This story comes in two formats:
I have always been fascinated with Native Americans: when I was a child I read about them, as a teacher I did extensive classroom projects about them, and as an adult I worked as a summer missionary with them.
When I started with one fictional white girl, I never thought I'd end up in such awe of the tenacious resiliency of the eastern Cherokees. The facts I uncovered in my research could not have been conceived by even the most vivid of imaginations. In the end, I was humbled to have had the privilege of being able to use this magnificent people's history to help tell my story.
She is Elle Graves. She is 14.
She is a captive. She is
alone. She is frightened. She is no better than a slave. But she is not a red savage. Her story is wrapped within the historical
facts of the Cherokee Nation in the early 19th century at a time when they were
at their best and ultimately driven to their worst.
Elle experiences the worst of hatred and the best of love as she travels down her life path and strives to reconcile the two worlds that she knows; her white one that she can never escape and the red one that she has chosen to embrace.
Elle discovers that family has nothing to do with blood. She learns that a life well lived involves difficult choices that transform you, making you not red, not white, but more closely pink. As she travels her life journey, which involves her head, her heart, and most importantly, her soul, she finds out that she was always a powerful woman even before she knew it.
Her name is Bear. She is happy here in the Indian village she
has chosen to call home even though to look at her you would see that she has
white skin. At 15, she is the mate of
Bright Feather and the people of The Maple Forest are her family. All she loves and holds dear are in this
special garden walled around.
This is the story of a
captive white girl named Elle Graves who transforms into a powerful Indian
woman, mate, and mother. The book
encompasses a period in the 19th century during which the Cherokee achieved
However, dark struggles
are looming, threatening all the things that she treasures. The greatest of all threats comes from the
white world, a place that Bear was born into but chooses to reject. Worst of all, could her precious garden
walled around be in greater danger simply because of the choices she has made
She is Bear, the mate of Bright
Feather. She has matured from a
frightened, captive, white girl to a mate, mother, and perhaps most
importantly, Powerful Indian Woman. She
is eighteen years old.
Wrapped within the historical facts of
the Cherokee Nation during the early 19th century, we watch The Nation struggle
inside and outside its borders. During
this period, Andrew Jackson becomes president and under this presidency we see
their forced migration to land west of the Mississippi and the tragic Trail of
Tears in 1839. We see deprivation and
deception, broken promises and sorrow.
But we also see determination, hope, faith and honesty.
As the white world presses in on Bear’s precious garden walled around and all those she holds dear, she must fight to be able to call herself a survivor. For her ability to walk in both the white and the red world might be the best weapon they have to save them all.
Every historical fiction novel has a little bit of fact and a lot a bit of fiction. For me as a reader I always have a strong curiosity as to which is which. Believe it or not, I had close to seventy pages typed of the story of the fictional Elle Graves who becomes known as Bear before I knew who, what, where, or even when she was captured. Not until she began to understand the language and talk with Otter did I finally place her in history. I knew I wanted only three things: that she be captured by a tribe that was matrilineal (all family heritage is traced through the woman rather than patrilineal like we are in our society), that she be somewhere on the east coast of the United States - an area I was most familiar with, and that the story have a happy ending. Little did I know how difficult that would prove to be.
The history of the Native American Indians is about as bleak a story as you’d care to read. Starting with DeSoto’s arrival in 1540 and following up through the arrival of the English, Spanish and French, by the early 1700’s, it is estimated that nearly half the Native American population had died from small pox and other “white men” diseases and vices (slavery, greed, alcoholism…). Whole tribes simply ceased to exist. Add in the French and Indian War (1754-1761), the Revolutionary War (1776-1783), the War of 1812 (1812-1816) including the fierce battle between the Upper Creeks also known as the Red Sticks and the Lower Creeks, who joined with the Cherokees, and then General Andrew Jackson and the Civil War (1861-1865), what’s an author to do?
