Keeper of Days Past
October 1842 Carroll County, Mississippi
A rooster announces a new day as the sun breaks over the eastern hills, piercing the frost-covered valley below. The light on the harvested cornfields reveals the tattered brown leaves of the cornstalks as they rustle in the autumn breeze. Sitting on the hill above the cornfields is a weathered log farmhouse, a dogtrot structure with a cedar split-shingle roof. The front porch spanning the cabin’s full length overlooks the barren dirt yard surrounded by huge oak trees marking its boundaries. In the distance, encircling the meager flat bottomland cornfields, are dense hardwood forests covering the ridges and hollows of Northwestern Mississippi.
Pacing the front porch of his home is a twenty-six-year-old farmer who stands well over six feet tall. He has a large muscular frame, and is dressed in a muslin shirt, buckskin pants and moccasins. His features reflect his dual heritage. John Thomas has dark hair and darkened bronze skin that contrasts sharply with his blue eyes. Near him on the porch, his five-year-old daughter, Caroline, sleeps soundly in a rocking chair, clutching her corncob doll. She wakes up, yawns and glances up at her father with a smile, unaware of the deep concerns hidden behind her father’s expressionless gaze.
John’s face tightens, but his eyes never reveal his inner pain as he mentally retraces his early life growing up in Eastern Tennessee. The stories of his people hold a tight grip on his soul.
“The days of greatness have long passed for the Cherokee, as the whites call the Tsalagi (Za-la-Gee),” he recalls. “I thank my ey’-doe’-dah (father) Jay-see, called Jesse by the whites. He passed these stories on to me, as I will pass them on to my children. It still pains me we were given white names to meld with this new white world that came to surround us. Tuh-huh, we have lost many of the old ways, but the fire of the ancient times forever burns in our hearts, kept alive by the keepers of days past.
“I remember the morning my Tsalagi Oo-nee-chee (Mother) Nayn-see J and Father left for Arkansas. They were joining a caravan of many other Cherokee families, now known as the Old Settlers. The white government had stolen their farms, and the white soldiers destroyed their crops, killing everyone who resisted. The Old Settlers, no longer able to feed their families, had to leave their native ground or starve. Each person was fully aware of the penalty for leaving. Should they ever return, they would be treated as traitors to their people and killed by their own kind. Going with my mother and father were my younger sister, Mary Catherine, and baby brother, Thomas.
At age ten, I was left behind to care for my aged Oo-le-see (Grand Mother), for she refused to leave her native ground. And there was my older brother, Will. Stricken with smallpox, he was healing but weak, and forbidden by the elders to go with them to the lands called Arkansas.”
John’s mind floats forward in time: “Less than a year later my grandmother passed to the Nightland. For the next few months, my brother – still weak – and I led a starving existence. We happened upon a Tsalagi family in western North Carolina that took us in. For the next year, our bellies were filled, and my brother recovered fully from the smallpox. Not wanting to be a further burden, my brother and I – both healthy by then – left our new family to make it on our own.
“With the constant influx of more whites, those were hard times for Cherokees. Will was taken in as an indentured servant at a store. Not wanting two mouths to feed, the storeowner forces me to leave. I wandered for days from place to place, living off the land.
“I remembered my father, Jay-see, talking of the Days Of Greatness and my Grandfather Isaac, who the Tsalagi called Big-Man. I was only two years old when Grandfather Isaac passed to the Nightland, so I have no memory of him. However, my father talked of him as a great Tsalagi warrior in his young days. He told us of his love of the Tsalagi people, his Tsalagi wife, children and grandchildren. He said Grandfather Isaac had never forsaken us, even though he left the Tsalagi to live as white and had many white children in his later years. I thought surely his white wife and children would take me in. After all, we did share our grandfather’s blood.
“So, I made my way to my Grandfather Isaac’s home on the West Fork of Little Pigeon River in Tennessee, now called Sevierville by the whites. I soon found my Grandfather’s white family wanted Grandfather’s Tsalagi family buried as well. They were not partial to any Indians, much less Grandfather Isaac’s Tsalagi offspring. With the exception of his white wife, Elizabeth, and Polly, her half-breed daughter, they all shunned me. They called me degrading words, treating me as nothing more than their servant. Their words cut more than any hunger. After a short stay, I could endure no more. I left, alone once more.
