When my eldest daughter was five years old, she told a story to her younger siblings that is false, yet absolutely true. She informed her brother and sister that her lentil-sized ear tag was Cherokee Indian…and that the rest of her was pilgrim.
While this is not correct in a biological sense, it is nevertheless true. Lauren’s 7th great-grandmother was a full blood Cherokee by the name of Nanyehi, anglicized to Nancy Ward, and her husband was Kingfisher, members of the Wolf Clan.
Norman Maclean writes at the end of his novella, A River Runs Through It, that he is haunted by waters, by the memory of those who have gone before him. He writes,
“We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman…in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise. Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”
I recently watched the movie and after the final scene, I sat silently rolling those words over and over in my mind, “I am haunted by waters.”
I love woods and streams, often hiking in the hills of Oklahoma and Arkansas with my son, in settings familiar to the Cherokee Tribe. This affinity for timber and prairie never seemed connected to my Cherokee heritage until I read about my 6th great-grandmother. Before this investigation into my Cherokee lineage, I sensed the Cherokee blood within me as too diluted to be significant, my skin too white to hear the words of my Cherokee ancestors in the river, under the rocks.
There is a scene in the movie where Brad Pitt (Paul) takes his Native American girlfriend to a speakeasy bar and is told by the bouncer, “Paul, you know the rules, we don’t allow injuns…” Watching that scene made me angry, perhaps angrier than I would have been the week before when I didn’t know about my great-grandmother, Nanyehi.
Nancy first became prominent in Cherokee affairs during a battle with the Muskogee (Creek) Indians in 1755. The Cherokee and the Muskogee had waged a war for possession of what is now northern Georgia. The Cherokee, at first, fell back, but rallied and drove the Muskogee from their cover. The defeat was so great that the Creeks left the upper portion of Georgia and the adjacent part of Alabama and never returned. Nancy had accompanied Kingfisher to the battle, lying behind a log in order to chew his bullets so that the resulting jagged edges might create more damage. Kingfisher was killed, and Nancy picked up his rifle and continued the fight. Sometime later, she was given a title, “Ghi-ga-u” translated as “Beloved Woman.” Holders of this title had a right to speak and vote at Cherokee Councils and had supreme pardoning power; both rights Nancy used through the remainder of her life.
Nanyehi became a de facto ambassador between the Cherokee and the whites. In 1781, when the Cherokee met with an American delegation led by John Sevier to discuss American settlements along the Little Pigeon River, Nancy expressed surprise that there were no women negotiators among the Americans. Sevier was equally appalled that such important work should be given to a woman. Nancy told him, “You know that women are always looked upon as nothing; but we are your mothers; you are our sons. Our cry is all for peace; let it continue. This peace must last forever. Let your women’s sons be ours; our sons be yours. Let your women hear our words.” An American observer said that her speech was very moving.
We think about the American Woman’s Suffrage Movement of the 20th century as the leading edge of woman striving for peace and respect in a paternal culture. Nanyehi was speaking out for the wellbeing of women long before that.
My wife and I were driving east on highway 412 recently, heading to Arkansas for a wedding. There is a glitzy Cherokee casino near Catoosa with a sign flashing coming events, and I saw her name jump on the sign like a fish rising from a river, Nanyehi, the Story of Nancy Ward, a Broadway style musical written by Becky Hobbs. The world is much different from the one in which Nanyehi lived, yet her story is still being told like timeless raindrops on rocks in the river.
Like Norman Maclean, I too am haunted by waters, haunted by the waters flowing through sparkling casinos, haunted by the raging waters of progress and civilization that carried the Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Seminole along a trail of tears masquerading as the promised land.
I’m Native American…but mostly pilgrim, like my daughter, born on the edge of western prairie and eastern timber in what was once called Indian Territory. My pilgrim blood mixes uneasily with my Cherokee blood…the magical waters of manifest destiny and the Indian Removal Act mingle with the blood of Nanyehi’s words to John Sevier, “Our cry is all for peace; let it continue. This peace must last forever.”
Here is a link to the musical. Performance dates are November 11 and 12, 2016.