Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Where do we go from here?

Self, (c) by R.L.McIntosh
Louis L'Amour wrote something to the effect that "a mill grinds no grain on water that is past". He was right ... to a degree. Like most quotes, there's a loose end.

Each of us has a unique genetic composition. Medically, we're sometimes surprised to find that our apparent heritage isn't as pure as we thought. Delving into family histories also can reveal some shocking developments.

In Appalachia, there are diseases specific to certain genetic backgrounds. Native American problems with eyes, something involving a Mediterranean background, and no doubt others I'm even less familiar with will crop up from time to time. Historically, the region is known only as a dumping ground for white trash, which is altogether untrue -- and proven so -- when you search for the roots of the whole forest.

The foothill region of Kentucky, where I live, has long been known as a "closed community" area. By this, it's meant that in the past, before the roads were extended and improved to increase travel (mostly thanks to coal, a precious kind of black gold, and the greed that has always followed it), there was very little travel into and out of the towns. Strangers were suspect, and if you had no one to vouch for you locally, chances would be good that no one would give you as much as the time of day. This wasn't due to the moonshine stills of the prohibition era, but to the backgrounds of the residents.

If you've never heard of the Trail of Tears, you probably won't have any idea of the depth of the problems people in that time period experienced. The larger part of the settlers in this region were Cherokee, Scots-Irish, German, and English. All of them had something to escape. A personal history (possibly criminal or simply a will to start afresh), genetic background (Native American, mostly Cherokee), or pure poverty in some cases. Most only wanted to live without persecution -- for whatever reason.

I was raised by a fairly ordinary American family, Church of Christ and Christian Church oriented, though they rarely ever attended church. It never felt right to me, when I did go; it felt constrictive, like an ill-fitting shoe. So I didn't go, and the older I got, the more positive I was that it wasn't right for me. During those years of growing up, school was just as unhappy -- I was made to fill out forms that gave me only one choice of race: White or "American Indian". But not both. When I asked about this, saying it wasn't right, that I was both, each time I was punished. "Put down White. That's what your parents would want."

My mother remembers being a small child among her cousins of similar age, playing in the floor under her great-grandmother Cynthie Baker's watchful eyes. They were taking the bright beads and ribbons from Grandmother Baker's ceremonial clothing. You see, Great-Great Grandma Baker was at least half Cherokee, if not more. She looked the part; I once painted her portrait from an old photo. I'm told that I look and act very much like her. I often wonder what that special clothing looked like. By rights it should have been preserved for future generations. Cynthie Baker sacrificed it to the eager eyes and hands of innocent children so that they, and their descendants, should survive and live free.


This is a portrait (taken from a tiny old photo scanned and enlarged via PhotoShop)

I did of my maternal-line great-great-grandmother, Cynthie Baker.

It's acrylic on canvas, 16" x 20".

My father remembered his mother's brother, a tall, slim, hawk-faced man, dark of face and skin, slipping in and staying a few days, then slipping out again. It was, Dad said, as if the man wanted to be unnoticed -- they never knew when to expect him, or to expect him to leave again. Dad was 88 years old when he died a couple of years ago, and was one of the youngest of a brood of twelve, fed heavily on wild foods, thanks to the knowing of his mother, my Mamaw Rosie.  The whole brood of Mamaw Rosie's children survived, twelve of them, which was a rare thing in those brutal, poor years. 

Thanks to my parents' mutual heritage, I can't tolerate artificial sweeteners and a wide variety of manufactured medications, among other items. I read all food labels with care, and always err on the side of caution.

Yet, after all this, I know almost nothing about the Cherokee Way. My Cherokee ancestors laid down their cultural heritage and took up another way of life, just to keep their freedoms, such as they were. That took a lot of strength, and it had to hurt in many ways, most of all any soul steeped in the life of the Nation.

Many Cherokee came to the Appalachians to pass as white and avoid the Trail of Tears, where thousands of their people were rounded up and forced to march to Oklahoma. Large numbers of them died along the way of disease, cold, and plain old cruelty stemming from racial bigotry and hate. Some left family in what is now North Carolina. Some had family who managed to escape the mess entirely, in the hills and mountains. They married into families from other places, of many colors and nationalities. The People were survivors, and they still are, whatever the total sum of their descendants' genes.

If you come to the hills and ask just about any local person if they're "part Indian" (a common term, though incorrect), they'll tell you family stories, and like as not, they'll drag out old photos. Some tintype, some of newer issue, some that someone has taken the trouble to digitally repair. Most will be of Cherokees, some of Iroquois decent, and I've even seen a few Apache (no doubt escaped from Florida, where they were shipped to die, basically) ... or something else. Seminole, Creek, and more have popped up in my own experience. The cheekbones and facial features of the people you meet will tell the tale even before the photos are brought out to show.

The stories vary in details, but in one thing these people, my people, are all alike. If you're hungry, you will be fed. If you are cold, what heat there is will be shared. If times are hard, and someone does you a favor, you will return that favor or be shut out. Sound familiar? It's tribal survival behavior.

You can laugh at our accents and speech mannerisms. You can call us ignorant hillbillies. You can insult us all you want... and then you can leave, because you'll never be happy here if you do these things.

Someone from Canada once asked me, of course without understanding my mixed heritage, if I was angry at the way the United States has treated the Natives. I replied, "I have ancestors on both sides of that fence, friend. Should I then war with myself?" She was a bit taken aback, but understood my point, I think. What was done, is done, and it can't be undone. One of my Cherokee ancestors had to have her son "claim" her. It was in the court house records here in this county... she was counted as a "woman of color". Not black, Cherokee. (Though as I understand it, the Cherokee people were among the first to accept marriage with those of African descent.) She was browner of skin than most of her contemporaries, perhaps, though her son passed as white. Therefore, she was not free.

In the cemeteries of this state are stones with no markings. Some guard the bones of peoples without letters, who could neither read nor write, but yet took proud part in making this country what it is today. Some watch over those who fought for the South in the War Between the States. (I refuse to call that the "civil war", as no war is ever civil.) And some of those stones mark the final resting places of Cherokees who wanted only to be buried in soil they freely chose, after living whatever hardworking life they were dealt by fate.

Who our ancestors were makes us, to some extent at least, who we are. The things passed down from generation to generation carry weight and wisdom that should not be spat upon. If you've ever been hungry, you'll hardly curse a gardener for having a bucket full of manure around to help the garden grow. Tomorrow's roots are in rich old soil, without which we would all surely suffer.

Yesterday's water is long past the mill. Yet the grain is ground daily, one step at a time. We're the leavening of today, always questioning, and almost always on the outside of someone's precious, familiar heritage, looking in with hungry eyes.

Home, Sweet Home, Powell County Kentucky. View from atop Furnace Mountain.

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