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- The complete "Our Common Home" conference on Laudato Si' (pg. 42)
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What had to be done
Stories of a Cherokee childhood
When I was growing up in the 1960s, my school friends talked about watching TV shows like The Brady Bunch, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Gilligan’s Island. But after years of night courses, my father had taken a cut in pay from his factory job to become a grade school teacher in one of the poorest counties in New York State, and he said our family couldn’t afford a television. We didn’t care. In the evenings, my two brothers and I would pile into bed with my parents, turn out the lights, and listen to Dad tell about growing up in the Cherokee Nation in the years of the Great Depression.
In the dark, we could see all the way to the Cookson Hills, that isolated patch of northeastern Oklahoma where little Cherokee communities still shelter in hollows and straggle gamely up rocky swells in the Ozark foothills. We saw the log house on Fourteen Mile Creek with its single room, the walls chinked with earth and the fieldstone fireplace plastered with mud. This was where my father, his parents, and two sisters did all their living and sleeping. We eagerly stepped, in our imaginations, into the lean-to behind the house, where my grandmother cooked. We smelled the corn bread and biscuits with flour gravy and shelled corn parched in a pan. We tasted the hominy, the young poke stalks, the eggs scrambled with wild onions, the pork fried in oil in a big black kettle at hog-killing time, and the sorghum syrup made from homegrown cane that had been pressed and left to sit, its juices thickened by evaporation in the open air. We knew that on a lucky day there might even be “sop,” a biscuit covered with brown sugar and soaked with cold coffee.
With my father, we stood ankle deep in dust, on dirt roads baked hot enough under the summer sun to burn the tender skin between our toes. We raced heedlessly across the parched earth of the Dust Bowl, leaping crevices that cleaved the rain-starved soil into fissures deeper than a child was tall. Curled around one another in the bed, my brothers and I sharpened our ears to hear the mournful song of bullfrogs in the sloughs along that Oklahoma creek, the call of the whippoorwills in the evenings, and the spine-tingling screams of screech owls in the night. We rejoiced when cold weather turned the boneset plants into “ice weeds,” glittering with delicate folds of frozen sap that looked like ribbon candy and tasted sweet. We walked to the one-room schoolhouse with our father, and felt the bite of new snow on bare feet because winter had come early and there wasn’t yet money for shoes.
My brothers and I shifted in the bed and sighed in anxious sympathy at this last story. “Oh, it wasn’t bad,” Dad reassured us. “We were just kids. We thought it was fun at the time, and anyway, you just did what had to be done.”
My father’s name, chosen by his father, is Onial Garroutte. His mother, and everyone else, called him Tommy. Dad’s paternal grandparents had both applied to become “original enrollees” on the Dawes Roll—a census record, pursuant to an 1887 act of Congress, that listed all Cherokee tribal citizens and served as the first step toward the allotment of land in what was then Indian Territory. Allotment, which transferred Cherokee land from tribal control to individual ownership, was part of the federal government’s effort to disperse American Indian cultures and integrate Indian people into the dominant way of life. According to Teddy Roosevelt—never a man to put too fine a point on things—allotment was to be “a mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass.” Its aim was to make Indians over into duskier counterparts of the white homesteaders who struggled on their individual properties to wrest survival from the rocky, red soil.
What allotment did most effectively was to separate Cherokee people from their land. In less than a generation, fully 90 percent of Cherokee Nation lands in Indian Territory had passed out of Cherokee hands. By the time Dad was born—received into the arms of a Cherokee midwife one October day in 1930—the family’s allotment land was long gone. He would sweat beside his parents tending corn, cotton, and tobacco on acreage belonging to others. They called the arrangement “grain rent” because the right to work the land was paid for with part of the yield. Put another way, my father’s family were sharecroppers who had the bank for a partner.
The little cabin that housed Dad’s family was modest, though not markedly inferior to the homes around it, and it was superior to some. Dad told of neighbors who had fashioned a dwelling out of two log cribs connected by a roofed, open passageway or “dogtrot.” This makeshift home sheltered five children and their parents. Another neighbor’s cabin had a dirt floor—a feature my father envied because in rainy weather the boys of the household were still able to play at making roads in the packed earth with their wooden trucks.
