Friday, May 25, 2018
A few nights back Ms Ché and I attended a one woman play in Santa Fe written and performed by Delanna Studi called "And So We Walked, an artist's journey along the Trail of Tears." It's an allegorical play connecting a Cherokee actress's personal journey with that of her ancestors who were force marched from their homeplaces in what's now Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee in the 1830s to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma.
I suppose for those who know little or nothing about Cherokee history, it might have been revelatory. However, Ms Ché and I attended an intensive immersion course in Cherokee history years ago. It was led by (then) Principle Chief Chad Smith and Cherokee historian Julia Coates, and we've never forgotten it.
Readers may know that Ms Ché, though born and raised in California, is Cherokee, her mother a full-blood who moved to California from Oklahoma in 1941, and truthfully her mother never looked back. She and her sister left Oklahoma voluntarily -- perhaps even eagerly. They were not part of the forced urbanization of Indians then fashionable with in the US Government, but chose to set out on their own for their own reasons.
What happened to the Cherokee people in the 1830s -- along with the Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, and Seminoles -- however, was something of a different order altogether, nothing less than ethnic cleansing on a massive scale, all so the Georgia crackers and their ilk could take the Indians' land and homes and farms and cattle without the fuss of Indian resistance. Just round up the savages, seize their property and send them westward, "Bye bye!" It worked, too, for there was little or nothing the Indians could do once the President, Mr. Jackson, refused to honor the Supreme Court decision on the Indians' behalf.
He said, in justification for his refusal, that if he had enforced the ruling, it would have been worse for the Indians, for the crackers probably would have risen up and massacred them all. Given the spirit of the times, that's quite possibly true.
Our playwright/actress, Ms. Studi, was born and raised in Liberty, Oklahoma, but like so many before and since she was restless and she wanted something beyond the confines of the rather rigid -- and racist -- Oklahoma society in the "14 Counties" in Northeast Oklahoma designated the "Cherokee Nation."
Many people may not know that the Cherokee have no geographical reservation, nor do most of the other tribes in the former Indian Territory. The Osage are one of the only tribes in Oklahoma who have an autonomous reservation. Cherokees and most of the rest of the tribes in Oklahoma lost their communal/tribal lands and sovereignty over those lands during the period of allotment in the early 20th century. Allotment meant the extinction of tribal government and sovereignty over territory. For a time, the Cherokee Nation was functionally extinct as well, though some of its previous attributes and the institution of Chief were maintained. The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma was officially reconstituted only in 1975. There are two other Cherokee tribal associations, sometimes referred to as "nations," the Eastern Band in North Carolina, and the Keetoowah Band in Oklahoma.
The Eastern Band is composed of descendants of Cherokees who "didn't walk" during the Indian removals of the 1830s. Many hid out in the hills or escaped from groups being forced West. Some were actually allowed to stay in their ancestral territory as Anglos moved in. Despite the removals, there are still quite a few Indians in much of the former Cherokee territory in the Southeast.
In the play, the actress who grew up in Oklahoma with her full blood Cherokee father and her German/Irish mother seeks to reclaim her Cherokee people's heritage and their roots in their former territory. She will take a journey with her father to North Carolina and return to Oklahoma along the Northern Route of the Trail of Tears, filming and interviewing Indians she meets along the way.
She falls in love with an Indian, "Steve," who jilts her.
She returns to Oklahoma with a terrible sense of loss on the one hand and a box of hope on the other.
And it takes forever.
The play is about 45 minutes longer than it needs to be. Two and a half hours is way too long for a one person show, sorry. I was getting very antsy as the play would not wrap up. I think I was not the only one. In fact, I know I was not the only one.
Structurally, "And So We Walked" is three separate plays woven together -- the story of the actress and her heritage project, the story of the actress and "Steve," and the stories of her ancient ancestors that formed part of her dreams and served to both spur her on her quest and made it as difficult for her as possible.
Each of these stories could be and probably should be a stand-alone forming a kind of trilogy.
But as it is, the piece is not just too long but it's confused/confusing as well. While there are definite attempts to clarify elements, and the performance was mostly fine, some of it never does make sense or the sense it makes appears to belong somewhere else.
As allegory it may work better than history. The basic story is that of the actress trying to find herself through learning about and being in the places where her ancestors once lived. But her journey is an allegory for the journey of the Cherokee people removed from their ancestral homes to Oklahoma under the guns of the US Army and the cracker militias of the day. The history of what happened and why is... dense... to say the least, and it is filled with what amount to legal arguments rather than human interest stories. The people involved, apart from the contending Rosses and Ridges, have never been given their due.
