Thursday, April 16, 2009

Indian Princess

As children, my father always told us we had Cherokee ancestry. This wasn’t too hard to believe as my brothers and I had round Charlie Brown heads and, what the neighborhood kids liked to call, “Chinese” eyes. My brother’s nickname was Kato and mine was Suzie Wong.

We weren’t just Indian; we were Indian nobility. We were descended from a Cherokee princess, according to my father. He was a large somber man with a Gaelic temperament, meaning that one moment he would be weeping over a particularly beautiful verse of Yeats, and the next roaring in rage over a bicycle left in the driveway. He was a college professor struggling to earn his Ph. D with a wife and three children in tow, and often seemed to be walking a tightrope between hope and utter despair.

My mother, a sweet Southern girl, ruled him with an iron fist although he was unaware of this, of course, as the fist was clothed in a soft downy glove. Direct confrontation was never my mother’s style. She could soothe and cajole my father out of his moods with a skill I’ve only seen matched by The Horse Whisperer.

In those days my father was on a ten-month teaching assignment, meaning he spent a month teaching at a summer camp for forestry students and the remaining two months of the summer traveling with his family. Our travels, regardless of the mileage involved, were always done in an automobile where my brothers and I, endlessly bored, would devise a series of rough games to keep us occupied. The backseat was divided like Gaul into three parts; as the eldest, I took the section directly behind my father where I could mock him with impunity (and where the belt, should he loosen it and begin to flail over the seat back, could not reach); my middle brother took the middle section with two borders to defend; and my youngest brother, who was prone to car sickness, hugged the far door.

The summer of my twelfth year we took a trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota. My father had brought along Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee for his light summer reading, a horrific account of the massacre of three hundred Sioux men, women, and children by the U.S. 7th Cavalry, and as the vacation wore on he sank deeper and deeper into one of his black moods. We watched anxiously as my mother tried, and failed, to bring him out of it.

“Oh look,” she said, clapping her hands gaily. “A trading post. And they have real arrowheads! Let’s stop, shall we?”

“Three hundred men, women and children,” my father said, eyeing us gloomily in the rearview mirror. “Promised a reservation and then hunted down like dogs. They were our people.”

“I thought we were Cherokee,” I said.

“Three hundred people murdered in cold blood.”

“They have ice cream!” my mother said brightly. “Who wants ice cream?”

Later that night, in the adjoining room, we heard my parents arguing, one of the few times I’ve ever heard my mother raise her voice. As we were leaving the next morning, my father said, “Where’s my book?” He had left it on the nightstand, where sometime during the night, it had mysteriously disappeared.

“Where’s my book?” he repeated, eyeing my mother suspiciously.

She returned his gaze evenly. “Today I thought we’d have a picnic,” she said, smiling. “Won’t that be nice?”

I have no idea if my father ever finished the book. He never spoke of it again and not long after this vacation he stopped telling stories of our Cherokee grandmother, the Indian princess. Even now when I’m at my parents’ house I search for Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee on the bookshelves, but I never find it. It seems to have disappeared into my family’s past as mysteriously as our Cherokee grandmother.


gypsy0398 said...

Reading your story brings back to mind memories of my childhood trips in the old '57 chevy station wagon. Thanks for helping me remember!

yellowdog said... says: I too have a great grandmother who was a Cherokee princess and her mother was a Holton. Funny, huh?