There were huge tracts of vacant land all over northeastern Oklahoma during the Great Depression, and much of it could have been bought for a few dollars in back taxes. But no one had any dollars, so Dad and his sisters only ranged over those acres, collecting blackberries and huckleberries for their mother to put up in Mason jars.
The neighbor boys and Dad built box traps out of hollow logs to snare skunks for the few pennies their pelts would bring. They stalked possums in the persimmon groves and chased after rabbits. Should the small bows and arrows they fashioned by hand fail to bring down their prey, the boys took to the creeks, wielding the forked spear that Cherokees have used as far back as anyone can remember, to “gig” for frogs and crawdads. They “noodled” fish—jamming their hands under rock shelves to snatch the black perch, chub, buffalo fish, sunnies, and catfish that lurked in the shadows, hoping there wasn’t an irritable water moccasin in there, too.
The day’s quarry or catch might be roasted over an open fire—not always with complete success—or it would appear on the family dinner table. His mother prepared wonderful frog legs, my father told us, even if they continued to kick long after landing in the frying pan.
Cherokee parents are not known for harshly correcting their children, and my grandfather was no different. Whereas Dad’s mother might have been inclined to assist her son’s moral development by administering “a little peach tree tea” (a swat with a switch to the backside), my grandfather would hear nothing of it. “I knew that if I raised a hand to Tommy,” Grandma always said, “I’d have had to beat his father, too.” To my grandfather, discipline meant a good talking-to, and sometimes you would rather have had the whipping and got it over with, Dad said. At times, misbehavior earned a story, and some of those stories were about the “skillies”—scary spirit beings that carried away Cherokee children who didn’t do right. To hear Dad tell it, he wasn’t a boy who needed much correction. But he must have pushed the line at least occasionally because he swore he saw a pair of skillies under the front porch once—red eyes glowing, skeletal hands reaching—and on another occasion he caught a glimpse of one around a corner of the smokehouse.
Dad’s young life, we learned, had been as rich in stories as he would later make ours. He liked to go visiting in the evenings because the older folks might build up a fire and get to telling things. Their stories might be about spirit beings and supernatural events and after hearing them it was hard to walk the path back to the house through the breathing, rustling woods. Dad wasn’t sure he ever forgave his older sister Ruth—she of the longer legs—for dropping his hand and bolting away one particularly inky night, leaving him alone to find his way home.
The stories could also be about animals—sometimes ones you hoped you wouldn’t meet, like the hoop snake. The hoop snake was more dangerous than the copperheads that slithered through the yard or the water moccasins that lay thick, all summer long, over the rocks and driftwood along the creek bank. The hoop snake could make itself into a circle and roll after people, so the story went; the faster you ran, the faster it would roll, and there was no getting away.
Other stories took up current events and local figures. One of the more colorful denizens of the Cookson Hills was Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd. He was known as “Purty Boy” in the local dialect, or simply as “Choc,” after the moonshine of the same name. Everyone knew that Purty Boy’s first robbery—of a post office—had netted him nothing but pennies. Everybody also understood that he had graduated to larger accomplishments, serving time for highway robbery in the Missouri state penitentiary in the 1920s. It was widely reported that Floyd had participated in the “Kansas City Massacre” of several lawmen and a federal agent in 1933. But the humble people of the Cookson Hills did not fear Purty Boy, my father said. He was one of their own, and they looked up to him. The stories that spun out into the Oklahoma nights—into my father’s recollections, and eventually into mine—told of people who met Purty Boy, who talked with him, who received desperately needed cash from his hands. People said that Purty Boy was finally killed by FBI agents in Ohio while trying to return to his kinfolk in Oklahoma. When he was buried at Sallisaw, about 60 miles from my father’s home, thousands viewed his body or attended his funeral.
Other neighbors were less notorious but no less interesting. In this vein, my father would tell of a man his mother had known and could produce a photo of, if pressed. The man’s given name was Stooks, and his surname located him among the most prominent of historic Cherokee families. It was said that, as a young man, Stooks was riding his horse through a remote area when he was overtaken by darkness and the gathering clouds that signaled the approach of a crashing thunderstorm—the kind that is common in Oklahoma. Not daring to continue on, he sought refuge in what he thought was an abandoned house. He pushed the door open and entered, hoping to stay the night. To keep his horse from wandering off, he tied the reins to the door latch.