“Now twelve, I wandered the mountains starving. I found myself in Robertson County, Tennessee, in search of work just to eat. I arrived at a large plantation belonging to John Appleton. The only work Appleton had for a half-breed Cherokee was indentured servitude. I was starving. It was my only option.”
John’s tormented expression is broken momentarily by a smile. “I recall seeing Appleton’s daughter, Milbray, for the first time. She was about nine years old. I remember her warm smile, the first smile I had ever received from a white.”
His face grows grim once more. “I recall her Father scolding her for speaking to an Indian boy.”
His jaw tightens. “What I remember most is John Appleton beating me with his whip just for speaking to his white daughter. But mostly I remember my constant turmoil and shame as a slave under the whip of John Appleton!
“Then, the day of my freedom at age fifteen. Me and another Tsalagi boy called Gee were lazily riding along a narrow road on our way back from the gristmill to the plantation, sitting on top of the two-wheeled cart filled with ground corn. The cart was pulled by two oxen owned, like us, by Appleton.
“Suddenly, the oxen were spooked by a large rattlesnake at the edge of the road, coiled and ready to strike. The snake’s rattling made the oxen bolt, careening down the hollow and spilling the fresh-ground corn. Gee and I managed to bail from the cart just in time.
“As I pushed myself up from the dusty road, I found my face was only a foot away from the huge rattlesnake. The snake sounded his warning, but strangely did not strike. I slowly crawled backwards, keeping a sharp eye on the snake as he watched me. Once I was out of striking distance, I stood and was joined by Gee. We stood there a good while, watching the snake rattling away as we contemplated our future.
“As Cherokee, we always placed great stock in rattlesnakes and wolves, for they hold great powers. Me and Gee took the rattlesnake’s actions as a good sign, believing that the rattlesnake was sent by Yo-He-Wa, the Creator, to free us from the cart and Appleton’s whip. We thanked the snake for having delivered our freedom.
“The snake slithered away, beckoning us with his rattlers to follow. We pondered our punishment if we returned to the plantation. Knowing full well what a lashing from Appleton’s whip was like, we can’t see the bite of the snake as holding any danger. We quickly gathered up as much of the ground corn as we could carry and set off. Following the snake. We kept to the woods, living on the ground corn and what little wild foods nature provided us.
“Several weeks later we reached the Natchez Trail below Nashville. The rattlesnake led us to the campsite of Louis LeFlore. Under Yo-He-Wa’s charge, the rattlesnake had completed his task of freeing us and bringing us to safety. We bade the snake farewell, and he slithered away in silence.
“We found LeFlore was a trader with the Choctaw and had known my Grandfather Isaac Thomas in his younger years. Me and Gee stayed with Louis LeFlore, going with him down the Natchez Trail to his trading post on the Pearl River. Me and Gee remained with Louis LeFlore nearly two years, working for him at his station.
“Then came a day that changed my life once again. Louis LeFlore’s son Greenwood arrived at the station on the Pearl River. I will never forget my first meeting with Greenwood LeFlore. He was a well educated, French/Choctaw Head-Man, smartly dressed and very well spoken. Like me, he was a half-breed. He told us of the Great Dancing Rabbit Creek Treaty between the Choctaw Nation and the United States then taking place, that the Government was sending Secretary John H. Eaton and John Coffee to speak on their behalf. So in 1830 me and Gee go with Louis and Greenwood LeFlore on the journey to Dancing Rabbit Creek in Northeast Mississippi.
“When we arrived, the treaty talks were already underway. The landscape was filled with the many clans of the Choctaw Nation. They came from the west as far as Fort Adams on the Mississippi and as far East as Mobile Bay and Birmingham in Alabama.
“ I was very impressed at Greenwood’s ease and confidence leading the talks for the Choctaw, but the treaty talks did not go well. Many of the Choctaw rightfully believed Eaton and Coffee swindled them by contriving with Greenwood.
