The Ancestor: A Cherokee Great Grandmother – David Sparenberg

Image Note: This image is a public domain collage showing the cultural assimilation of Native Americans, dressed in European attire.
With respect and in honour …
Dates: 1868, 1877, 1905, 1912, 1913, 1917, 1919, 1924.
Comanche man, Name – George Cable; Cheyenne elder, Name – Nawat (Left Hand); Creek woman, Name Unknown; Creek woman, Name – Apuega (Woman); Creek man, Name – Lo-Cha-Ha-Jo (The Drunken Terrapin); Cherokee woman, Name – Jariuk Uklenk or Rose Hilderbrand; Cheyenne man, Name – Katiawa-Iano (Blue Hawk) or Milton Whiteman; Iroquois woman, Name – Caroline Hewitt; Choctaw man, Name – Faunceway Baptiste or Battice.

Here is the story of my Native American great grandmother, whose presence lives in me to this day. I do not know her name, the reason for which will be part of the telling. I do know that she was a full blood Eastern Cherokee woman who lived to be 93 years old. There is one primal memory of her from my earliest childhood and I will come to that. But first, a brief look at the historical displacement of the Cherokee people.

When the United States government wanted to possess the land of the Cherokee Nation and their kindred tribes in the southeastern states, the army, on the forced march named Trail of Tears, removed the people to what was then the Oklahoma Territory. Some three hundred or so families escaped the military guards and took refuge in caves in the mountains. Great Grandmother Cherokee was descended from one such family.

She married into a southern planter family outside of Augusta, Georgia. Southerners from earlier generations did not discuss interracial marriages, which were considered shameful, hushed up and locked away family secrets. Because of this taboo I was never told great grandmother’s name or if I was it is not remembered. There is a single memory of her, however, from when I was a toddler and she my sometimes babysitter.

The image I have is of a tall tawny skinned woman whose black hair, streaked silver-gray, never cut, ran from her head to her ankles and which she would stand on the farmhouse porch brushing out in the rising morning sun. It is a striking picture and apparently the brush used to groom Great Grandmother Cherokee’s hair was also used to give me a slap on the bottom whenever I tried to climb down to chase after my mother walking the family named road into town.

The image is all that I had from external sources or would ever have. By my time people were still tight lipped about the Indian woman in the background, although the Cherokee was apparently not the only family member who was Native. Once in my middle childhood, I found an old photograph in a drawer in my grandmother’s house of a handsome man with blazing eyes, most likely blue, and asked who he was. The photo was snatched from me angrily with the sharp remark, “He ran off with the Indians and married a squaw.” And that was that.

The family Great Grandmother Cherokee married into was Welsh-Irish and I can only imagine how difficult and isolated her life would have been in the Deep South after the defeat of the Confederacy in the American Civil War. But for many years I did not think of her outside of childhood.

Early in my adult years an uncanny incident happened. It was in a work situation and one day a female co-worker, not at all well known to me, asked a question. She said, “You have Native ancestry, don’t you?” I was surprised by this and replied yes but it was a couple of generations back. I then inquired as to why she asked and how she could tell. My fellow employee explained that she had worked as a teacher on a reservation for a few years and was around a lot of Native men and there were just things I did and ways I had of moving around that looked Native and provided her with clues. At that point I was both impressed and dumbfounded and decided that if a near stranger could tell something like this about me, I needed to understand it myself. That was the beginning of my learning to make my Indian ways conscious and part of my identity. I began to research and participate in the local American Indian community and cultural events.

A few years again passed, during which I came to understand my lifelong affinity and spontaneous feelings about the natural world and why it was so important to me to be out of doors, in the quiet of trees and with the creatures living in their ancient ways outside of ‘civilization’. I not only came to understand my affinity for nature during this learning time but my resistance to authority as well, although the latter could have as readily come from my three Irish bloodlines.

It was during this period that I was invited to host a video project with tribal elders, to talk to the camera for television about Native American nature prophecy. The project was part of the growing public awareness of what has now become Earth Crisis traumas and the issue of climate change.