However, once fully inside with the door closed, Stooks found that there was another occupant: a crazy woman, with a butcher knife. Crazy women with butcher knives were a surprisingly common element in the more rousing stories my father told. This particular crazy woman was bent on filleting poor Stooks. “Stooks was not happy with the turn of events,” my father would say, “and desired mightily to vacate the premises.”
The young man let out a howl and thundered toward the exit. Unfortunately, the uproar frightened the horse, which reared back, holding the door tightly closed. After hauling at the door to no avail, Stooks concluded that his horse was stronger than he was and that hiding was the next best course to running. He crouched in the moonless dark, hoping his would-be assailant couldn’t hear him breathing. Just when he began to relax, the storm broke overhead, and a blaze of lightning lit up the dusty room like a slice of Glory.
Stooks could see the woman hunkered in a corner, knife glittering. He slid a few feet to the right, but she’d seen him in the flash and made a lunge, just missing him. Stooks scooted in another direction, but the next luminous streak revealed him again—and the next. The deathly dance went on and on, both parties desperately maneuvering in the livid bursts, their cries muffled by the booming thunder. Much to our disappointment, my father couldn’t remember how Stooks escaped, but he figured the fellow must have gotten away. At least, he looked lively enough in Grandma’s photo.
If some of the stories related around those smoky, sparking Oklahoma fires were suspect, others were real history, though a kind of history not often taught in schools. These were the stories about the Cherokee people who had come before—our relatives and others who had traveled the Trail of Tears from their ancestral homelands in the southeastern United States to Indian Territory, at the behest of President Andrew Jackson. They told how, in 1838 and 1839, thousands of Cherokees complied with the order for removal, and how thousands died in the passage.
Dad remembered one elder’s story about a young Cherokee mother’s journey west. The woman had carried her infant with her, but the baby died—perhaps from exposure, perhaps from starvation or illness; my father didn’t know. The leaders, who might have been U.S. soldiers or could have been fellow tribesmen, would not allow the ragged party of Cherokees to stop and bury the dead. With winter coming on, there was no time for grieving, the mother was told. Unwilling to abandon her infant without ceremony, the mother pressed the corpse to her body and carried it. The people kept walking all that day, and all the following night. Still, she wouldn’t put her bundle down. Finally, the emigrants arrived at a river. They could go no further and were forced to make camp. Here, the mother was allowed to lay her child to rest. I listened to that story and I knew my father carried it as a terrible weight, and also a precious one. Now I carried it, and I promised myself that I wouldn’t put it down, either.
The horrors of the Trail of Tears, and the turbulent events that followed—the resettlement in a new country, the hell of a Civil War that left the Cherokee Nation a smoldering wasteland, the vicious politics of land allotment—left Cherokee communities with deep and transformative scars. The Oklahoma that I learned about in my father’s stories was not to be romanticized. The Cookson Hills could be a dangerous place, sometimes violent, a place where outsiders seldom ventured. Dad remembered visiting a friend in the Indian hospital, a boy whose throat had been slashed by a straight razor in an altercation. (He lived.) Another friend had his ear bitten off in a fight. Dad told of watching, frozen, as his father ran to overpower a neighbor boy who was threatening to kill his own mother with a broken coal-oil lamp.
The worst of such memories preserved the story of an Indian woman for whom no one intervened. She had gone out one day to look for a lost cow. Wandering over the hills, she had surprised a group of men whiling away the time in gambling and drinking. People found her body some time later, hacked apart and stuffed into an abandoned well. The crime was sufficiently dramatic to stimulate public attention; the murderers were brought to trial and at least some of them were convicted. One could not say the same with respect to many other instances of violence in the Cookson Hills, however, and my father voiced surprise that there had been an official investigation in this case, let alone court proceedings. It was not natural cynicism that prompted his reaction, but experience. He recalled quite clearly the day that he learned the rules of the larger world as they applied to Indian people. He had overheard a conversation between two adults—white men from a somewhat more prosperous nearby settlement. One of these respected, churchgoing men told the other that a local family was starving to death. Debilitated by illness, the parents and children were subsisting on little more than terrapins. The other man expectorated and went silent. “It don’t matter,” he finally said. “They ain’t nuthin’ but some damn Indians anyhow.”