“The treaty talks over, many Choctaw thought war with the whites was the answer to stopping the impending onslaught of removal and were not pleased with Greenwood’s leadership. Greenwood knew the removal would take place with or without a war, for Andrew Jackson had deemed it so, and he would not stop until we were wiped from the earth. Many of the Choctaw turned on Greenwood, accusing him of selling out the Choctaw Nation to satisfy his own greed. I was not in agreement with the thought, and not because of my allegiance to Greenwood. I truly believe he wanted what was best for his people, and he knew he was facing an inevitable onslaught.
“ Gee stayed with Louis LeFlore and went back with him to Pearl River and I stayed with Greenwood. I remember each and every step of the long, arduous walk across to Greenwood’s home in Carroll County in Northwestern Mississippi.
“ Less than one year later, the Choctaw were the first tribe Andrew Jackson removed from their eastern homeland to the desolation of Oklahoma. Greenwood managed to secure the fewest possible number of his people to be removed to the west by hiding them out in the no-man’s land of Northwestern Mississippi. I felt accepted there, with the entire region being a refuge for Indians of all Nations escaping the ‘Great Indian Removal.’
“Just as Dragging Canoe had prophesied many years ago, the ‘Great Indian Removal’ – called the Trail of Tears by the Cherokee – was coming to pass. This was not the beginning of this genocide of First Americans; its purpose was premeditated to be their final end. To justify and hide their many years of greed and murder, the whites have written it away in their books as nothing more than a small pebble in their history under the title of ‘Manifest Destiny.’ All Native People to come will carry the scar forever. We will never forget nor forgive these murderers of our families, our women, our children and our way of life.
“ I know Greenwood LeFlore is thought of as being as evil as Lucifer by many of his own people and blamed for the removal. But I also know, each day prior to his passing to the Nightland, his conscience was haunted by the faces of the thousands of Choctaw men, women and children that he could not save. It rent his soul to see his people removed and murdered by the white Americans.
“ However, I have fond memories and will always be very thankful for the guardianship and tutelage under Greenwood LeFlore. Yet, I still could not erase my feelings and memories of my stolen moments with Milbray.”
John’s thoughts drift forward in time to his eighteenth year. “Day and night, I had one objective, to make Milbray my wife, and I told Greenwood of my desire to bring her to Mississippi. He told me that as a Cherokee, I would put myself in great danger by going back to Tennessee, and that he could no longer protect me from being captured and sent to Oklahoma or, worse, murdered. He also told me that in order to bring a white woman across the state line, I would have to post a bond with the sheriff in Carroll County. If I didn’t, I could be arrested and hanged when I returned, and Milbray would be sent back to Tennessee.
“I worked extra hard that year. I saved all the money I made, but I was short of the two hundred dollars needed for the bond. Greenwood gave me the balance, and I paid the bond.
“ I chose January to leave, because the whites move very little in what the Cherokee call ‘The Cold Month.’ On a fine horse given me by Greenwood, I started the long trip back north to Robertson County, Tennessee. It was a hard winter that year. The snow was particularly deep when I hit the hill country.
“When I reached Robertson County, my dream of marrying Milbray was soon broken. Her father answered the door, and I informed him of my intentions. He became highly incensed at the thought of his sixteen-year-old daughter marrying an Indian. My former master blocked the doorway, screaming at me. Pushing him aside, I entered the door of the house, just to catch a glimpse of her standing at the top of the stairs.
“Cursing me, he blocked the doorway and lashed out at me with his whip several times. No longer his slave, I grabbed the whip and ripped it from his soft, white hands. In a fit of anger, he pulled a pistol and raised it to shoot at me. With no other means of escape, I bailed through the parlor window, shattering the glass and landing hard on the wooden porch floor. I quickly ran to my horse and escaped into the cold night.