The Cherokees called themselves The Principal People and from the moment I read Chief Ostenaco’s documented quote, “Where are your women?” spoken to British representatives who had come to negotiate with him back in the early 1700’s, I knew I’d found my tribe.[i] By the early 1800’s, the Cherokee Nation was a stellar example of success, with a population of approximately 17,000 men, women, and children and land boundaries encompassing the north eastern corner of Alabama, north western corner of Georgia, a small western tip of North Carolina and a small eastern tip of Tennessee. In 1820, the Old Nation Cherokees reorganized the tribal system and adopted a republican form of government that was modeled after the United States Government: they had a national council consisting of an upper and lower house, a council president, thirty two representatives who were elected by the people, laws, a judicial system, a superior court, a Cherokee Light Horse militia, and an established capital, New Echota, Georgia. They even collected taxes.[ii] They developed a written language by 1821 invented by an Indian man who went by the name of Sequoyah (“Pig’s Foot”) or George Gist, wrote their own constitution and even published their own bilingual newspaper called The Cherokee Phoenix, with the first issue dated February, 1828, and Elias Boudinot as the original editor. The Cherokees became successful in business, politics and life in general and it was reported that a vast majority of the Cherokee people were literate as well.
The story of the Cherokee Nation versus the United States of America is one no author could make up. It has murder, deception, intrigue, betrayal, infighting, and assassinations. And it is a tragic example of a people who began to fight amongst itself and in some cases became their own worst enemies. During the 1820’s, as the Cherokee nation shifted from the Old Way matrilineal structure of family to the newly adopted patrilineal structure of the whites, a number of significant figures were produced that would greatly influence the fate of the Cherokee Nation: John Ross, Major Ridge, his schooled son John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot, among others. These men “were men of intellect and ability who could see into and debate issues on a level with the best of minds.”[iii] The unfortunate part of the story is that they did not agree with each other on the best course for the Cherokee Nation, causing it to eventually crumble in on itself.
The divisions within its own ranks of leadership, coupled with the pressures exerted on the Nation by determined state governments, most notably being the state of Georgia, who was a fierce opponent of Cherokee interests, and the pressure of their greatest foe, the United State’s own President Andrew Jackson, who “skirted U.S. laws and manipulated a fallacious treaty against the Cherokees”[iv] forced the Cherokee Nation into its darkest hour. In the end, the Cherokees were no match for the greed and might of the United States and her people.
Georgia welcomed the election of hard nosed Andrew Jackson and did, shortly after his election, pass a series of laws that stole the Cherokee’s rights, gold, land, and anything else promised in past treaties. Brave Cherokee missionaries, who were currently living in Cherokee country when Georgia passed these laws, refused to swear their allegiance to the state and were indeed imprisoned. In particular, Dr. Samuel A. Worcester and Elizur Butler, were arrested, put in prison garb and assigned to hard labor with criminals.[v] Tried and convicted, on appeal they won their case when the Supreme Court ruled that the Cherokee nation was independent and all dealings with them fell under federal jurisdiction. However, the ruling was ignored by then Governor Gilmer of Georgia and President Andrew Jackson and the men were held in prison for almost four years. [vi]
There is a fascinating paper trail that can be followed and is available ron the Internet. Every Indian treaty ever written is available at the Okalahoma State University Library, Bureau of Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties. You can read the promises made, see the names of those who wrote their signature or mark, and you can feel the frustration the Indian leaders must have felt as they signed treaty after treaty after treaty and simply lost more and more land. Andrew Jackson proposed the Indian Removal Act in May of 1830. His First Annual Message to Congress dated December 8, 1830, is chilling in its false concern and flowery words of reassurance and goodwill. When he speaks of “separating the Indians from immediate contact with the settlements of whites; freeing them from the power of the States; enabling them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions, retarding the progress of decay which is lessening their numbers and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community”[vii], I could almost be like Bear and vomit. Surely his quote, “Build a fire under them. When it gets hot enough, they’ll move,”[viii] is a much more honest picture of his true sentiment on the subject!
Major General Winfield Scott, placed in charge of the entire removal process by new President Martin Van Buren in 1837, is given some seven thousand army and state troops and ordered to remove the Cherokees by the treaty deadline of May of 1838. While publicly he told his soldiers to use “every possible kindness” in carrying out the task, it became “an orgy of nefarious behavior by the army.”[ix] While the public press of the day was virtually silent, personal journals and letters of missionaries and even brave army officers tell a far sinister tale.
