This Labor Day weekend also happens to be the Cherokee National Holiday in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.
My great-grandmother, who died just a couple of months before I was born, was Cherokee and spoke the language (which you can hear in the intro to the site above). She spoke little English and was fond of calling my mother “cookie.” The only Cherokee I ever learned was a curse word or two. My grandmother didn’t want my mother speaking the tribal language so didn’t teach her. Once my grandmother took me to visit her aunt. For the entire visit they spoke in Cherokee. The only word I understood was my name. It was like listening to music. From the tone of their voices you could gather the sentiments. I have a sense now that maybe she wanted to teach me a bit of the language but still refrained.
Being white was so ingrained in her. I have no idea the prejudices she tolerated, the injustices she experienced. She was one of those bussed to an Indian school. She became a nurse. She married a very tall, white man. But she had a Bible in Cherokee. She had high cheekbones, beautiful salt and pepper hair and a beautiful, tan complexion (which my mother and brother were blessed with — not I). She had untold stories that I believe you could see if you looked deeply into the darkness of her eyes. She was sassy and funny, but is there a deeper sadness I sense, even if it’s been over a decade since she passed?
Her story is my mother’s story, my story. At the cellular, emotional and physiological level, we are intimately connected. And as we go this weekend to experience a celebration of culture and life, even if it’s one we don’t participate fully in, we know it is a part of our being, and I’m sure our souls will rejoice.
My mother wonders if the hospital she was born in and her grandmother’s house are still there. My mother was born by c-section and my grandmother sterilized, supposedly because of Rh incompatibility. I wonder how many stories I can absorb. I wonder what my brother will feel. I remember on the bus one time that he was crying. I asked him why. Another child was calling him “black.” Our identities are so fragile. If we were African-American, maybe it wouldn’t have been a big deal; I think the issue was that he was different. Would he have cried had he been called “red” and I explained to him that’s what inconsiderate folks called Indians?
When pregnant with my second child, I started reading “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” About a third of the way into it, I had to put it down. The images were too clear to me. My dreams were living them. I was one of the women tortured, corralled. They say in pregnancy the veil is thin, so maybe it just wasn’t the time. I’ll try again soon — to read, not to be pregnant!
I’ll share my experience next week. Today, I’m just sharing a part of my story. I’d be glad to hear yours.