Someone has to make it out alive, sang a grandfather
to his grandson, his granddaughter,
as he blew his most powerful song into the hearts of the children.
There it would be hidden from the soldiers,
Who would take them miles, rivers, mountains
from the navel cord of the origin story.
He knew one day, far day, the grandchildren would return,
generations later over slick highways, constructed over old trails
Through walls of laws meant to hamper and destroy, over stones
bearing libraries of the winds.
He sang us back
to our home place from which we were stolen
in these smoky green hills.
~Joy Harjo, An American Sunrise: Poems (2019)
Prologue: Transgenerational Displacement
In August 2019, the same month Joy Harjo published An American Sunrise: Poems, I traveled the northern route of the Trail of Tears with my dad and daughter as three generations of Cherokee Nation citizens. We began with the land adjacent to the Chestatee and Etowah rivers, near Dahlonega, Georgia, where our ancestors had their land stolen from them in 1832 during the first gold rush of the United States. From there, over the course of two weeks, we visited historically significant sites sacred to the Cherokee before removal—including sites at New Echota, Red Clay State Park, the Qualla Boundary, Clingman’s Dome and more. We also passed through sites of trauma and genocide—including Fort Cass, Blythe’s Ferry, Mantle Rock, and other segments of the Trail of Tears that have left indelible scars on the land. By the time we arrived to Tahlequah, Oklahoma, we were equal parts exhausted and inspired. Over the course of our journey, we came to realize that our transgenerational journey of repair and homecoming helped save not only the living generations of our family—touching the lives of my father’s cousins, my cousins, and my daughter’s cousins—but it also reaches back and repairs generations who came before us just as it anticipates repair across generations to come as we make room for our children and grandchildren to live.
From my daughter to my great-great-great-great-great grandmother, I can trace nine generations of uninterrupted Cherokee genealogy. While it is true that my Cherokee ancestors survived forced removal and genocide—and contributed to the early rebuilding of a nation in what is today Oklahoma—our connection to that genealogy almost did not survive. The forced displacement of our ancestors from their beloved homeland on the Trail of Tears rippled across generations in ways impossible to anticipate, tearing at our ancestral relations and our very identity. In a swift couple of generations after the Trail of Tears—from allotment, to Oklahoma statehood, to the pressures of Federal Indian Law in the 1950s that incentivized Indigenous assimilation—my family internalized anti-Indigenous racism and increasingly moved away from the richness of our Cherokee ancestry. Like many Cherokee families before and after allotment, we were seduced by white supremacy.
Cherokee history is fraught with opposing responses to the genocidal violence and assimilationist pressures of settler colonialism. There has never been one, comprehensive, response to the question of what it means to be Cherokee or what it means to survive genocide and remain Cherokee. For several generations, displacement—both external and internal—is all my ancestors have known. With each successive generation carrying the burden of that displacement, it was easy for my father to eventually feel that we were “no longer Cherokee”—as he clearly felt during those few times when he told me, in my twenties, “to give it up.” For my father, displacement severed us from our Cherokee ancestry, but what he discovered during our journey on the Trail of Tears is that it is precisely such displacement that makes us Cherokee. Almost every Indigenous family, as evinced by the broad appeal of Harojo’s poem, carries this story.
My ancestors had their land stolen from them in 1832, which makes them late-arriving “Old Settlers” to Indian Territory. In 1832, the state of Georgia forbid Cherokees to congregate except for one singular purpose: to cede land. Just across the state border into Tennessee is Red Clay State Park, a sacred site of the Cherokees that served as de facto capital of the Cherokee Nation from 1832 until the last council meeting of 1837 prior to the Trail of Tears. Like every Cherokee village, the focal point of this area is the Council Springs, known also as the “Blue Hole”—which, according to Barbara Duncan, “issues more than a half-million gallons of water a day.” When we arrived to this sacred site, we apprised the Park Ranger—a very generous and caring woman named Erin—of our journey: “We are three generations of Cherokee Nation citizens traveling the Trail of Tears.” Her response was to walk us to the Blue Hole and let us in. We were immeasurably grateful for this sacred moment—and, as we took off our shoes and waded into the spring, we remembered the ablutions of our ancestors, the ritualistic washing of the self at sunrise as prescribed by tradition and protocol. It was, I noted to my dad and daughter, our “Cherokee Baptism.”
On August 7, 1837, Red Clay served as the site of the last council meeting of the Cherokee Nation before removal. On April 6, 1984, all three federally recognized Cherokee nations—the EBCI, the Cherokee Nation, and the United Keetoowah Band (UKB)—convened in national council for the first time since removal. During that occasion, an eternal flame was erected and ignited near the Blue Hole. As we stood around the eternal flame, we meditated on the coincidence of water and fire—and we talked about the role of our Cherokee ancestors as keepers of fire. We talked about the Cherokee “mother town”—Kituwah, where ceremonial fires burned so long and so intense that it magnetized the earth, forever changing its heat signature. Annually, Cherokee villages surrounding the Kituwah Mound would extinguish their council fires and reignite them with fire from Kituwah. “Our ancestors were fire keepers,” I tell my daughter.
“Cool.” She says, staring into the eternal flame, still wet from our Cherokee baptism.
“You are a keeper of the fire, now, too.”
Discerning Ancestral Vocation
The richness of Harjo’s poem, and the reason it resonates with our journey, lies in its ambiguous invocation of generations: Who, here, is the grandfather—and how will each of us take up our role in the long procession of the grandchildren we are? At the beginning of our three-generation journey—my father assumed the obvious role of the grandfather in Harjo’s poem as he sang his own powerful song of survival to his granddaughter. At some point, however, even early in our journey, he was transformed again into a grandchild. It was as if we were three generations of grandchildren, who prophetically returned “generations later over slick highways, constructed over old trails,” to our ancestral homelands.