Major William M. Davis, on March 5,1836, wrote to then Secretary of War Lewis Cass, “that paper containing the articles entered into at New Echota, in December last, called a treaty, is no treaty at all, because is was not sanctioned by the great body of the Cherokee people, and made without their consent or participation in it, pro or con; and I here solemnly declare to you, without hesitation, that, upon a reference of this treaty to the Cherokee people, it would be instantly rejected by more than nine-tenths of them.”[x]
During the removal process, there was indeed such a severe drought that many of the rivers were too low for boat travel.[xi] I despaired when I read the history of the Trail of Tears, which departed with its first group of wagons on October 1, 1838, when sixteen thousand men, women and children of the Cherokee tribe were forcibly removed west of the Mississippi. Conservative estimates list the death toll at over four thousand. While the documents of the Indian leaders of the times are heartbreaking, it was the quotes from actual journals of missionaries, such as Evan Jones who wrote on June 16, 1838, that struck a cord with me, “The Cherokees are nearly all prisoners. They have been dragged from their houses, and encamped at the forts and military posts, all over the Cherokee nation. In Georgia, especially, multitudes were allowed no time to take anything with them, except the clothes they had on. Well-furnished houses were left prey to plunderers, who, like hungry wolves, follow in the trail of the captors. These wretches rifle in the houses and strip the helpless, unoffending owners of all they have on earth.”[xii]
Another missionary, Daniel S. Butrick wrote of a deaf and dumb man who was shot and killed when he failed to obey a soldier’s command; of fathers seized away from their homes and not permitted to return to their wives and children; of mothers dragged away leaving behind children who were still hiding in fear in the forest; and of virtually all the Cherokees being forced to leave behind all of their worldly possessions – clothes, cattle, horses, furniture, bedding, pots and pans – everything except the clothing they wore. Butrick wrote in his journal on May 31, “A little before sunset a company of about two hundred Cherokees were driven into our camp. The day had been rainy, and of course all, men, women, and children, were dripping wet, with no change of clothing, and scarcely a blanket fit to cover them. Mothers brought their dear little babes to our fire, and stripped off their only covering to dry, their little lips, blue and trembling with cold.[xiii]
The history of the Western Cherokees versus the Eastern Cherokees divides permanently with the completion of the Great Removal of 1838-1839. The census taken in 1835 on the eve of the Old Nation Cherokee’s removal west gave a total population of 16, 542. Nearly half the females were under the age of sixteen and half the males were under the age of eighteen and within the tribe were two hundred and one intermarried whites.[xiv] John Ross continued to be a powerful advocating force for the Western Cherokee his entire life and signed the Treaty of 1866 on July 19th, just two weeks before he died on August 1st. As for Major Ridge, John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot, they were brutally executed by a never identified chosen group of men for the part they played in the New Echota Treaty and the removal of the Cherokees west of the Mississippi. It is doubted that John Ross ever knew of the secret meeting held on June 21, 1835, in which twelve names were drawn and execution squads were sent to carry out the old Cherokee clan “law of blood”.[xv]
Missionary Samuel Worcester, after his release, did travel immediately to Oklahoma with his wife and become a part of the Western Cherokees. It is largely through his endeavors that the Cherokee translations of the Bible, as well as hymnbooks, almanacs and other printed documents were made available. By 1851, there was both the Cherokee Male Seminary and the Cherokee Female Seminary, two large brick and stone buildings that concentrated on occupational skills, formal learning, cultural advancement, and the classic arts. The Cherokee Nation steadily rose like a phoenix from the ashes and once again established themselves as the most advanced Indian tribe in America.[xvi]
As I researched through all of this sorry history, I felt truly greatly discouraged and seriously doubted whether my “happy ending” goal could be accomplished. At one point in my frustrations to find a safe place in history for Bear and those I planned to have her love and care about, my husband said, “Just make it all up why don’t you?!” But in the end, it was my decision that a good historical fiction novel could not twist the truth of things so much that the reader comes out misinformed. And then I found the name William Holland Thomas and I knew I had found a place for Bear to be.
