Category Archives: culture

Returning to my roots

I have been highlighting my hair for twenty years.  Just being able to say that makes me feel old, which is only fair.  I am old.  Not as old as I’m going to be, I hope, but old nonetheless. Recently I’ve been telling myself (and anyone who asks; there aren’t many) that I would stop dyeing my hair when I turned sixty. By that reckoning, I had two good years of blonditude left and just try and pry that tube of goo out of my cold, dead hand. . . or, to be more precise, from the hand of my fabulous colorist, Jeanette Brown of Jazz Salon, who has been high priestess to my goddess head for the past two decades and whom, were I to have had to leave town permanently for any reason, I would have had to abduct.  (Sorry, Jeanette’s kids and other clients, but you would have had to suck it up!)

Then something untoward happened.  Or maybe it was toward.

During our recent trip to Hawaii, my magnificent stepdaughter Shanah took us on a tour of the North Shore of Oahu in her Rav 4. The top was down and my locks were a veritable riot of gold and burnished ash – with ‘riot’ being the operative phrase; think Medusa in a car wash.  And someone whom I will not identify because usually he is much nicer to me twisted around in his seat, eyed me and announced, “You look just like Robert Plant!”   Whereupon he snapped a photo of me.

Now I don’t have to tell you that that is not what a girl wants to hear.  Even less not something a girl wants to see photographic evidence for.  Yet, there it was – irrefutable.  I did, indeed, look like Robert Plant and, believe me, that was not what I had had in mind. (For purposes of comparison, click here: http://blogs.dallasobserver.com/dc9/2010/03/show_announcements_robert_plan.php)

So, when I got back to the mainland, I marched into Jeanette’s salon and announced that I wanted to go back to my roots.  Specifically I wanted her to match my roots and let the grey grow where it may.  (It’s there, I know, lurking behind the brown.  It’s my eyebrows that tipped me off; left to their own devices, they look like something ferocious and wily belonging to a badger.)

A day later I panicked and called Jeanette, pleading with her to return me to my unnatural state.  She put me on her cancellations list and booked me in her first available slot, ten days hence.  A day later I called and cancelled the appointment.    I had realized that it was not the hair that was the problem; it was the face.

Before a dozen friends call me and launch into the Consolation of Inner Beauty Thing, it’s OK.  Really.   Profoundly myopic, I wore glasses from the age of seven.  Needless to say I got contacts the instant I could – at age fourteen — and I kid you not when I say that I would have put rocks in my eyes if it meant I didn’t have to wear glasses.  And most of the time that was how it felt – like I had rocks in my eyes.

Then, at around age forty five, my eyes started rejecting contacts until eventually I was forced to give them up entirely.  My vanity washed up on the shore of age, I mourned my loss . . . until I found that it was much easier to swim if I didn’t have to worry about damn stupid contacts and I wasn’t forever getting dust or sand in them and having to do the Cyclops Dance of Agony in a desperate bid pry them out of the offending eye, nor did I any longer find myself crawling around the floor with a flashlight trying to find a rogue lense in high shag carpet.. Yes, there was a down side to no contacts – not so pretty anymore – but there was also an upside – less boring hassle and excruciating pain.

And so it will be with my hair.  In any case, chances are that people won’t look.  And, if they do, at least I won’t look like Robert Plant. Instead, I will look like Shirley Temple . . .  when she grew up and became Ambassador to the U.N.  And wasn’t that what I have always wanted anyway — to grow up to be Shirley Temple?

Let them eat Happy Animals

Back in the mid-seventies when I was a graduate student in Toronto, I was opening a tin of it in the communal kitchen of my rooming house on Huron Avenue in Toronto when my fellow lodger,  a woman of indeterminate years, generous facial hair and not much in the way of sanity, picked up the pile of dishes in the sink, dropped them with a loud clatter, turned to me, foamed at the mouth and eventually squeezed out the admonition, “It is not meet to eat meat!”