“Later, watching the house from the darkness, my anger grew. I will not be denied. I returned to her father’s house much later that same night, sneaking through the shattered parlor window now covered with only a quilt. With stealth, I slowly made my way upstairs to Milbray’s bedroom, slipped inside and awakened Milbray with a kiss. Smiling up at me from her warm feather bed, she agreed to marry me. She quickly dressed gathering only a few things for the trip south. Hand in hand, I smuggled Milbray down the stairs and out the shattered window of her father’s house. Once outside, I mounted up with her behind me, arms wrapped tightly around my waist, hanging on for her life. Upstairs a light appeared in her bedroom window, and her father’s cursing shattered the silence of the night air. I kicked my horse to a full run, but the snow slows our escape. Determined to become man and wife, we pushed on through the cold night, battling the snow in a valiant effort to maintain our speed. Looking back from the crest of a hill, we catch momentary glimpses of torchlights in the far distance. Her father, leading a posse, is hot on our trail.”
Suddenly, a woman’s scream breaks John’s thoughts. Then, another scream. He realizes they are coming from Milbray and runs to the door leading into the kitchen. He cracks the door open slightly, but dares not enter.
Off the kitchen is a scantily furnished bedroom. A stout Choctaw woman in her fifties is wiping Milbray’s brow. A dark-haired young woman of twenty-one, she has fair skin now even paler in childbirth. Milbray screams once more as she pushes forth the baby. As the baby cries his first breath, the smiling midwife cleans the baby and binds him tightly in a blanket before handing him to his mother. who lays the baby’s head on her bosom.
Outside on the porch, the sound of the baby crying is heard, then silence. John turns and smiles at Caroline. Together they rush through the kitchen and into the bedroom. Kneeling beside the bed, John gently takes Milbray’s delicate hand in his own callused paw. With tears of relief and joy, they share this moment quietly until the midwife takes the baby from his mother’s breast and hands him to John. Looking wide-eyed at the newborn in his strong arms, he announces, “Yo-He-Wa, The Creator! I name him for the man who fed me, healed me and educated me when this world cast me away. My son will be called Greenwood.”
Ten years later.
It is a crisp fall day on a ridge deep within the hardwood forest. A bare-chested boy, large for his age, with black hair and steel-blue eyes, draws back his bow. With every muscle in his body tensed, he readies himself to release the arrow. His father, standing behind him, whispers, “Greenwood, steady, steady.”
His heart is pounding as he takes aim at the large deer drinking at the spring in the hollow fifty feet below. Greenwood releases the arrow. With an arrow piercing its heart, the huge buck falls to the ground. Solemn, Greenwood turns, looking up at his father’s face for approval of his achievement. John smiles with overwhelming pride at his son’s accomplishment, and Greenwood returns the smile.
Several hours later, John holds the reins of a very large mule pulling the wooden work-sled he and Greenwood are riding. Lying between their feet is the field-dressed deer that Greenwood had killed earlier. As they are pulled up the steep hill to the house, they reach the crest and enter the yard.
The chickens pecking at the dirt yard scatter as John and Greenwood pull to a stop at the front steps. Greenwood’s eyes make known his turbulent thoughts, as he and John are about to retrieve the deer. Greenwood asks with trepidation [?], “Father, I know we are part white, yet treated as a different people. The whites cause me to wonder who and what I am.”
With deep concern for his son, John peers intently at Greenwood. “Only you know the questions of your spirit, and only you can find their answers.” As thunder rumbles in the distance, John looks up at the overcast sky. “You must seek with your heart, not your eyes. Go back to the woods and ask the Great Spirit to guide you. There you will find your answers.”
Greenwood is bewildered by his father’s words. John picks up Greenwood’s bow and arrows from the sled, handing them to his son, and then points to the woods they just left. “Now, go! Seek your answers, my son.”
Still puzzled, Greenwood makes his way across the barren dirt yard and down the hill, through the cornfield and towards the woods. John is cleaning the deer when Milbray steps out the door. “Where is Greenwood?” she asks.
Taking a rag from his pocket, John wipes the deer’s blood from his hands and climbs he steps. Milbray wraps her arms around his waist and rests her cheek on his chest. The proud parents stand on the porch and watch each step of Greenwood’s walk toward the woods.
At the edge of the woods, Greenwood turns to gaze at his father and mother. He raises his hand high toward the overcast sky and waves.
