By Marilou Awiakta
According to Albert Einstein, there in a dimension beyond time/space where time stands still—past, present and future are one. My Cherokee ancestors knew how to enter this dimension at will. Since their spirits abide in my native mountains in East Tennessee, I walk with strong nurturing grandmothers that Timberlake met on his journey.
“Where are your women?”
The speaker is Attakullakulla, a Cherokee chief renowned for his shrewd and effective diplomacy. He has come to negotiate a treaty with the whites. Among his delegation are women “as famous in war as powerful in the Council.” Their presence also has ceremonial significance: it is meant to show honor to the other delegation. But that delegation is composed of males only. To them the absence of their women is irrelevant, a trivial consideration.
To the Cherokee, however, reverence for women/Mother Earth/life/spirit is interconnected. Irreverence for one is likely to mean irreverence for all. Implicit in their chief’s question, “Where are your women?” the Cherokee hear, “Where is your balance? What is your intent?” They see that the balance is absent and are wary of the white men’s motives. They intuit the mentality of destruction.
I turn to my own time (1983). I look at the Congress, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission . . . at the hierarchies of my church, my university, my city, my children’s school. “Where are your women?” I ask.
Wary and fearful, I call aside one of Attakullakulla’s delegation. I choose her for the gray streak of experience in her hair, for her staunch hips and for the lively light in her eyes that indicates an alert, indomitable spirit. “Grandmother, I need your courage. Sing to me about your life.”
Her voice has the clear, honing timbre of the mountains.
I am Cherokee.
My people believe in the Spirit that unites all things.
I am woman. I am life force. My word has great value.
The man reveres me as he reveres Mother Earth and his own spirit.
The Beloved Woman is one of our principal chiefs. Through her the Spirit often speaks to the people. In the Great Council at the capital she is a powerful voice. Concerning the fate of hostages, her word is absolute.
Women share in all of life. We lead sacred dances. In the Council we debate freely with men until an agreement is reached. When the nation considers war, we have a say, for we bear the warriors.
Sometimes I go into battle. I also plant and harvest.
I carry my own name and the name of my clan. If I accept a mate, he and our children take the name of my clan. If there is deep trouble between us, I am as free to tell him to go as he is to leave. Our children and our dwelling stay with me. As long as I am treated with dignity, I am steadfast.
I feel the Grandmother’s power. She sings of harmony, not dominance. And her song rises from a culture that repeats the wise balance of nature: the gender capable of bearing life is not separated from the power to sustain it. A simple principal. Yet, in spite—or perhaps because—of our vast progress in science and technology, the American culture where I live has not grasped this principle. In my county alone there are 2600 men who refuse to pay child support, leaving their women and children with a hollow name, bereft of economic means and sometimes even of a safe dwelling. On the national level, the U.S. Constitution still does not include equal rights for women.
The Grandmother can see this dimension of time/space as well as I—its imbalance, its irreverence, its sparse presence of women in positions of influence. And she can hear the brave women who sing for harmony and for transforming power. “My own voice is small, Grandmother, and I’m afraid. You live in a culture that believes in your song. How can you understand what women of my time have to cope with?”
Grasping my chin gently, the Grandmother turns my face back toward the treaty council. “Listen to Attakullakulla’s question again. When he says, “Where are your women?” look into the eyes of the white delegation and you will see what I saw.”
On the surface, hardness—the hardness of mind split from spirit, the eyes of conquerors. Beyond the surface, stretching future decades deep, are crumpled treaties. Rich farms laid waste. And, finally, the Cherokee, goaded by soldiers along a snowbound trail toward Oklahoma—a seemingly endless line of women, men and children, wrapped in coats and blankets, their backs bowed against the cold. In the only gesture of disdain left to them, they refuse to look their captors in the face.
“Come,” she says.
“To Chota—the capital—to see the Beloved Woman.”
I’ve heard of her—Nanyehi . . . “spirit/immortal.” Nanyehi, whom the whites call Nancy Ward and hold in great respect . . . the Beloved Woman whose advice and counsel are revered throughout the Cherokee nation. She is said to have a “queenly and commanding presence,” as well as remarkable beauty, with skin the color and texture of the wild rose.
I know about her courage. She works ceaselessly for harmony with white settlers, interpreting the ways of each people to the other. From her uncle and mentor, Attakullakulla, she has learned diplomacy and the realities of power. She understands that the Cherokee ultimately will be outnumbered and that war will bring sure extinction. She counsels them to channel their energies from fighting into more effective government and better food production (she also introduces them to dairying). To avoid bloodshed, she often risks censure and misunderstanding to warn either side of an impending attack, then urges resolution by arbitration. In the councils she speaks powerfully on two major themes: “Work for peace. Do not sell your land.”
All the while, she knows the odds . . .
What time/space will the Grandmother choose for me to meet the Beloved Woman? I imagine a collage of possibilities:
1775/Nanyehi fights beside her husband in a battle against the Creeks. When he is killed, she takes his rifle and leads the Cherokee to victory. Afterwards, warriors sing of her deeds at Chota and the women and men of the Great Council award her the high office she will hold for more than half a century. She is seventeen, mother of a son and a daughter.