I toyed for a moment with the idea of saying, “How very King James Bible of you!”, but decided it was unwise. Instead, I fled, poor mouse that I was, to the upper reaches of the house, clinging tightly to my tin of beef lest she try to wrestle it from me.  This woman  lived in one of the house’s basement rooms — these were unfinished, unfurnished except for a bed without sheets and lit by a single light bulb dangling from the ceiling.  In other words, grim.  But I give it to her — she had a great work ethic.  Every morning, rain, shine or sleet,  she would head out to the nearest TTC station and spend the day shouting about pills  — that was her day job, informing passersby of the dangers of Big Pharma.  Very prescient, if you ask me. “Big pills, blue pills, little pills, red pills!”  That was the gist of her message and it was a powerful one.  Then, after a long day of hollering while braving the elements, she would retire to her dank lair and pace, muttering so loudly that we could hear her quite clearly on the first floor about the Blood of the Lamb and the general slaughter and mayhem that would ensue on the Last of Days, which she was anticipating with considerable glee.  Occasionally she would surface to promote vegetarianism to whatever unlucky tenant happened to be in the kitchen at the time.  Thinking back on it now, I can’t help but reflect that our social safety net was a good deal more tightly woven then than now.  Then she had a roof over her head, guaranteed; today such a benighted creature would most certainly be homeless.  Or perhaps she would belong to PETA.

Speaking of PETA, Louis Nunnery, the choreographer of Unto These Hills for a number of years, was my introduction to  vegetarianism.  That was when I was fourteen,  back in the pre-hippy days when vegetarianism was considered exotic and somewhat subversive.  No one could figure out what vegetarians ate, my mother included. Whenever Louis would come to dinner, she would feed him spinach. Just spinach.   He was always very gracious about it, pronouncing it to be delicious, which I’m sure it wasn’t.   It was chopped and frozen. Louis’s vegetarianism was born of trauma. When he had been a boy living on a South Carolina farm, his father had made the children watch as he shot the pig they had made a pet of and that was it for Louis.   From that point on he ate nothing with eyeballs.  That was his rule. Under his influence,  I became a vegetarian for two whole weeks. Then, during a late night photo shoot, somebody offered me a corned beef sandwich and that was the end of that.

Over the past two decades my husband and I have had many heartfelt discussions about becoming vegetarians. Once we saw an IMAX film about elephants and decided to swear off meat entirely.  That lasted until we pulled into the driveway, when Ken rushed off to fire up the BBQ. Don’t get me wrong.  It’s not as if we eat a great deal of meat.  We don’t. But we do eat some  and, if you are as fond of animals as we are (that is to say, mawkishly) that presents you with something of an ethical conundrum to ponder.

A few years ago, we resolved upon a middle way; we decided to eat only Happy Animals, that is to say, organic, free-range, having a reasonably good time of it up until the moment that. . . .  You get my drift.  Not because we are paranoid — although we probably should be — and not because  organic meat tastes better — which it  does. No. We want whatever animal we’re sinking our teeth into to have had a decent life. Moreover, the one time we wavered in our resolve, thinking that we might abandon our Happy Animal Policy to render an upcoming high protein diet less expensive, the Cosmos sent us a sign in the form of a  truck passing to our left.  It was stuffed so full of  piglets that parts of them were sticking out between the slats and the squealing. . . !  We got the message.

Because, yes, organic meat is expensive.  It’s damned expensive.  However, we’ve reached an age and station in life where we can afford to buy organic and feel bad enough about munching on our fellow creatures that we do.  Because, if there’s one thing having children has taught me, it is this:

You pay. You can pay now or you can pay later, but you always pay.

Land as Story: a road broken and the tragic undoing of the Cherokee Nation

My latest novel

Available at amazon.ca and chapters.ca

Broken Road is set against an historical backdrop of the events leading up to 1838 Removal of the Cherokee Nation from their ancient tribal lands in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee to Indian Territory beyond the Mississippi. The Cherokee called this event the Trail of Tears and it ranks in my mind as one of the most shameful episodes in American history . . . and one of the most telling.

For the purposes of this blog, which is based on a talk I did at the University of Western Ontario for the Centre for Environment and Sustainability, I’m going to focus on the way the Cherokee viewed their land as opposed to how those white Americans responsible for the Removal and other, similar acts viewed that same land. This difference in viewpoint is key. It explains not only how the fledging US could, without, as my mother would have said, a burp, uproot indigenous peoples from tribal lands held for millennia, but also why many Americans have such a hard time wrapping their minds around efforts to become more sustainable today. It has to do with what the land has meant to them throughout their history on it.