The dark sky rumbles constantly with thunder, and Milbray, concerned, steps forward as if to go after Greenwood. “John, I know there are many things I cannot understand about your people’s ways, but he is my son too,” she whispers. “He seeks the answers his spirit searches for,” her husband explains. “Yo-He-Wa will guide him.”
“But we are his mother and father,” Milbray says. “Why not come to us for answers?”
Holding out his bloodstained hand in hers, John says, “It is the blood. To know who he is, he must first understand the blood he is from.” John smiles, furthering Milbray’s confusion. “There are those Yo-He-Wa has walking both the earth and the spirit world that will guide him on this journey. They alone can calm his spirit and give him the knowledge of times and ancestors past.”
Greenwood, stepping from the barren cornfield into a place he knows so well, is overcome with a strange feeling. Greenwood makes his way through the gnarly terrain walking deep into the large hardwood forest where he killed the deer just hours earlier. He kneels down, touching the deer’s dried blood on the ground. Something is very different as an eerie silence fills the air.
“There are no birds,” he whispers. The usual sounds of the forest are now silent. His body tenses, and the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. With dusk approaching, the forest darkens, but he continues to be drawn ever deeper into the woods, not knowing or questioning why.
He sees the light grey smoke of a campfire coming from the other side of the steep ridge, but pauses before he makes his way up the ridge. At the top, Greenwood lies on his belly and peeks over the edge. Below him in the hollow by a spring is an old woman. Wrapped in a buffalo robe, she sits on a log, poking the fire with a long hickory stick and smiling as she gazes intently at the sparks dancing up into the air.
Greenwood carefully considers the situation, but realizes it is nothing unusual, considering all the different tribes that settled in the no-man lands of Northwestern Mississippi after The Removal. Still, he wonders who this old woman might be.
His curiosity gets the better of him, so Greenwood cautiously makes his way down the ridge. With the stealth of a wildcat, he circles around silently as he approach the back of the old woman. Unsure of possible danger, he takes an offensive position, drawing back his bow with an arrow at the ready, his bead set on the old woman’s back. His heart pounding, he is now within a few yards of her.
Without moving or looking back, she speaks: “O-si-yo Greenwood.” Never looking up from the fire, she motions him with the flick of a finger to join her. “Come, sit by the fire I have made for you.”
Jolted by her familiarity, Greenwood slowly disarms his bow. He is drawn to this stranger and creeps cautiously around to the front of the old woman. As he creeps ever closer to face her, she continues staring intently up at him. “Call me Ooh-lee-see (Grandmother),” she whispers.
Greenwood senses something is very different about this woman. He can barely speak. “O-si-yo… How do you know my name?”
“I know everyone and see everything,” she says, chuckling. “Your father has taught you well the ways of this world.”
Greenwood is somehow instantly comfortable with her, putting his bow aside and sitting on the ground across from the old woman. Although she is old in outward appearance, there is something strangely young about her. He asks with curiosity, “You know my father?”
A loving smile fills her face as she takes the smoldering stick from the fire and points it towards Greenwood’s heart. The smoke burns his eyes, but her voice is soft and inviting as she speaks in the Overhill dialect of the Cherokee. “We still talk.”
“There are questions your spirit has asked of you,” she continues. ‘Yo-He-Wa will heal your imbalance. We will talk and seek the answers!”
The old woman pauses. “ Do not be alarmed,” she reassures Greenwood. “I am the keeper of days past. I want to tell you the story of the ties that bind us to The Creator, our ancestors and The Real People. Yo-He-Wa placed The Real People upon this ground to protect the earth and maintain balance in all things.”
Greenwood impatiently asks, “Tell me of my Great Grandfather Isaac.”
“ You will learn of Isaac in time,” she replies. “To know Isaac is to understand those who touched his heart when he walked this earth, the good and the evil.” The old woman turns very serious, “You must first gain understanding. A living creature is not a single being. A living creature is only a small part of the earth as a whole. Each creature on this earth is molded into what they will become by those creatures coming in and out of their lives. In return each creature drawing one from another creates the whole of the earth.”