The filming took place at Daybreak Star, the Pan Tribal Culture Centre in Seattle’s Discovery Park. Participants came from several Pacific Northwest tribes but also included Barbara Means Adams, a highly respected Lakota medicine woman who was then in graduate studies at the University of Washington. Barbara is a cousin of Russell Means who was the former leader of AIM, the American Indian Movement. Russell had been a spokesman for Lakota resistance at the site of the Wounded Knee massacre and had been shot and arrested by the FBI. Barbara Means Adams and I were friends and it was she who invited me to host the video project.

Also present at this gathering was a Pow Wow singer named Harold Belmont. Russell Means was a tall powerfully built man who made a strong impression when I once interviewed him. Harold was old at the time of our meeting, gray haired, overweight and wheelchair bound. But Harold was highly respected, even revered, not only as a singer but as a holy man. He carried a small handheld drum and when he sang you felt the energy of the Earth rising and singing through him. That energy I equate with what the Spanish poet Garcia Lorca called Duende, a mysterious dark force that is the élan vital of Earth herself and is felt as living presence whenever experienced.

I was seated next to Harold Belmont that day and when he sang a song for a young Native man who had taken his own life, a spirit traveling song, I felt the great power of the energy emanating from Harold’s body and resonating from his voice. It was a profound experience.

I am visibly a white man and even after much study and exploration I was cautionary about how I identified myself within a group of full blood Native elders. But then during a break in the filming, Harold Belmont, seated immediately on my left, turned to me and quietly said, “If you have an Indian inside you and do not let that Indian out, he will become sick and will make you sick.” These were words of true wisdom, not complex, not wordy and over-explaining but concrete and pointing to the profound reality of the Native sense of carrying ancestors over generations. I do not forget this gift from an elder who had nothing to gain, bore no racial bias and expected no fee for his wisdom but spoke to me with honesty of heart. There and then and enduringly ever after, I grasped why Harold was respected as soul-guide and holy man.

It was from that afternoon at Daybreak Star and my meeting with Harold Belmont that I completely committed to letting my Great Grandmother Cherokee live freely and in the open through my dedication to living brave and free in her honour. You see, confinement is the worst of tortures to an American Indian. This is why prison is intolerable and reservation ghettoization has proven the destruction of the Native spirit of life. That is what Harold intended by the sickness of an internally confined Indian.

Native people on this Turtle Island, as the continent was traditionally called, had no prisons or mental hospitals and the Cherokee in particular held to a sun religion where each circularly constructed village kept a fire forever burning in honour of the sun spirit. It was from the community altar fire that Cherokee women would light the fires each day in their homes to add warmth and light and prepare food for their families. There was empowerment and a democracy in bringing home the gift of the centre.

By freeing Great Grandmother Cherokee from shame and embracing her courage, strength and native intelligence, I came to embody her sacred qualities. Since receiving and accepting the wisdom of Harold Belmont, the Cherokee woman I carry around my heart lives freed of all traces of social taboo and has become woven into my life, no longer a reference in my civilized head but as a living presence in my core identity.

I too can stand out in the light and warmth of dawn sun – the Cherokee Sun – and feel at one with the love of the endangered and diminishing wildness, knowing that creation is both sublime and terrifying, that love is equally fierce and tender … but it is not ‘savage’. Not savage any more than is the red tailed hawk, who is my spirit animal and lives in the way of hawk, or the great lumbering bear, a plant doctor of the woodlands, or the soft eyed deer, instinctively educated in the sensory arts of observing and listening and who also live in the ancient ways of bear and deer.

Great Grandmother Cherokee – Osiyo (Hello) – again today I greet and honour you.

David Sparenberg is an ecosophic author, eco-poet and teacher who walks in the way of his Cherokee great grandmother. David currently has four print books published, including Earth Crisis, Warnings & Meditations on a Trauma Planet and Shaman: Discovering Vision, Path & Story. He also has four ebooks available, most recently The Fate of Poets and has nearly 40 videos available on YouTube based on published writings, including a couple of new voiceover ones. David Sparenbrg lives in the Pacific Northwest of the United States.

This article featured in Issue 44 of Indie Shaman magazine, published in April 2020.

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