Trail of Tears

Let me give you a little historical background on the Cherokee.

When the white man made first contact with the Cherokee around 1540, their lands encompassed some 140,000 square miles throughout 8 present-day states. Over first 200 years post contact, the Cherokees gradually ceded big chunks of this land to the Americans until, by 1838, the time of the Removal, that homeland had been reduced to land held in the mountains of western North Carolina, North Georgia and Tennessee.

The Cherokee were considered one of the “Five Civilized Tribes” and with good reason. Among native peoples they were the poster children for early adopters: in large measure they adopted European farming methods and embraced Christianity. Moreover, through the invention of the Cherokee syllabary by Sequoyah, Cherokee became a written language, capable of being written and read. The nation even had its own printing press and newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, written in Cherokee. There was also a great deal of intermarriage between whites and Cherokee and it was not uncommon for wealthy Cherokee to own slaves and have peacocks strutting across the lawns of their plantations.

If the goal of white Americans vis a vis the Cherokee was to convert them to European ways, to assimilate them, you’d have to say that they succeeded royally. And the Cherokee counted on that to save them. That was their first mistake.

Enter Manifest Destiny.

Manifest Destiny is the religious belief that the United States should expand from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean . . . and that it does so in the name of God. Of course, once America actually did extend from shore to shore, there has been a bit of what you might call ‘Manifest Destiny’ creep or, perhaps, ooze, but that’s more the story of modern times. For our purposes, we’re back in the days when ‘west’ meant west of the Smokies.

Here’s an 1872 painting by John Gast entitled Spirit of the Frontier. I apologize for not being able to find this image on anything but the cover of this card driven strategy game of the same name, but, as it was a strategy game the US was playing, the context seems not unapt.

If you click on the image to enlarge it, you will see heroic American settlers moving west, driving the savages and the bison before them. You’ll notice that they are protected and guided by this goddess or angel figure, a.k.a. Manifest Destiny, and that she is very graciously bringing the light of civilization from east to west. Quite the juggernaut. And, wouldn’t you know it, the Cherokee were right in the way.

The Cherokee made a miscalculation when it came to the Americans. Although they adopted many of their ways, they nevertheless chose to remain a sovereign nation, something the ambitious US was ultimately unable to tolerate. Moreover gold was discovered in Cherokee territory in 1829 – not much, as it turned out – but the Americans wouldn’t figure that out until after they’d managed to get their hands on their land.

The fight against Removal went on for decades. The Cherokee fought removal, using every legal recourse available and, to be fair, they did receive a good deal of support from many Americans. That they not be removed was a real cause celebre, particularly in Abolitionist circles. However, in the end, the Frontier Party of Andrew Jackson prevailed and the Cherokee were driven from their homes and farms and moved to Oklahoma. (The Cherokee name for Andrew Jackson was ‘Chicken Snake.’)

Here is a map showing the route taken by the various Eastern tribes to ‘Indian Territory’. If you click on the image to enlarge it, you can see that the Cherokee weren’t the only peoples that were moved west, but the story of the Trail of Tears has special poignancy because of the intensity of the hardship endured by the Cherokee . . . that coupled with the staggering loss of life. 16,000 poorly provisioned people began the march to Oklahoma, which was conducted mostly on foot, much of it in the winter; only 12,000 finished. Approximately a quarter of the nation, died on the Trail.


Unto These Hills

Broken Road is not first book I’ve written about the Cherokee. Constant Fire, a collection of short stories published by Oberon Press, was also about them. In fact, I won the Journey Prize for best short fiction a decade ago for one of the short stories included in Constant Fire: Long Man the River. It featured an uktena, a horned serpent, the same mythical beast whose ulunsuti is central to Broken Road

So, why am I, a white Canadian woman writing about the Cherokee? Well, in the first place, I’m not Canadian. I’m an Americanadian. I was born and raised in North Carolina, but came to Canada at twenty two and have lived over half my life in this country. I consider Canada my home and have been a Canadian citizen for many years.

However, much of my misspent youth was spent on the Qualla Boundary in the mountains of North Carolina just south of Smoky Mountains National Park. The Qualla Boundary or The Qualla is an 82-square mile plot of land held in trust for the Eastern Band of the Cherokee. If you click on the thumbnail a map of the park will come up and you can see Qualla at its bottom right hand corner.

