my town that serve grits with breakfast. I rarely find myself there. One place adds too much salt and the other canít seem to master lumpiness. I donít really even get around to cooking grits at home very often. None of the standard markets sell hominy in my area. When I asked at the health food store the clerkís lip curled like a hooked troutís. ĎThatís southern food,í she said peering at me with distrust and disdain as if she could hear faint strains of dueling banjos and feared that I would enact some terrible retribution upon her because her parents werenít cousins. I have to go to extreme lengths to have my grits in San Francisco and when I do Iíd rather make them into Kanuti.
Kanuti is Cherokee food. The details are more complicated than this, but it is a form of grits cooked with hazelnut milk and served either salty or sweet. I have seen good Kanuti make city Cherokees weep from the memories. The grits on my plate in Greenville had me very nearly in tears without the hazelnuts. In a hushed and slightly choked voice I asked for maple syrupÖ but not if it was imitation. The waiter smiled at me and brought the syrup. The grits were an affirmation. They were light and fluffy. There was no salty taste. They were perfect. Iím sure I did a small happy food dance in my seat. My breakfast partner politely ignored all of this. She is an Eastern Cherokee and was visiting home in a far more direct way. She used to live here.
Since the Cherokee removal there have been two large groupings of Cherokee people. There are smaller groups in other places but in the main there are Eastern Cherokees and Western Cherokees. The Eastern group is made up of the descendants of people who hid in the hills when the soldiers came to move us west. The Western group is descended from the folks who were moved to Oklahoma. Much has been said about both decisions. There has, historically been some rancor on either side. I state here and for the record that I am a person who does not have so much family that I want to cut people out for an argument over a century old: an argument that was the result of outside meddling to begin with. I am Western Cherokee, but I have lots of Eastern friends. One sat across the table from me while I hummed and ate my grits. She was looking me over with an evaluating eye. Eventually she said, ĎI think Iíll go first and introduce you.í I nodded, mouth full of grits. She nodded back.
After breakfast we checked in at the conference table. We were handed our purple folders full of important conference stuff including our conference pens and printed leather bookmarks. We were pinned with our nametags, which identified us as presenters. Then, since ours was in the first set of events, we consulted the conference map and headed off to read our poetry.
This sort of panel reading always looks the same. There are always narrow tables with attached skirts. There is always a pitcher of ice water sweating on a tray with glasses. When you are reading in the first set of events, the room is never actually full when the panel begins. My friend, the other poet, was introduced, made a joke and talked for a while about her work. She read some pieces of her own, some pieces written by students. She said some other amusing things, some other serious things, and then she introduced me. I donít know if this is a common thing, but I never recognize myself when Iím being introduced. I always listen to the litany of my varied writing, artistic, educational and/or parenting accomplishments as though they described someone else. I always think, ĎWow, I canít wait to hear that woman speak.í Then I realize that itís supposed to be me speaking. Oh yeahÖ seat on the panel. Time for me to talk, Iíd better stand up now. So I stood up and fussed one more time with my papers. I took a sip of ice water. I peered through my bangs at the now full room, people having filtered in while the other poet was speaking.
There was no bolt of lightning. I relaxed a little. Had I been waiting for the ghost of Andrew Jackson to forbid me to speak? I grinned to myself. Then I grinned at the audience and started my presentation. I said hi. I told them that no one from my family had been back here since removal. I read a poem. I talked about seeing things I had words for in Cherokee and what that meant to me. I read another poem. It felt a bit like learning to walk again, but gradually that frantic anticipation faded. I talked about language being a product of place. How the Cherokee language is a catalog of biota, geological phenomena, and a collection of in jokes based on a careful and intimate knowledge of this place and the stories that have been told here. I thanked whoever arranged for the rainstorm of the night before. I read for those people. At the end of my reading I asked a question. One of my names, the one I like the best, is also the name of a flower that grows in the South East. Iíd never seen one in person and I asked if anyone knew where I could find one. I donít know the name of the flower in English, so the question sparked a bit of dialog. There was a small conference at the back of the room and when everyone looked up at me some peopleís eyes were wet. Evidently my flower wasnít in bloom. I thanked them and we finished the reading. They applauded. There was that inevitable moment of after reading communications. One woman had done a beautiful pencil drawing of me that she had me sign. I was flattered. People asked about my book, which didnít come out until the following December. Another woman correctly identified my use of part of a Cherokee love song in one of my poems. We smiled at each other. I felt completely contented.
The rest of the conference was fun. Whenever nothing else was happening people came up to talk about this or that. The day I was set to fly home, one of the conference organizers offered to take me around to look at things. We went to a fishing pond. I took a rock and some dirt that I stored, folded into a conference flyer with a poem Iíd written scrawled across the blank side. We sat there, in the sun, for a bit. A bird came up and sang to us, but I knew from old stories to call her split tongue and that she was a terrible liar. She was a good singer though, so I didnít chase her off.
I flew home that day with those few relics: the dirt, which I put into a small glass bottle, the rock, my name tag from the conference, the conference pen and that printed leather bookmark. Before I got back on the plane, my host apologized about my flower. She felt bad that they couldnít supply me with that experience. It seemed important. It was all right though, unlike my relatives in the 1800s, I can go back. On the return flight to San Francisco I slept like a baby.