There is a Cherokee story I love, published as “People Singing in the Earth” and told by Freeman Owle, in which we are admonished to “never let the child disappear from us.” The story tells of a mysterious Cherokee figure who prophetically delivers a “revelation of what was about to happen—people losing their homeland on the Trails of Tears and so on.” The mysterious figure offers the Cherokees a chance to escape with him into the sacred mountain of the Cherokees, Kuwahi or Mulberry Place—what is today called Clingman’s Dome. After fasting for seven days in order to decide what to do, half the Cherokees followed the mysterious figure into the mountain “up to a beautiful land of springtime and summer” with “butterflies flying, and the fruit trees bearing fruit”—where “You could hear people singing and laughing inside the mountain.” One man, who witnessed the joy of this beautiful land, fell back at the last moment and promptly returned to his village so that he could return with the rest of his family—but, when they returned, the mountain had closed up, “and they said he was crazy and just left him there.” As Freeman Owle tells the story, “He stayed there for seven days, and on the seventh day he began to hear the singing deep within the earth.” And we are told this: “If you’re quiet enough, long enough, and if you sit and listen to the streams and really are aware and very quiet and still, that you too can hear the people singing within the earth, those happy ones that went on before.”
What does it mean to hear the people singing in the earth? To me, it is to phenomenologically discern in one’s own body the vocation (or calling) of our ancestors. On our journey, we hiked to the top of Clingman’s Dome where I recited this story out loud to my dad and daughter. For me, it was a like a second Cherokee baptism. Our visit to Kuwahi was purposefully planned as part of a detour we took, away from the Trail of Tears, to visit Western Carolina and the Qualla Boundary (Cherokee, NC), home of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI). For most of my life, the Cherokee genealogy I knew started with my great-great grandfather, first born after the Trail of Tears. Our detour to the Qualla Boundary and to Kuwahi rendered legible to us this ancestral vocation—and the story, “People Singing in the Earth,” became the song that delivered us “to our home place from which we were stolen.”
Epilogue: “Transgenerational Homecoming”
As we set out on our journey, a Tlingit friend of mine—Louise Brady, of the Kiks.adi clan in Sitka, AK—wrote to me, “Your ancestors are guiding you.” We had too many uncanny moments of inspiration and coincidence for that not to be true, but one moment—at the end of our journey—revealed the extent to which our ancestors were guiding us. We had, at last, arrived to Tahlequah, the end of the trail, where we set up camp on the shores of Tenkiller Lake, a place I remember fondly as a child. After we toured the important cultural centers and sites of Tahlequah, we took a drive to Terrell Cemetary near Stilwell, Oklahoma, to search for the grave of my great-great-great-great grandmother, Elizabeth Graves Terrell (Qua-Wa-Tlv). On our way to the cemetary, we encountered another familiar sign posted by the National Park Service that marks the “The Original Trail of Tears” route—the kind of sign we had been following for almost 1,200 miles. This one, however, said “End of the Trail”—which caught our attention with surprise since we had not planned to, quite literally, stumble upon “the end.” For our itinerary, the end of the trail was to have been the old Cherokee Nation courthouse, the bricks of which my great-great-grandfather had helped make. Here, however, in search of my grandmother’s grave, we were led to another cemetary: the Stilwell Cemetary—which, in 1839, had been used as one of eight “disbandment camps” that served as formal ends of the forced removal. It was as if our grandmother had guided us to “the end of the trail.” We did not know, until that moment, that stumbling upon the literal end of the Trail of Tears was exactly the closure we needed. At last, and truly, we experienced our transgenerational homecoming.
When I return to Harjo’s poem, I cannot help but think that, in the healing of our own homecoming, it is not simply the grandfather who sings to his granddaughter, “Someone has to make it out alive.” It is the granddaughter who sings it back so that her grandfather encounters the imperative for the first time in her own words: Someone has to make it out alive. When I meditate on this transgenerational homecoming, I am reminded of Walter Benjamin’s aphorism from “Theses on the History of Philosophy”: “…even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.” The displacement of our ancestors through forced removal and ethnic cleansing reverberates, like a song that goes on after the instrument is gone, across internal and external reigsters that we all bear. There is a literal end of the trail, a political end determined by treaty and the exigencies of removal, but for too many of our Cherokee people, the cruel legacies of displacement continue to haunt our communities. Today, Stilwell has one of the highest poverty rates in rural Oklahoma, and its life expectancy rate is below national averages. As I type this, I cannot help but recall Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch’s now famous words penned for the McGirt v Oklahoma decision, “At the end of the Trail of Tears, there was a promise.”
If we are always already suffering displacement, what is the quality of homecoming and healing across generations? Despite the fact that my family has long lost its Dawes allotment, we will continue to return to these places, this land. But it is also a homecoming, I imagine, of language and silence. In silence, I sit still long enough and often enough to hear my ancestral vocation. And language? My grandfather spoke only “handshake” Cherokee, meaning he could only speak enough Cherokee to greet you and ask how you are doing. Today, my daughter and I are studying the language together, determined that we will not be the last in our family to speak Cherokee. We will not be “the last of the damn Mohicans,” as my grandfather once said to me before my daughter was born. We will make our homecoming through the language and through the silence of vocation—as our ancestors reveal to us their faces across sacred lands. We will keep a fire.