You’ll notice I said Eastern Band of the Cherokee. Wait a minute, you’re thinking, weren’t the Cherokee all removed to Oklahoma back in 1838-39? Well, not every last one of them. Some stayed. Some got away. Others came back. The ancestors of the modern-day Eastern Band – about 8,000 souls according to the 2000 Census — were some of those wealthier Cherokee who held title to their land in accordance with U.S. laws; the estimated one thousand Cherokee who evaded the soldiers trying to round them up by hiding in the mountains (although initially branded as outlaws, to be shot on sight, they were eventually given amnesty and allowed to remain in North Carolina); and the surprising number of Cherokee who actually walked back from Oklahoma. For example, there was a renowned wood carver named Going Back Chitolske, who was named after one of his great grandfathers who had made the trek back.

Although the Qualla is supervised by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, it is not an Indian Reservation per se. It is made up of plots of land bought up by Yonagusta, one of the wealthy chiefs who had remained behind, and his adopted son, a white man named Will Thomas, and held in trust for the remnants of the nation. In other words, the Cherokee had to buy their own land back from the government in order to give their people a teensy tiny part of their patrimony in which to live. (Coincidentally, Will Thomas is the subject of Charles Frasier’s novel, The Thirteen Moons. Frasier is perhaps better known for his novel, Cold Mountain.)

So, what was I doing on the Qualla Boundary? Well, my family worked for the Cherokee History Association from 1966 to 2005. The Association ran several tribal businesses, including the Cherokee Museum, the Oconaluftee Indian Village, and Unto These Hills, an outdoor drama.

At the entrance to Mountainside Theatre

Unto These Hills opened in 1950 and played to an estimated 100,000 people a season. The theatre seated 3,000 and we were full most nights. Cherokee, the principle town on the Boundary, was a major tourist destination cum tourist trap and it is adjacent to a big national park, which meant busloads and campgrounds full of tourists. Tourists needed something to do at night and, at that time, there was not much of a nightlife in the mountains of North Carolina, which meant that they came to see ‘The Drama’.

My family’s association with the drama spanned three decades. My father, Bill Hardy, directed it; then my brother Peter directed it and Dad produced it; my mother, the fabulous Martha Nell Hardy, played the female lead – a salty old mountain woman – for a quarter of a century and I . . . I was a Corn Maiden.

Me at 17 applying 'Indian paint' for Scene One and the Green Corn Dance

(This, incidentally marks the height of my dancing career.)

Unto These Hills covered the history of the Cherokee from 1540 to the Removal in 1838. It was a big show, with a big cast and crew, and, along with professional actors and dancers, it included about seventy five Cherokee. In addition to being a profit centre for the tribe, the drama was a big seasonal employer in the area. Whole families would work in the drama, which meant that I got to know Cherokee of all ages, from very young children to very old grandmothers, Walkingsticks, Bushyheads, Owls, Sequoyahs, Hunters, Swimmers, Losiahs, Wolfes and Crowes.

Sustainability

For the purposes of this blog, I would like to reflect on how the Americans thought about land — what it meant, what it was worth – and how the Cherokee thought about that same thing.

The Americans’ sensibility was born of the kind of muscular Christianity that brought Europeans to the shores of the New World and then allowed them to despoil it and to disenfranchise its inhabitants with such little compunction. Their idea of the New World was that it had unlimited resources, and that those resources existed to provide for white people whose gaze was fixed, not on this life, but on the next, not on this earth, but on some gated community in the sky. As a consequence of this mindset, they were not overly concerned with stewardship. Moreover, they thought of land as a commodity, something that could exchange hands and continue intact.

For Cherokee, however, their land was their identity; it was everything and all its features – its rivers and streams, its gorges and mountain — were sacred. Not only sacred, but inhabited by all manner of spirits: with little people and star people and people who lived under mountain and underwater. Their landscape was replete with places where important things had happened that must be remembered – Ambush Place and The Place of the Lizard Monster and Where the Tracts are.

Toineeta, an old conjure woman and one of the principal characters of Broken Road, says it best.