Greenwood sits patiently as she continues. “The first law of The Creator is balance in all things. A good nature is born unto all living creatures upon this ground. There is also an equal amount of evil. In our last days of greatness, our balance was taken from us by the intruders, the Virginians, bringing upon us the fire of war.”
“I will start there to tell you a story of our place on this earth, our people, the people they call Cherokee – the Tsa-la-gi, the Real People.”
The old woman pauses and points to the ground in front of him. “Dig a hole,” she commands with authority. Greenwood is puzzled by her strange request, but digs a hole in the black rich soil with his hands. When the hole is six inches deep, the old woman inspects it closely and nods her approval. “That is good,” she says, and then commands, “Spit in the hole!”
He looks at her with disbelief. ”Spit in the hole!” she repeats. Without further hesitation, he spits in the hole. “Now, cover the hole,” she commands. Without hesitation, Greenwood quickly obeys.
After ensuring the hole is well covered, the old woman explains, “Your spit connects your soul to the earth and ancestors passed. Close your eyes. Open your heart and mind as I sing the song of the old language to Yo-He-Wa!”
The old woman looks to the heavens with open arms, palms up and eyes closed. She commences her chant. “He yo wa ya ka ne. He te hu yu ya ka ne.” Greenwood’s eyes get heavier and heavier as the chant progresses. “He wa ta ke ya ka ne. He he wa sa se ya ka ne. He a ne tsu se ya ka ne. He yo wa he ye yo ya ka ne. He a ne he ho ya ka ne.”
Drawn into a deep trance, Greenwood’s eyes close. The old woman smiles, contemplating her words carefully as she plants the story in Greenwood’s heart.
“Your white Great-Great-Grandfather William Thomas was an orphan called ‘Dutch Boy’ by the whites of the Isle of Wight in Virginia. He did not mix well with his own people and was cast away, forced to roam the hill country in search of food and shelter. The Yundi Tsuni (Little People) looked after him, and through a dream told one of the old women of the Tsalagi Uweti Clan of him. The next morning at sunrise, the old woman rose up and went to water for her daily cleansing. Upon leaving the river, she dressed and set out to find the strange boy with white hair and clear eyes she had seen in her dream.
“After several days of searching, the old woman finally found the boy gathering berries in the woods. Although he was strange in appearance, she took pity on the ugly boy and took him in as one of her own. In his years with the old woman, William learned the tongue of the Virginia Cherokee and fit well with our people. Being a stranger, he was accepted and adopted into the Anigilohi Clan. He grew into a strong warrior with long white hair and clear eyes.
“Soon a Tsalagi woman, Ah-we’-nee, took him as her husband. They had three sons he named Jacob, John and Isaac. William gained much favor among the people as a man of honor and a fierce warrior. Because he spoke both our tongue and the white man’s tongue, the Council elected him Peace Head-Man of the town. They called him ‘White Hair.’ ”
As the old woman continues, Greenwood remains in a mesmerized trance.
“The year was 1745. These were restless times for the Virginia Tsalagi as the whites intruded deeper into Tsalagi ground. Without cause or reason, the English soldiers raided our towns. They killed our people and raped our women, taking many young men and women as slaves.”
She pauses several seconds, inspecting Greenwood’s glassy gaze. Satisfied, she continues.
“On a return trading trip from Isle of Wight, the English soldiers follow White Hair back to his town. Isaac is ten years of age when the English soldiers raid their village.
“Isaac is standing beside his mother to protect her when an Englishman bursts into their lodge and grabs her. Isaac attacks the soldier with his tomahawk, but the soldier’s sword is quicker, cutting deeply into Isaac’s face. Isaac reels back unconscious, awakened later by his mother’s screams of pain and terror as the soldier ravishes her. The soldier has his back to Isaac and cannot see the young man as he slowly reaches for his tomahawk. Clutching the weapon with both hands, he stands and buries the tomahawk in the soldier’s back, killing him.