The thrifty measure by which the larger society weighed the value of Indian life probably helps explain why illness and early death were frequent occurrences in the Cookson Hills. Dad remembered Cherokee families decimated by tuberculosis. He’d watched his aunt slowly waste away from the disease at the same time that her daughter suffered the crippling stages of polio. Neither received much in the way of medical attention.
My father couldn’t remember ever seeing a doctor when he was growing up. In the ordinary course of events, a blend of patent nostrums, home remedies, and Cherokee medicine got his family through. Sassafras tea, brewed from the roots of the tree each spring, would thin the blood and get one ready for hot weather. Stump water removed warts. A fresh chaw of tobacco cured all kinds of things, including spider bites. A persimmon stick, if heated, would yield sap that could be dripped into an achy ear to treat infection. A few drops of coal oil or turpentine, mixed with sugar, fixed whatever ailed you—or at least made you stop complaining. Senna tea—they called it “seenie”—was good for the peaked, as was Bethune’s Indian Remedy and Black Draught, a powerful laxative; on the other hand, any one of them would also lay you out, howling with cramps. All things considered, it was usually better not to admit to feeling poorly.
Like most children he knew, my father wore a lead slug made from a .22 cartridge on a string around his neck to prevent nosebleeds. “It must have worked,” he would tell us. “I have never had problems with nosebleeds, even though I stopped wearing the slug years ago.” Uncontrolled bleeding called for the services of a Cherokee medicine man who lived nearby and knew special words to stop a hemorrhage. My uncle once saddled up and rode for the man’s help when my aunt came home from the dentist after having had all her teeth removed. Nothing the family tried had seemed to stanch the blood, but the medicine man set to work where he was and by the time my uncle returned home to his wife, the flow had ceased.
In Oklahoma, the weather, too, presented formidable challenges to people who happened to want to stay alive. The most dramatic events were the tornadoes. They could touch down, my father said, and cut a swath through the woods that looked like the cleared area under a modern power line. They could drive a stem of wheat clean through a stone wall like a needle puncturing a taut strip of linen. Dad and everyone else in the Cookson Hills knew that a tornado had once carried off the little town of Peggs just to the north of Gideon, the town nearest to where Dad’s family lived.
Because of the danger from tornadoes, no one in Cherokee County would be without a storm cellar if they had a choice. The storm cellar was a small, underground room dug some distance from the house, lined with stones and roofed with mounded earth. It was common to be rousted out of bed during the night, especially during the early spring and summer, with the instruction, “Go to the cellar.”
In the cellar, the one tool absolutely necessary was a good, double-bitted axe. It could be used to chop away branches and other debris that might be blown over the entrance. It also served for protection. My father remembered hunkering in the storm cellar with his mother and sisters, while his father stood outside the door, the wind tearing at his hair and clothes. There my grandfather used the axe to perform the ritual action, well known to Cherokee people, that would split the storm in half, causing it to pass harmlessly to either side of the shelter. Although they saw many twisters pass by, my father’s family never had a tornado strike their place.
In a part of the world beset by meteorological calamities, it was important to read the signs that the natural world revealed, my father told us. The pale, white structure inside a split persimmon seed, for instance, provided a forecast that helped people judge the quantity of firewood they should lay in for the cold months. When the structure resembled a spoon, this hinted at a lot of snow to shovel. A fork shape suggested successive periods of piercing cold. A person quietly rejoiced to find a knife inside a persimmon seed because it meant something would “cut” the cold, making for a mild winter. As winter closed in, the behavior of the fire in the hearth revealed the day when snow would arrive. “The fire is tramping snow,” my grandmother would say.
Sometimes, my father said, the natural world spoke directly. The wind could bring messages to people who knew how to listen. Some of these messages were good news; some were sad. The winds of early winter usually brought less desirable communications. My father learned this for himself when the wind in the chimney corner whispered an important event, the death of his grandfather.
Of all my father’s stories, my very favorite was about a pair of sunglasses and Dad’s father. When Dad was about nine years old, his eyes started to smart and sting, and bright sunlight brought on intense pain. The problem persisted, and my grandfather decided it required action. No one in those days had heard of an ophthalmologist, and someone suggested that sunglasses might be the answer. That meant a trip to Tahlequah, the capital of the Cherokee Nation. The distance, nine and a half miles, was manageable; the purchase price of 10 cents presented more of a problem. Even into the early days of World War II, rural Oklahoma sustained an economy that operated primarily by means of barter. People traded eggs and cream at the local grocery store for the few things that could not be produced at home, and cash was scarce. Somehow, however, my grandfather put together the 10 cents. It was all the money he had. Then he set out walking.
