I remember her…
She sat hunched over, leaning on her hand-carved cane. Her humble posture whispered: I am wise, respect me. Yet I knew she’d never utter those words.
We huddled coatless at her feet. The eerie, misty, fog on the autumn day hovered along the forested hills. When the respect of silence finally rested on her goose-bumped, fair-skinned audience, she opened her mouth.
“Osiyo…Hello. I am Mary.”
Greetings of “osiyo” rose from among us.
She raised her hand and a hush immediately followed. “I have an important story to tell you; the story of my people, passed down from generation to generation.”
She stared off in the distance for a moment and then began to captivate us with her soulful tale.
“Long ago my people lived in beautiful mountains. For centuries we freely roamed the land, but one day white man decided they wanted our land. It had a valuable resource they coveted. Gold. They wanted our home so badly they created a law that demanded we be removed and forced to live on soil foreign to what we were accustomed.”
Mary paused to allow this information to sink into our young minds, fertile for the seed of knowledge.
“Can you imagine what it must have been like to have soldiers jab bayonets into the backs of your fathers, demanding they gather their families and load them into crowded wagons? How would it feel to look back through the open door of your home and see looters raid your meager belongings before you are carted off to who-knows-where?
Picture yourself huddled against your Mama who courageously pulls her children in to her safe, warm arms. She does not cry, not yet, so you close your eyes tight to hold back your own tears. You want to be brave like she is, but inside you are anything but brave.”
Some of us closed our eyes tight in an attempt to understand the concept. Mary resumed her gentle cadence that wrapped the listener in a blanket of empathy.
“The journey to our new land takes many months…on foot… in the cold. Are you cold sitting here with no coat?”
Heads nod. Suddenly the air chills, if only in our imagination.
“My people were hungry and many grew ill and died. There were no blankets to sleep under. People coughed all night long as sickness began to fill their lungs. Pneumonia and starvation took the lives of young and old alike. Have you ever had your stomach growl? Imagine what it would feel like to survive days on a diet of stale bread.”
With only a few minutes until lunch, hands instinctively went to our tummies.
“My people call the journey they traveled: Nunna daul Tsuny… the trail where they cried. Your town you live in has 3,850 residents. On the trail to our new land, over 4,000 people died; more souls than your entire community.
Fifty years later, a soldier wrote in his account of the Cherokee Indian Removal: Let the historian of a future day tell the sad story with its sighs, its tears, and dying groans.
Sometimes it isn’t enough to hear the story, sometimes we need to experience it to remember better. Today you sit in the cold with no coat. Your tummy tells you lunch is soon, and now, I want you to taste our sorrow.”
Small cups of warm liquid were distributed.
“When you line up to go back inside the warmth of the school, take the liquid into your mouth but don’t swallow,” Mary instructed. “You may spit it out, but always remember the salty taste of Cherokee tears on your lips.”
In somber silence we took the salty liquid in reverenced ceremonial manner, and gently spit it on the ground.
I skipped lunch that day, unable to wrap my young mind around the injustice of it all and ashamed to be a white man. Fascinated with Native American history after my Mary encounter on the cool damp grass, I knew it was purposed in my heart to be the historian of a future day.
I attended the vocal historian’s funeral today. I could hear her quote Private John G. Burnett: Let the historian of a future day tell the sad story… Salty tears linger on my lips and I realize for the first time the ironic meaning of the phrase: the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Pen in hand…I remember her.
Author’s note: While this is a fictional story, a true account is mentioned and a quote is used from: Birthday Story of Private John G. Burnett.
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