William Holland Thomas, was adopted by a chief named Drowning Bear or Yonaguska, if you’re more inclined toward the Cherokee. I found at least one reference that puzzled over Thomas’ insistence of calling himself an orphan, despite the fact that his mother lived on family property and was a “continual influence”.[xvii] He was a trader, he was a self taught lawyer, he was a politician serving in the North Carolina Senate from 1848-1861, he was the chief of the Eastern Cherokees, from 1839-1867. The Civil War, in which he and his own battalion of Cherokee braves fought for the Confederate side, sapped him of his money and his sanity. Eventually, creditors foreclosed on his property, attempting to sell all of his land holdings to settle his debts. Despite insane ravings in and out of court and arbitration, he remained steadfastly committed and coherent on one point: the land belonged to the Cherokees. He did marry and have three children (two boys and a girl), and he did, unfortunately, die in the Dorothea Dix Hospital insane at the age of about 92. He truly was the savior of the Eastern Cherokee Nation.
This small band of Cherokees that William Holland Thomas was adopted into, did take the option for citizenship. The Treaty of 1819 lists the names of those Cherokees who made what must have been a most difficult decision to sever their connections with the Cherokee Nation and choose the frightening path of citizenship with the United States. I think of the confidence they had to have had in Thomas to make such a decision and the weight of the responsibility he carried on his shoulders as the result of it. This area became known as the Qualla Boundary, named after an old woman named “Polly” (“Qualla” was the best they could pronounce “Polly”) and who was well thought of in the village.
The story of Charly, or Tsali, as the Cherokees called him, is wreathed in legend and actual facts are scant. Depending on who you are inclined to speak to, Cherokee or white, Tsali was either a murdering fugitive of justice or he was a hero who sacrificed his life for the assured security of his family and that of the Eastern Cherokees. The facts I found that both sides agreed on were that Tsali was a Cherokee, who killed a number of soldiers in the struggles during the great removal time, that William Holland Thomas assisted in Tsali’s capture thereby securing permission for the Eastern Band of Cherokees to stay in Western North Carolina, and that Tsali was executed by a Cherokee firing squad. The Cherokee perform a reenactment of Tsali’s story called Unto These Hills at the Oconaluftee Indian Village near Bryson, North Carolina for a major part of each year.
Situated by the Oconaluftee River, (from the Cherokee work egwanul’ti meaning “by the river”), the Qualla Boundary, Indiantown, the Oconaluftee Indians or the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation were described by an author who visited them in 1848. “About three-fourths of the entire population can read in their own language, and though the majority of them understand English, a very few can speak the language. They practice, to a considerable extent, the science of agriculture, and have acquired such a knowledge of the mechanic arts as answers them for all ordinary purposes, for they manufacture their own clothing, their own ploughs, and other farm utensils, their own axes, and even their own guns.
“Their women are no longer treated as slaves, but as equals; the men labor in the fields and their views are devoted entirely to household employment. They keep the same domestic animals that are kept by their white neighbors, and cultivate all the common grains of the country. They are probably as temperate as any other class of people on the face of the earth, honest in their business intercourse, moral in their thoughts, words, and deeds, and distinguished for their faithfulness in performing the duties of religion.
“They are chiefly Methodists and Baptists, and have regularly ordained ministers, who preach to them on every Sabbath, and they have also abandoned many of their more senseless superstitions. They have their own court and try their criminals themselves. They keep in order the public roads leading through their settlement. By a law of the state they have the right to vote, but seldom exercise that right, as they do not like the idea of being identified with any of the political parties. Except on festive days, they dress after the manner of the white man, but far more picturesquely. The live in small log houses of their own construction, and have everything they need or desire in the way of food.
“They are in fact, the happiest community that I have yet met within this southern country.”[xviii]
The Cherokee who embrace the Old Way do not focus on time, wealth, or power. In fact, their language makes no reference to the future or the past, but just focuses on the present, today.[xix] As you read the history of the Eastern Cherokee, it is a stunning example of a people who were committed to surviving at all costs. They bent when the wind was too strong, but they never broke. They looked carefully into the future and recognized their strengths and their weaknesses and consequently made wise choices for survival that others could or would not see. I see no conflict between the Old Way of the Cherokee and choices that were made back in the early 1800’s by the Qualla Indians, who became the Eastern Band of the Cherokees, so that their Old Way of life could be preserved.