Like the actress, Ms. Ché did not grow up hearing of Cherokee removal on the Trail of Tears, even though it had happened to her mother's grandparents. They didn't talk about it. Over the years, of course, Ms. Ché and the actress had learned about it from books and movies, and in Ms Ché's case the Cherokee Nation history course, but the reality of it hardly resonated. The truth, yes, but not the reality.
The actress chose to re-trace Cherokee Removal from North Carolina, but Ms Ché has taken a somewhat different path. She's been to Nashville and its environs a number of times, for example, and has visited Andrew Jackson's plantation home "The Hermitage." The actress also made pilgrimage to The Hermitage -- and I wouldn't be surprised if she spit on Old Hickory's grave.
Ms Ché's reaction was quite different. She said she got a much better -- and surprisingly more sympathetic -- picture of what Jackson was doing than the standard story of his perfidy toward the Indians. To her, it was much more complex than good v evil. Jackson faced a dilemma, partly of his own making, and his way out was to enable rather than resist the removal of the tribes to someplace he believed they would be safe.
It wasn't because he loved or hated the Indians so much. It had more to do with his frustration at white people's tendencies to get ornery, greedy, and wild.
Ultimately, most of the Indians were removed from the Southeast; and almost by a miracle they were able to re-establish themselves in their new homes in what's now Oklahoma where many of their descendants still are.
But many, many have gone elsewhere, Cherokees especially.
Ms. Ché says that she found a remarkable affinity to the land and landscape around Nashville -- not to the city itself -- and she sensed that that's probably where her mother's ancestors had lived before they were removed to Oklahoma. She never had a chance to ask her mother, though. And even if she did, her mother might not have known where her grandparents had lived before they moved (or were moved) to Indian Territory.
I think one misconception about Indians that white people ("Wypipo") have is that they "always" lived in a certain ancestral place, even the nomadic tribes of the Plains, and it was the whites who forced them somewhere else against their will. There is truth of course in this story, but the "always"-ness of whatever their ancestral home place is largely or partially fabricated. Indians moved around well before the advent of Wypipo on the North and South American continents. They weren't bound to a single home place forever and ever, amen. Tribes were distinct but not necessarily exclusive, and there was much interconnection and interaction between tribes.
The Cherokee are thought by scholars to have originated among the Iroquoian peoples of the Great Lakes and separated from them some three or four thousand years ago. Cherokee stories themselves suggest something more complicated. They suggest that Cherokee are a fusion tribe made up of travelers from the North (ie: the Iroquoian), but also from the Caribbean, and from South America. There may be other indigenous peoples who joined the Cherokee over time. They did not have a single home place, but chose a number of distinct -- and scattered -- locations around the Southeast, and they would move from them when they wanted or needed to.
Indians in general were not particularly stay-put peoples, and Cherokee were no exception. It is more a white-folk conceit that Indians "always" occupied a particular tribal territory that they were forcibly ejected from by whites. Not necessarily so at all.
In the case of the Indian Removal of the 1830s, yes, Cherokee were forced out of their homes, and many resented it. Some resisted. But in fact, Cherokees had been moving west since the 1810s at least, if not earlier, and they had established homes in Arkansas among other places long before the Removals. There were colonies of Cherokee in Texas in the 1820s, others were scattered in Northern Mexico, and so on. "Moving" was not necessarily a bad thing in Cherokee culture and life.
Whether the Cherokee had been living in the Southeastern area for "thousands of years" -- our actress said 12,000 -- is unknown. They may have been, but maybe not. There is some evidence of "proto-Cherokee" in the Appalachian region going back at least 3,000 years, but the evidence seems to be more ambiguous in the Georgia/North Carolina/Tennessee triangle that is asserted to be the ancestral Cherokee territory. Maybe it is, maybe not.
That there are still Cherokee peoples there, however, is important, and those are the people our actress re-connected with on her journey.
As she says in the play, "My God, this place is full of Indians!" Indeed.
That's what Ms Ché noted about New Mexico on our first trip 35 years ago. Indians were everywhere.
And some of them are Cherokee.
Cherokee are everywhere.
The actress had to cut short her journey of discovery to do a play in New York. And so it goes. Cherokee are everywhere and they do whatever they can or choose to do. Some, yes, are in the Cherokees' ancestral places, but many are not.
One thing Ms. Ché has noted over the years is that Cherokee relationships are very complicated and among the full- and half-bloods, they're all pretty closely related.
Thus a half-blood like our actress is probably a cousin of some sort to Ms Ché, as she's found so many full and half-blood Cherokee ultimately are.
Ms Ché pretty much knows her roots. I'm still learning about mine. Our actress was on a journey to discover a deeper understanding of the people and places her ancestors came from in order for her to feel... connected?
It's a journey many of us take -- Indians included -- but many Americans don't care-- Indians included.
I can't say. It's an individual matter I think. But what do I know? Not much!