When I was about five years old, I received a very special gift from my mother’s father, my grandfather: a small turquoise and silver ring. I can’t remember the occasion for the gift, or any specific circumstances around receiving it, only that it was “Indian” ~ Native American. I wore it for a long time, and eventually the inside of the silver band split, but somehow through all of life’s adventure, this ring remained with me. It’s a treasure from my childhood. I didn’t realize as a kid, of course, that this little ring from a town called Cherokee, North Carolina might have some significance for my older self. I only knew that it’s three small blue circles of stone captivated me, and somehow it stayed in my hands to this day. And now, having just returned home from a far-too-brief pilgrimage to the Eastern Band of the Cherokee land, the little ring holds a line of continuity in my heart that is difficult to name, but deeply felt.
It’s been more than a year since the passing of my beloved Papa, and undeniably the most challenging year of my life. The most humbling. The most shattering. The most deeply transformative. And the most rich with learning. Just two weeks after his death, I found myself in a days-long ancestralization ritual honoring his life and death, as well as that of my great-grandmother, his father’s mother. The rawness and immediacy of losing my father had barely even registered, and while sitting in an all night vigil in temperatures so low that even my guitar had a layer of frost on it, I listened deeply for the messages meant for me at that time. Having longed to know more about my Cherokee ancestry for most of my adult life, my father had tried to locate a photograph of his father’s mother for me, as she was thought to be full Cherokee. For years, the photo remained a mystery, and a mere three months before my father’s death, the photo was found by a relative, and sent to him. I was overjoyed to finally see her, to peer into her eyes. She didn’t look full Cherokee to me at all… but traces of her Native roots were evident in her brow, her eyes, her presence. While sitting in vigil, she came to me, sharing that I’d need to go back a few more generations to find the Cherokee grandmother I already connected with as a guide in my healing work. After all, it was her, my Cherokee grandmother guide, who called to me in the Amazon the night after my father died, giving me the message to sing him home to join the ancestors. Months later, as my own deepening ancestral work continued, I was honored to meet her great great grandmother, the last full Cherokee woman in her lineage.
I know that I visited Cherokee as a child at some point, and had heard others speak of visiting the famous casino there, but knew relatively little of the “reservation,” called Qualla Boundary, and the current reality of the town or the people there. Planning a short vacation right after the new year, we decided to head south to Asheville, hoping for a little warmer weather. Somehow it had escaped me that Asheville was quite close to Cherokee, and on a frigid day, we made our way there. I carried my medicine bag, a pouch of tobacco, and a small photo album containing images of my family and ancestors, and we headed directly for the museum. My heart longed to find some sense of direct and meaningful connection to these ancestors, which have become increasingly activated in my bones, my blood, my soul. Entering town: KFC, Cherokee Baptist Church. A park with a river running through it, a demo village shut down for the winter. A tourist town, filled with tourist shops, mostly closed for the season. A school, playing fields. Few people on the streets, with the bitter cold single-digit temperatures raging.
The museum was filled with relics, artifacts, replicas, and staged areas. Beautiful information, offering a wider picture of the evolution of the Cherokee people as a culture over millenia. Stories and music. The woman at the ticket counter was clearly Native, and as we asked her about her connection to her traditions and culture, she said that she didn’t know much at all. Did she participate in the celebrations and rituals? No, only the old ones do that now. She said that she always thought she’d leave that place, and yet she has remained: this is where her family is, and that is important. As we wandered through town in the cold, talking to the few people we encountered, I felt a deep longing inside of myself… coming here to the homeland of the Cherokee people of the east, I had hoped to find something that I had been longing for all my life: a sense of understanding about my people, my ancestors, the ways of living and being that have been revealed through my life that guide my way now; a sense of place, in feeling connection to something that could be called “homeland” that is sorely missing in this modern world of frenetic movement.
With so many things closed in town, we inquired about a shop where we might find traditional crafts and artisan work, and were pointed to the one shop that was open. We spent a long time in there, taking in the beautiful basket work, leather craft, and pottery. I combed through shelves of books, hoping to find traditional stories, or text or recordings of traditional songs, to no avail. Generic Native American flute music was on offer, as were collections of cultural studies and anthropology work about the Cherokee people. Books of songs in Cherokee were merely translated hymnals. This shop was a clear demonstration of the reality of cultural loss in the US, as there was little reference to Cherokee lifeways, cultural traditions, or identity that hadn’t been filtered through the eyes of outsiders, or the mind of intellectual study. The longer we remained, the more a sense of desperate sadness came over me. Finally, I came to a shelf filled with small handmade pottery, which I love so much. As I asked the shopkeeper about the pottery, which was clearly handmade, she shared with me one particular shelf containing only four pieces. The work of an old woman, 95 years old, full Cherokee, had been hand building and firing pottery most of her life: Amanda Swimmer. The others, smaller, were made by one of her children. As I held the one bowl-shaped one, I knew that I would buy it. Sustaining the life and traditions and art of a true Cherokee grandmother, the sister of my own ancestors, was an act of alignment, an act of honoring, an act of continuity. Now, it sits on our offering table altar, filled with blessed tobacco that will be ready to carry forth for any possible need.
Just before leaving Cherokee, we stopped by the frozen Oconaluftee River to make offerings and prayers. Before stepping off the paved sidewalk onto the frosty cold earth, I paused. Stepping with care and intention on this ground, this ancestral land, the land of one of my ancestral lineages, I sang a song gifted to me by my other Native American ancestral lineages, three grandmothers of the Pamunkey, and offered tobacco along the sycamore roots growing in magnificent gnarled patterns at the water’s edge. I prayed for the continuity of the sacred, for the re-emergence of simplicity, for a return to respect for our Mother Earth we walk upon, and for the relations with which we share this land. And I prayed for the gifts of my people, my ancestors, these lands, that I can understand in better ways, that I can stand in my life in support of honoring and protecting the old ways that are just about to slip over the edge of remembering into eternity.
For whatever reason, I have come into this life to remember what is almost forgotten, and to reawaken what is nearly gone. My heart is deeply humbled to live during this time, and though I am an imperfect being walking in an ever-more-soulless-world, it is my heart’s prayer and intention to live this life in such a way that my body, mind, and energy are given to the restoration of the wholeness of the human heart and soul, and returning to balance with our beloved Mother Earth, our home.