Today, the Eastern Band of the Cherokees, sits on fifty-six thousand acres of land in western North Carolina and has a population of over seven thousand individuals.[xx] In the end, the land was placed in federal trust, communally owned by the Eastern Band of the Cherokees. Unlike the Oklahoma Cherokees, whose tribal government was dissolved by the Dawes Act and Jerome Commission, the Eastern Band of the Cherokees still continue their own legislative form of government today. They elect a principal chief, who serves a four-year term and presides over a legislature compromising two representatives elected from each of five town districts.[xxi] Their principal source of revenue is tourism, but there is still significant investment in other businesses both large and small. A wonderful book I stumbled on, Footsteps of the Cherokees, A Guide To The Eastern Homelands of the Cherokee Nation, helped me - as I sat at my computer - feel what it must have felt like for Bear as she tromped through the woods and experienced the beauty of the North Carolina forest wilderness. At last I found a safe place to put her that could have a happy ending.
They are The Cherokee, The Principal People, the Ani-Yun-wiya.
You can't judge a man by his color
[i] The Cherokees, By Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, Holiday House, New York, 1996, p. 22
[ii] The Cherokees and Their Chiefs, by Stanley W. Hoig, University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, Arkansas, 1998, p. 121
[iii] The Cherokees and Their Chiefs, by Stanley W. Hoig, University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, Arkansas, 1998, p. 124
[iv] The Cherokees and Their Chiefs, by Stanley W. Hoig, University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, Arkansas, 1998, p. 145
[v] The Cherokees and Their Chiefs, by Stanley W. Hoig, University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, Arkansas, 1998, p. 148
[vi] About North Georgia, Internet site: http://ngeorgia.com/people/worcester.html
[vii] President Andrew Jackson’s Case for The Removal Act, First Annual Message to Congress, 8th December, 1830.
[viii] President Andrew Jackson, in 1829 The Cherokees, By Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, Holiday House, New York, 1996, p. 22
[ix] The Cherokees and Their Chiefs, by Stanley W. Hoig, University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, Arkansas, 1998, p.166-167
[x] The Cherokees and Their Chiefs, by Stanley W. Hoig, University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, Arkansas, 1998, p. 167, quoted from the Baptist Missionary Magazine 18 (September 1838), p. 155, quoted from the Daily National Intelligencer, May 22, 1838.
[xi] The Cherokees and Their Chiefs, by Stanley W. Hoig, University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, Arkansas, 1998, p. 167, quoted from the Baptist Missionary Magazine 18 (September 1838): 169
[xii] The Cherokees and Their Chiefs, by Stanley W. Hoig, University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, Arkansas, 1998, p. 167, quoted from the Baptist Missionary Magazine 18 (September 1838): 236
[xiii] The Cherokees and Their Chiefs, by Stanley W. Hoig, University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, Arkansas, 1998, p. 167, quoted from The Butrick Journal, Oklahoma Historical Society, Archives and Manuscripts Division
[xiv] The Cherokees and Their Chiefs, by Stanley W. Hoig, University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, Arkansas, 1998, p. 167, quoted from the Baptist Missionary Magazine 18 (September 1838) p. 163.
[xv] The Cherokees and Their Chiefs, by Stanley W. Hoig, University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, Arkansas, 1998, p. 167, quoted from the Baptist Missionary Magazine 18 (September 1838), p. 192-193.
[xvi] The Cherokees and Their Chiefs, by Stanley W. Hoig, University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, Arkansas, 1998, p. 167, quoted from the Baptist Missionary Magazine 18 (September 1838), p. 205-207
[xviii] An author named Lanman, who visited the Eastern Band in 1848.
[xix] Meditations with The Cherokee, Prayers, Songs, and Stories of Healing and Harmony, by J.T. Garret, Ed.D., Bear and Company Publishers, Rochester, Vermont, 2001, p. xiii-xiv
[xx] Footsteps of the Cherokees, A Guide to the Eastern Homelands of the Cherokee Nation, by Vicki Rozema, John F. Blair, Publisher, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, 1995, p. 62
[xxi] The Cherokees and Their Chiefs, by Stanley W. Hoig, University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, Arkansas, 1998, p. 167, quoted from the Baptist Missionary Magazine 18 (September 1838), p.268
[xxii] Written by Carl Towns(©1998) Abiel Publishing, BMI)