Tears and a Serpent

Author: Julia Coates
Author: Julia Coates

I finally made it to another meeting of the Mt. Hood Cherokees. I made a point to go today because we had guests Julia Coates and Jack Baker, both At Large Tribal Councilors. And it’s the 175th anniversary of the arrival of Cherokees in Indian Territory following the Trail of Tears.

Julia has recently had a book published, Trail of Tears. (Check out her book at Powell’s!) I wanted to meet Julia because we’ve had brief email exchanges. I also wanted to hear about the book.

Aaaannnnddd, I did want to learn a little about what’s going on in the Nation. We’ll be voting for Principal Chief in a year, and there is Great Rumbling Afoot, and I wanted to try and educate myself a little before I vote. Not that I expected to get all the information I need, out of one visit from two people, but it is good to add this extra information to what I’ve been gathering.

Most of the meeting was focused on culture and heritage, which is what our At Large group is all about. Thank the gods our group leader makes an active effort to avoid politics, and re-directs us when possible, back to learning about being Cherokee and leaving the other stuff outside the door.

Today I learned new information about the Trail of Tears, the name given to the ethnic cleansing of American Indians from the southeastern United States to the present-day Oklahoma. At the point of bayonets, the first people left. By 1839, 46,000 Indians had left their houses, their farms, their possessions, their friends, even their savings, in Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, Alabama, and other states all the way up to New England.

Cherokees accompanied other Indian tribes, up till then all of them at some stage in the process of learning the ways of the white people, attending schools, running businesses and plantations. All trying to find a way to maintain their culture, tradition, and languages, but in a way that made sense to the white colonizers.

That part I knew.

In having an intimate gathering with a woman who had studied and researched the Trail of Tears, new facts were revealed. I didn’t know, for example, that when the Indians were told that they had to give up their lands for white settlement, they took it to the Supreme Court. And Won! But President Andrew Jackson ignored the decision and kicked them out anyway.

Prior to the forced removal of Cherokees, the Army had apparently given them months of notice. The Indians were told to put their business affairs in order, to pack, and to present themselves to be penned up in stockades built just for them. I learned that it was one of the first known uses of the phrase “concentration camp.”

But the Indians were modern people and many of them educated and wealthy. And -just imagine how you would feel being told to pack up and move simply because other people wanted to build a settlement on your land- finding the whole idea preposterous, they refused to comply. While they understood that packing extra shoes and a coat and some food would be a good idea, since the Army was bound to show up any day, they also understood that making those kind of preparations would be a kind of complicity. In protest, in an inspiring display of dignity, they refused to prepare at all. Perhaps some of them held a feeble hope that soldiers would see how pathetic it was to boot a woman out into the street in a housecoat clutched by a toddler. Or how despicable it was to shoot a deaf man for not responding when he was told to move.

Apparently the obvious cruelty of enforcing the crime did not stop the soldiers from obeying orders.

After being rounded up in the concentration camps, the Indians were marched West. They walked to Oklahoma with only the clothes on their backs. They walked. The ones that didn’t die on the trip were at risk of dying from disease once they landed in Oklahoma.

The thing that struck me the most about Julia’s readings today was learning that the Indians had a warning, and yet chose to go on with their lives until the very last moment. She told of one woman who saw the soldiers coming with their rifles, and fed the chickens first. That is some kind of powerful force of will. It’s the kind of pride that takes ultimate courage. They couldn’t expect to be heroes you see. Chances were no one would ever find out and tell an individual’s story. The resistance of the people sent to internment camps in 1838 was pure, distilled integrity. A pact made within their own souls, or between a soul and it’s God. Incredible courage.

One more thing I learned (since I deal with pain by making light of it): I heard for the very first time about Uktena – a mythical Cherokee beast. It’s a dragonlike serpent with a crystal in its forehead. Since dragons are my totem, and my name is Crystal, and I’m Cherokee…I think there is no better mythical beast for me!

2 thoughts on “Tears and a Serpent

  1. Crystal, I did not know you were Cherokee and that you are active in the Nation. This story of the Trail of Tears is haunting, angering, disturbing, horrific.
    Have you read Julia Coates’ book?
    I read several books about Native Americans back in the 80s (including Bury My Heart …) but other than my book group recently reading “Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian” by Sherman Alexi, it’s been years.
    Suggestions?

  2. Laurie I am trying to educate myself about my heritage. My first step was to complete the paperwork to register with the Nation, and commit myself to learning, and maybe teaching something to Tara. I was not taught a single thing about being Cherokee while growing up, except that several relatives are quite proud of our Indian lineage. I’ve never been to a powwow, or seen a stomp dance anywhere but in a classroom. Since I studied Anthropology, I know that people pass on culture without knowing it, so my hope is that I’ve got some kind of a foundation in me.

    When I found out about the local satellite group, the Mt. Hood Cherokees, I immediately signed up and started attending meetings. It’s a good way for me to slowly absorb little bits. Pick up a word of language now and then, learn a new story about Rabbit, Snake, Otter and Bear. Learn about the kinds of crafts and arts and gardening that has significance with Cherokees. Since I’m registered, I get to vote, and I take voting very seriously, so lately I’ve been trying to learn about the candidates.

    You beat me to the punchline with a book recommendation. Sherman Alexie is one of my current favourite authors of all time! I also saw him speak recently and he’s awesome live, and you must see him if you get a chance. Otherwise, I’m not a good resource for Indian authors. But I’ll pass on a title if I come across a good one. Right now I’m going to read Julia Coates’ book.

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