1776/Having captured the white woman, Mrs. Lydia Bean, Cherokee warriors tie her to the stake. Just as they light the fire, Nanyehi arrives on the scene, crying, “No woman will be burned at the stake while I am Beloved Woman!” Her word is absolute. Mrs. Bean goes free.
1781/At the Long Island Treaty Council, Nanyehi is the featured speaker. “Our cry is for peace; let it continue . . . . This peace must last forever. Let your women’s sons be ours; our sons be yours. Let your women hear our words.” (Note: no white women were present.)
Colonel William Christian responds to her, “Mother: We have listened well to your talk . . . . No man can hear it without being moved by it. . . . Our women shall hear your words. . . . We will not meddle with your people if they will be still and quiet at home and let us live in peace.” (From Ilene J. Cornwell, “Nancy Ward,” Heroes of Tennessee, Memphis State University Press (Memphis, 1979), 41.
Although the majority of Cherokee and whites hold the peace, violence and bloodshed continue among dissenting factions.
1785/The Hopewell Treaty Council convenes in South Carolina. Attending the Council are four commissioners appointed by Congress, thirty-six Chiefs and about a thousand Cherokee delegates. Again, the Beloved Woman speaks eloquently. Knowing full well the pattern of strife that precedes this Council, she bases her talk on positive developments. “I take you by the hand if real friendship . . . I look on you and the red people as my children. Your having determined on peace is most pleasant to me, for I have seen much trouble during the late war. . . . We are now under the protection of Congress and shall have no more distrubance. The talk I have given you is from the young warriors I have raised in my town, as well as myself. They rejoice that we have peace, and hope the chain of friendship will never more be broken.” (From Pat Alderman, Nancy Ward, The Overmountain Press (Johnson City, Tennessee, 1978), 69.
Hope—that quality so necessary for survival. The Beloved Woman never loses hope. Perhaps I will learn the source of her strength by sharing her private moments: I may see her bend in joy over her newborn second daughter (fathered by the white trader Bryant Ward, to whom she is briefly married in the late 1750s) or hear her laugh among her grandchildren and the many orphans to whom she gives a home. Or, I may stand beside her in 1817 as she composes her last message to her people. Too ill at age seventy-nine to attend the Council, she sends the last message by her son. Twenty years before it begins, she sees the Trail of Tears loom ahead and her words have one theme: “My children, do not sell your land.”
Nanyehi . . . Nancy Ward . . . “as famous in war as powerful in the Council.”
The Grandmother’s hand on my arm halts my imaginings. We stand at the edge of a secluded clearing, rimmed with tall pines. In the center is a large log house and around it women—many women—move through sun and shadow. Some walk in the clearing. Others cluster on the porch, talking quietly, or sit at the edge of the forest in meditation. Not far from us, a woman who is combing another’s hair leans forward to whisper and their laughter rises into the soughing pines.
What year is this Grandmother?”
“It is not a year; it is a season—you and the Beloved Woman are meeting when each of you is in her forty-seventh season.” From the expression of my face the Grandmother knows I appreciate the wisdom of her choice: Four and seven are the sacred numbers of the Cherokee; four symbolizing the balance of the four directions. It is the season when no women should or can afford to be “puny.” The Grandmother nods. Motioning me to wait, she goes toward the lodge, threading her way through the women with a smile of recognition here, the touch of out-stretched fingers there.
With my hands behind my hips, I lean against the stout, wiry-haired trunk of a pine. It’s resinous scent clears my mind. These women are not the Amazons of the Greek fable. While they are independent and self-defined, they do not hate men and use them only at random for procreation. They do not elevate their daughters, or kill, cripple, or make servants of their sons. But did the Greek patriarchs tell the truth? If Attakullakulla had asked them, “Where are your women?” they would have answered with a shrug. I’m wary of Greeks bearing fables. Although there is little proof they described the Amazons accurately, ample evidence suggests that they encountered—and resented—strong women like my Grandmothers and characterized them as heinous in order to justify destroying them (a strategy modern patriarchs still use).
In any case, why should I bother with distant Greeks and their nebulous fables when I have the spirits of the Grandmothers, whose roots are struck deep in my native soil and whose strength is as tangible as the amber-pitched pine at my back.
“What was it like,” you ask, “to be in her presence?”
“Come. I will show you.” It is midnight/June/the full moon. Behind a farmhouse near the Kentucky border, you and I walk barefoot through the coarse grass. Crickets and treefrogs are drowsy. Birds are quiet. And we are enveloped in a powerful, sweet odor that transforms the night. Too pungent to be honeysuckle. Too fecund for roses. It recalls a baby’s breath just after nursing, along with the memory of something warm and private that lingers on the edge of the mind . . .
Sniffing the air, we seek the source—and find it. The cornfield in bloom. Row on row of sturdy stalks, with their tassels held up to the moon. Silently, in slow rhythm, we make out way into the field. The faint rustle of growing plants flows around and through us, until, when we stop by a tall stalk, there seems no division between flesh and green. We rub the smooth, sinewy leaves on our cheeks and touch a nubile ear, where each grain of pollen that falls from the tassel will make a kernel, strong and turgid with milk. Linking arms around the stalk, we lift our faces to the drifting pollen and breathe the spirit of Corn Woman—the powerful, joyous, nurturing odor of one complete-in-itself.
“Where are your women?”
We are here.