Sequoyah, Inventor of the Cherokee Alphabet
I’m working on a new novel. Until this week, I would have said I was half way through with it, that I’d be done by the end of the year. After all, I have on paper great characters, Jews, African Americans, Cherokees, and a fascinating plot rollicking along to conclusion. Then this week I went on a research trip and realized I have to step back.
My husband – my most passionate publicist (sorry Laura De Silva) who pumps me up to everyone he meets – keeps telling people my new novel’s about the Trail of Tears but it’s not really. Over the last few years while I’ve written about the Southern Jewish Experience and how it intersects with the African American Experience throughout the 20th century, I’ve realized that my work has come to focus in general on American Racism, the great original sin here in the home of the brave, land of the free. But I needed fresh inspiration and so I turned to the previous century for that most primal element of American Racism, it’s treatment towards the First Nations, specifically, the Cherokee Nation during the crucible years from 1828 to 1838 which started with the Georgia gold rush and culminated in the Indian Expulsion Act and the Trail of Tears.
I’d got 40,000 words plus in. Considering my usual novel length isn’t more than the low 80s, I figured I’d got half-way through. But then this week, we took a trip to the mountains of Cherokee, North Carolina, and well, it changed the game considerably. Here’s what happened.
There’s a plethora of resources on what happened during that dark decade that expelled what’s known as the five civilized nations of native Americans on what amounted to a forced death march to their new “homes” in the wild west. The history is not hard to follow, there’s tons of it on record, and I found it great material to incorporate into a fictional realm. But I suspected there was something missing. Beyond the straight history, there’s lack out there of primary sources and a logjam of revisionist romanticism of who and what the Cherokee really were. I was looking for the former and having a hard time finding it. Then I visited Cherokee, North Carolina, home of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation in the Great Smoky Mountains.
The Museum of the Cherokee Indian there is a heart-wrenching experience. It begins with a video, brilliantly executed, retelling the creation epic of the Cherokee. There’s the water beetle and the water spider and the delivery by these most modest creatures of land and fire to humanity. By the time the story’s over and the narrator, a wise chief, tells you that these stories have been preserved by the Cherokee for hundreds of years despite the decimation of the people by whites and now, he is giving them to you, the audience, why you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved, even to tears. Then one walks the exhibits and they are stunning and moving and informative and the audience can only emerge humbled. You walk out of that place filled with respect and saddened at the sight of men in native dress on the tacky, commercial streets downtown posing for photos in front of “trading posts” with tourists for tips. Most importantly for me, I found in the museum library a primary source on Cherokee life during the era of my novel. The Payne Butrick Papers were compiled by a missionary in Cherokee country for the express purpose of identifying the Cherokee as one of the lost tribes of Jews. They record six volumes worth of Cherokee cultural history along with collected letters of Cherokee chiefs from that era. The Payne Butrick Papers were compiled between 1817 and the 1830s. Since most original Cherokee documents were lost or burned by settlers during the expulsion era, this is the best we’ve got. And I am delighted to have access to them. Since I’ve found them I’ve learned they’re essential reading for anyone studying Cherokee history. Why I couldn’t find them before underscores the abundance of fanciful books on Native Americans. For me the Payne Butrick papers were the needle in the haystack, the vein of gold hidden deep in the mountain cave.
If you are in Cherokee, NC, after the museum, you might attend an outdoor performance of Unto These Hills, an historic play performed by tribal members in an airy amphitheater worthy of Sparta. It is, let me warn you, not for the serious theater goer but perfect for the tourist who hasn’t studied Cherokee history. It’s interesting on one level, a hokey gloss on another, and ridiculous in part (Cherokees dancing at a hoe-down? Really?). Still worth going to. When we went, I was appalled at the steep stairs I had to climb up and down to my seat as I’m getting older and not too steady on my feet sometimes, especially when wearing wedgies. I cautioned said publicist husband to look out for me because if I fell down and toppled over a dozen other attendees, the injuries and lawsuits would be staggering. He said: “Well, maybe not, dear. We’re in a foreign country now. I don’t have a clue what Cherokee liability laws might be. . .”
And there you have it. Subtly, without your realizing it, when you enter Cherokee NC, you’ve entered a foreign country and the foreign country is on soil you consider American and yet it is and it’s not. Not at all. This is one of the most curious legacies of imperialism, no? And after you’ve absorbed all that, maybe you’ll recognize that that’s why that casino is down the street. And that’s why the police cars say “Cherokee Nation” on their sides.
One last thing. Every obvious Cherokee I met was uniformly polite, sweet, shy, kind of adorable. Their skin is not red but coppery, beautiful. There’s something about it that made me want to reach out and touch it, to caress a cheek or two. I’m not even gonna talk about that fantastic black hair. I thought it was a good thing I wasn’t young anymore or living in a different era or the beauty of these people could get me into a bucket of trouble.
And another thing. I didn’t see too many of them. Yet I was smack dab in the middle of Cherokee, North Carolina. What does that say? Where are they? Lost to history. Lost to decimation. Lost to genocide.
I have to add a different texture to my novel now. It might not be completed all so quickly. May the spirits of these beautiful people guide me. I mean them only glorification, compassion, truth. Amen.