Novel mixes Cherokee folklore with real history
This astonishing “novel” was crafted by three multi-talented western Cherokees who live and create in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. It resembles a kind of mosaic in which actual history, oral tradition and folklore are woven together using short stories, fables and myth.
At times, the stories are dark and brutal; often a tale may function as a shocking exposure of the greed and corruption that dominated historic events (such as the Trail of Tears). A number of tales are narrated by slaves and are told with a ribald humor that uses the racist language of the time. Finally, there are a few patches of erotica, suggesting that the authors were determined to demonstrate their varied skills in every medium. Is this complex approach successful? Well, despite some minor flaws (the use of “slave” dialect is one of them), this is a delightful book. It is hoped that it is the first of many.
The linchpin of The Secret History of the Cherokees is the near-mythical Sequoyah, who, besides creating the Cherokee syllabary, seems to embody the future. Although he is not a prophet, he believes that his people have a destiny and he dreams of “assisting” them to achieve it.
The series of stories that follow the aging Sequoyah to Mexico are especially noteworthy. He is following the trail of an ancient band of Cherokees, and he feels that the fate of the Cherokees is connected to this lost tribe. Knowing that he is dying, he keeps a record of his journey in which he records his dreams and visions. (He also smokes a lot of marijuana!) Many of his dreams are filled with terrifying images of death and rebirth.
Eventually, he enters “the ghost lands,” or the “Land of Lost People” and finds his way to a village called Zaragoza. Here, he dies, content that he has reached his goal. Eventually, Sequoyah’s sons retrieve his bones and his “secret writings” which will be “passed on” to future Cherokee leaders.
The Secret History of the Cherokees abounds in provocative images of the characters and events that shaped Cherokee history. Here is a somewhat pompous Thomas Jefferson who encourages the Cherokees to adapt the ways of the white settlers and become farmers. (He also advises them to not mingle with the slaves as “no good can come of that.”) Sam Huston shares whiskey with Chief John Jolly while dreaming of becoming “King of Mexico.” A young Jesse James rides with Quantrill, one of the most murderous jayhawkers in the Civil War.
One of the most enigmatic characters is Gen. Stand Watie, who despises Chief John Ross and has an alliance with Tom Starr, the Cherokee outlaw who spawns a family of outlaws. Watie is pledged to the Confederacy and is the last Confederate officer to surrender.
The two authors Duvall and Jacobs also provide a scathing treatment of the history of slavery in the Cherokee Nation. The portrait of “rich Joe Vann,” the corrupt and alcoholic tyrant who owns over 150 slaves, borders on burlesque. Foolish and vain, Vann spends his time on an ornate riverboat where he gambles away a fortune each night. Vann is addicted to racing both riverboats and horses and owns a famous race horse named Miss Lucy Walker (who ends up as Stand Watie’s horse).
There is also a dark tale about a slave revolt on Vann’s plantation, Blossom Hill. The revolt was carried out with the assistance of a purgative that renders Vann and his household helpless in the throes of diarrhea. The revolt was a failure and Vann punished the participants with savage beatings.
The coming of the Civil War split the Cherokee Nation and produced a secret society of full-bloods called the Keetoowaw, or Nighthawks, who were opposed to slavery. Originally created by a group of some 50 members on the Tuckasegee River, members recognized each other by a pin which they wore in the underside of their lapels. By maintaining their secrecy, they gradually acquired positions of power within the tribal government. Then, the members worked together to subvert pro-slavery activities.
The large number of Cherokee slave owners found themselves facing a new problem after the Civil War. Previous slaves who were now citizens with full rights presented the Cherokee Nation with a series of legal problems that still plague them today.
The treatment of Principal Chief John Ross in this novel is of special interest. In a recent interview, Author Merv Jacobs said, “John Ross himself was a monster. The more we studied him, there was no way we could make him a nice guy. He was creepy.”
Ross has always been perceived as the man behind the assassination of Major Ridge, his son and Elias Boudinot. In addition, Ross managed to emerge from the Trail of Tears as a wealthy man. In addition, his brother, Louis Ross, became wealthy by acting as the government agent that provided food for the Cherokee people during the Removal. During the Civil War, Louis’ slaves abandoned his plantation, taking most of the expensive furniture with them.
The Secret History of the Cherokees is packed with colorful vignettes that serve as transitions between major events. Especially appealing is a banjo-playing slave named Cassius who manages to be present at the significant times. He is a fictional character, but he serves as a witness to colorful events, from the Slave Rebellion and life on Rich Joe Vann’s river boat to the Trail of Tears and the looting of Louis Vann’s plantation.
In addition, there are delightful quasi-myths featuring nubile maidens that frolic in rivers and tempt young Cherokees like Lucky Boy (who ends up married to two sisters). There are medicine women who can render endangered warriors invisible. Some of these characters die tragically, but their spirit remains with their family as they move on toward a mortal destiny.
I was especially impressed by a group of young Cherokees who live with an awareness of their personal destiny. They know that they are meant to play a major role in the history of their people and they are impatient to do so. Sparrow Hawk (who has an encounter with a foxy Confederate spy named Belle Star) dreams of flying, but his dream remains unfulfilled in this novel. Redbird knows he is meant to serve his people in some significant way, and the young Ned Christie has been told “the Cherokee Nation will know your name.” I know this is true because I have a photo of his “Wanted” poster.
All of this tells the reader that there will be a sequel. Well, I for one hope there will be several.