“In my language there is a word for the land — eloheh. It means many things — land, the story of my people on the land, the way of my people on the land, the gods that inhabit places. . . . Eloheh! Eloheh! I cannot tear out my heart and live. In the same way, I cannot leave my land and live.”

As far as the Cherokee were concerned, Oklahoma did not . . . could never compensate them for the loss of their ancestral home for the simple reason that it was not their tribal land.

As for the Americans, the U.S. and the world are still reaping the whirlwind sown by Manifest Destiny. If you do not consider nature to be sacred, if you are not grateful for and mindful of what you kill and eat or grow and eat, if you believe that this world does not matter as much as some other, distant one, then you are unlikely to spare time or dime to protect and preserve it. You just move on down the road, spewing exhaust.

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self promotion

I just got back from Toronto and the launch of my new novel, Broken Road, by Exile Editions. It went really well and I want to thank both the Exile-ites who organized the whole shebang and those friends and relatives who showed up and supported me — I am intensely grateful. But I am also exhausted. I’ve always found it very difficult to promote myself. I don’t like saying, “Read this. It’s great. I wrote it. You’ll like it.” Because, what if I’m wrong? What if it’s lousy? What if you hate it? What if, actually, you don’t like me very much and wish I would go away? Those are the thoughts that go through my head when I’m promoting my stuff, along with internalized injunctions to not brag or be pushy, that a lady waits for somebody else to say, “Read this. It’s great. She’s an amazing writer and should win the Giller.” I’m not going to lie (as my children often say, particularly, I have noticed, when they’re about to lie), that is the approach, the sit-back-and-rake-in-the-praise approach with which I am much more comfortable. The trouble is that such an approach is passive and not very likely to get you noticed. Sigh. I also hated my own birthday parties.

Guns

I’m not keen on guns, but I don’t object to people having a reasonable number of them if that’s what they absolutely have to have and I don’t object to hunting as long as the animals killed are eaten, as long as they have not died in vain.

However, I do strongly object to people showing up at political events bearing arms. What’s with that, anyway? In the first place, why? What are they expecting to happen that they will need their trusty assault weapon to deal with it? Or is it just decoration? An accessory? In that case, why don’t they carry them around with them on other occasions, such as dropping their children off at nursery school or visiting a sick friend in the hospital or shopping in a big box store? But they don’t and why? Because, if they did , people would run screaming, “Omigod, he’s got a gun!” and panic would ensue.

So why is it OK to flash your sidearms at political events? Well, actually, it’s not. It’s just plain not and you should be locked up because you represent a real and present danger. The very fact that you decided to take that gun with you to that event in the first place provides ample evidence of that. That is something a crazy person does. A crazy person with a very small penis.

Ken Burns’ new miniseries on the National Parks — watch it and learn!

Starting tonight on PBS (Sunday, September 28) and throughout the upcoming week is Ken Burns’ new miniseries on the National Parks. I am a huge Ken Burns fan. I know I didn’t properly understand the Civil War until his series on it (despite reading Gone With the Wind five times; wait, maybe that was the reason I didn’t understand it so well); nor did I have much of a clue about WWII before his The War. This despite a keen interest in history and reasonably decent grades in school. And my Dad was a navy lieutenant stationed on a submarine in the South Pacific during the latter years of WWII!

Now it’s the National Parks turn . . . and the timing is perfect in that it demonstrates that government can and does do some things well, like create and maintain these amazing nature preserves for which I, at least, am intensely grateful. So put that in your pipes and smoke it, Right Wing nut jobs. If it was up to you, all of these places would be strip malls or trailer parks or theme parks. . . . You get my drift.

I have only been to three National Parks in my life: the Grand Canyon, Acadia and, of course, the Smokies, which I know very well, having spent seven summers on the Qualla Boundary, adjacent to the park. I would love to go to all of them, but first we must wait for Buddy, our aged Golden Retriever, to shuffle off this mortal coil.

A piece of advice for prospective dog owners: get your dog used to being boarded so you can leave them occasionally. For most of his life, Buddy was left with relatives, but then my sister in law got divorced and my daughter moved to Montreal and my son broke his femur (really, he didn’t need to go to such extremes just to get out of dog-sitting) and Buddy is way too old and coddled (not to mention addled) to be boarded at this stage, so, bottom line: he goes, we go. Which means the National Parks, never mind Greece, are on hold at present.