“The sword leaves a deep scar, not only on Isaac’s face, but even deeper into his soul. After the English massacre, White Hair gathers the survivors to migrate further west, deeper into Tsalagi ground, but his older sons, Jacob and John, choose to stay in Virginia and live as white. Reluctantly, William, Ah-we’-nee and, Isaac load their belongings onto a travois and leave their town. They are followed by the last remnants of the Virginia Tsalagi.
“Months later, after constant pursuit by the English, White Hair, Ah-we’-nee, Isaac and the survivors find themselves on top of a mountain with seven springs that feed a stream cascading down the western slope. Upon their arrival, the Virginia Tsalagi begin to call their leader ‘William The Emigrant’ for leading their migration to their safe haven nestled deep into the western North Carolina Mountains. They called the town Ga-lee-kwoo-gee A-ma-ga-nu-go-guh’ or Seven Springs.”
The old woman’s eyes fill with tears, but she collects herself to continue her story.
“The year is 1749. Across the mountains in what the whites now call Tennessee, living in Chota, City of Refuge, there is a twelve-year-old girl. The girl, Nanye’Hi (NAN-YA’-HEE’ )– she who walks among the spirit people – lives with her mother, Tame Doe, and father, Five Killer, who are in their thirties. Nanye’Hi’ was guided by her mother’s brother, Peace Head-Man Attkullakulla, whom the whites call Little Carpenter. Although Little Carpenter is in his sixties, short and stout, he is a man of immense internal strength and wisdom.
“On the rocky banks of the Little Tennessee River that borders Chota, War Head-Man Oconostota (AH-KAH-NAH’-SSS-DOE-TAH) commands a group of fifty warriors, completely covered in red and black war paint. Oconostota himself stands more than six feet tall with dotted tattoos on his face and body to mark his many accomplishments. The warriors are loading five large dugout canoes with muskets, bows, arrows and other battle provisions.
“A skinny, smallpox-scarred boy of twelve, dressed in war paint and carrying his bow, emerges from the wooded trail leading from the town to the river. The warriors laugh at the boy, but Oconostota raises his arms to stop the taunting. Little Carpenter walks out of the trail and stands behind him, placing his hands on the boy’s boney shoulders. Little Carpenter speaks softly to his son in an Overhill Cherokee dialect: ‘My son, you are too young to be a warrior. Come with us and the other children we are taking to the missionaries at Seven Springs for a trade.’
“The boy spins around, defiant, pounding his bony chest with his fist. He proclaims boldly, ‘I am not a boy. I am a warrior!’ The warriors begin to taunt the boy again, but Little Carpenter raises his hand stops their laughter. They become quiet as Little Carpenter addresses his son: ‘These warriors had to prove themselves to become warriors. You too must prove yourself.’
“War Head-Man Oconostota points at the boy and calls out in a censuring tone, ‘This boy is too small. He is scarred, ugly and weak from the white man’s pox. He is no warrior!’
‘Test the boy,’ Little Carpenter tells Oconostota. ‘If he proves himself worthy, take him with you to fight the Muskogee.’ Oconostota deliberates a moment, and then nods in agreement. ‘Tuh-huh, if worthy.’
“Little Carpenter, believing the boy is too young and should not go with the warriors, looks around for a task he knows his son cannot perform. He sees there is a loaded twenty-foot-long dugout left on the bank more than ten yards away from the water’s edge. Little Carpenter tells the boy, ‘My son, you must drag the canoe to the water to prove you are worthy to be a warrior.’
“The boy doesn’t flinch at the impossible task. Laying down his bow and quiver, he puts his back to the canoe, squats down and pushes with all his might, his skinny legs shaking from the strain. The canoe does not move.
“There are chuckles from the warriors. The boy glares at the warriors’ laughter, then focuses all his strength. Trembling from head to toe, he pushes with every ounce of strength he has, but the canoe moves only a few inches. The warriors’ goading lessens. The boy strains and pushes again, this time gaining a foot. He resets again and pushes. The canoe moves two feet. He sets up again, putting his heart and soul into it. Now, instead of laughing, the warriors encourage him. The canoe starts to move, but this time he keeps his feet moving till the canoe reaches the water. Spent, the boy falls prostrate on the rocky bank, his bony chest heaving as he gasps for air.