Arriving in Tahlequah, my grandfather made his way to the Woolworth’s store. There, to his dismay, the clerk informed him that the glasses cost 10 cents—plus a sales tax of one mill. The mill was a small, cardboard disc that came into use in the 1930s, my father would explain. Also known as a “tax token,” the mill had a value of one-tenth of one cent and had been devised as a means to pay state sales tax, which often amounted to some fraction of a cent. Undeterred, my grandfather left the store and walked up and down the streets of Tahlequah, searching the sidewalks and gutters. Finally, his efforts were rewarded with the discovery of a one-mill token that someone had dropped. He returned to Woolworth’s, purchased my father’s sunglasses, and walked the nine and a half miles back home.
I implored my father to tell this story over and over. I never tired of it because, in it, I heard more than the words Dad spoke: “In this family,” the story told me, “the grownups take care of the kids.” “Even if I don’t have much,” my father seemed to be saying, “I will give whatever I’ve got to take care of you. That is how this family does things.” My brothers and I squirmed deeper into our nest of covers and knew ourselves to be safe.
In 1987, my father delivered me to Princeton University to begin my studies toward a doctoral degree. I remember the two of us rendered mute by equal parts apprehension and amazement as we gazed up at Nassau Hall, the university’s most famous building. The road that had led him to stand with me in this place had not been direct. Dad had left Oklahoma upon his high school graduation, not staying long enough even to collect his diploma. With 50 dollars in his pocket and all his possessions in a metal footlocker, he had stepped on a Trailways bus and headed to New York State in search of opportunities that he could scarcely conjure but that were clearly unavailable to him if he stayed put. There Dad met and married my mother, Patricia, and settled near her family, about 20 miles from Ithaca, where they lived for more than 30 years.
As Dad prepared to hand me over to a life that none of us could begin to imagine, he walked with me around the Princeton campus. We saw buildings where, a university guide informed us, Woodrow Wilson had served as university president, where John F. Kennedy had studied briefly as an undergraduate, and where Albert Einstein had conducted research. Dad finally spread his hands in an expression approaching bewilderment. “Who would have thought that any child of mine would have this?” he asked.
As it happened, after finishing my Ph.D. at Princeton, I made my way to Oklahoma. In 1992 I started my first real job, teaching in the sociology department and the Native American studies program at the University of Tulsa, which is located on the boundary of the Cherokee Nation.
In the Oklahoma landscape that I first knew from my father’s telling, I found a place among the people who had populated his tales. I already knew many of Dad’s relatives from family visits to Oklahoma over summers and Christmases. Now I had the chance to become part of the ongoing life of a Cherokee community. I advised Indian student organizations and helped administer educational programs for Indian high school students. I served on the Greater Tulsa Area Indian Affairs Commission and as a deacon in an Indian church, and occasionally volunteered at an Indian health clinic. Around a relative’s kitchen table, I taught an informal class of Cherokee elders how to read and write the Cherokee syllabary—an 85-character system that differs radically from written English in both theory and form. In exchange, the elders cheerfully gave me language lessons, politely pretending not to laugh at my accent, and greatly extending my command of spoken Cherokee. These elder friends and I dropped in at wild onion dinners, hog fries, and all-night singings sponsored by Indian churches; accepted invitations to the ceremonial dances at Cherokee stomp grounds; took in the occasional powwow; invested in the speculative financial markets of Creek Nation bingo; and visited Cherokee friends and relatives who remained in those little hamlets tucked away in the Cookson Hills.
And so I learned something that my father’s stories should already have taught me. I learned that there is a difference between stories that are captured between the hard covers of a book and stories that live within an oral tradition. Written stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. With a book’s last page, the story is finished forever.
An oral tradition is never subdued by its vessel. It is fruitful, and it multiplies, endlessly giving birth to new stories. Life is better described in an oral tradition than a written one.
Eva Marie Garroutte is an associate professor of sociology at Boston College. Her essay is drawn from a talk given last October at the University of Colorado’s Center of the American West.