“Oconostota takes the boy by the hand and lifts the him up. ‘You proved yourself worthy to be called a man. He is now Tsi’yu Gunsini, Dragging Canoe!’ he says, shaking his head in disbelief at the boy’s fortitude and strong spirit. ‘Now you will be given the opportunity to prove yourself as a Tsalagi warrior!’
The old woman continues on with her story: “On the day of the journey to Seven Springs town, Little Carpenter is escorting his long-time friends, Dr. Thomas Walker and Christopher Gist, the first white men to venture deep into the ‘Overhill Country.’ Little Carpenter is also accompanied by Five Killer and his daughter Nanye’Hi’(Nan-yah’-Hee’).
“The small Cherokee settlement of crude log structures is named for the seven springs cradled in linked rock cisterns that sit high on top of a wooded mountain. When the visitors arrive, Little Carpenter is greeted warmly by four Moravian missionaries dressed in all black. The missionary group includes one older man, tall and thin with a gray beard with no lip hair, a younger clean-shaven man and his Irish wife, both in their thirties, and a redheaded Irish daughter about fourteen years old. The older man is one of the original missionaries Little Carpenter had brought to the New World on his return trip from England many years earlier to teach the white man’s words to the Tsalagi.
“Standing beside the missionaries outside William’s crude lean-to log trading post are (White Hair) now called William ‘The Emigrant’ with long flowing white hair, dressed totally in buckskin. Beside him is his Tsalagi son Isaac, age thirteen, dressed in only a breechclout. He is a tall, robust boy for his age with a deep scar running down the left side of his face from above his eye to his lower jaw.
“Tsalagi are a prideful lot, and around strangers Isaac is self-conscious about his facial scar. As Nanye’Hi’ approaches Isaac, he backs away, covering the scar with his hand. To his surprise, Nanye’Hi’ steps up to him and looks up into his eyes with a tenderness he has never witnessed before. She takes his hand away from his face and passes her fingers gently over the scar, saying softly, ‘You must be a brave warrior to warrant such a scar.’
“She leads him to where the other children are playing, and while the men trade, Isaac and Nanye’Hi talk and laugh, forming a close bond. The missionaries gather the children, including the older Isaac and Nanye’Hi’, to sit on the ground in a circle. The older missionary takes her place in the center of the circle.
“The older missionary woman is fighting to keep her wild curly auburn hair concealed. Her daughter, Lidia, is a pretty girl with pinkish complexion, pudgy checks and fiery red hair. Lidia’s black bonnet is tied around her neck, dangling on her back instead of covering her hair as her mother instructed.
“Smiling, Lidia gives several of the white man’s Bibles to the children. She hands one to Nanye’Hi’ to share with Isaac. Nanye’Hi’ reaches out and touches the girl’s hair, rubbing it softly between her fingers, completely infatuated by its strangeness. The girl, unfazed by her action, smiles and speaks to her in a strong Irish brogue: “Me name be Lydia, but dey be call me Lidy! What be ya name?”
“Nanye’Hi’ doesn’t understand, but smiles back. Lidy opens the book, Nanye’Hi’s confusion is clear as she thumbs through the pages. As the lessons progress, though, she pays close attention, slowly absorbing the knowledge of the white man’s language. This is the beginning of her education, an education that would serve Nanye’Hi’ and the Tsalagi well in the years to come.”
A cold damp wind sweeps over the old Cherokee woman telling Nanye’Hi’s story. She looks skyward into the ominous clouds and proclaims, “You were always impatient.”
Pulling her blanket tight around herself, she passes the smoking stick in circles over Greenwood’s head and speaks clearly: “ As those that have walked the spirit world before and guided me to understanding, I will guide you, Greenwood.”
“Open your soul so your eyes will witness what your Great-grandfather Isaac and his people endured in their days on earth. Who we as Tsalagi were, what we as a people stood for, what we as a people have lost.”
“Once witnessed, you will never forget what you are about to receive, both the good and the evil.” In a low, mournful chant, the old woman leads Greenwood on his journey back into another place, another time.