I like coming to the mountains. It makes me feel close to my ancestors. Sounds cheesy huh? It’s the truth. My Cherokee blood line can be traced through my mother. Her mother’s lineage is registered with the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, and through her both myself and my sons are registered as well. I am so thankful. So thankful. My mother’s father also had significant “Indian blood,” but his Native American roots were never registered. The story that has been handed down says that there was a day when the government came to the elementary schools asking which students had Indian blood. It was not something a child wanted to admit. Being Indian was looked down upon. So my grandfather’s aunt just sat there. The other children teased her, saying "You know you have Indian blood in you." Her reply was, “I don’t have enough to hurt.” The stigma of being different stung too much to embrace a disappearing heritage. My mother used to say that my grandfather didn’t have the right papers, but all you had to do was take a look at him.
So I like coming to the mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina, where the Cherokee people first lived. Where a remnant live still. There have been a couple of moments when I have quietly slipped off my shoes, to walk barefoot on the ground. I imagine my feet passing over the earth that the Cherokee people walked hundreds of years ago. I imagine walking in their steps. I do this quietly. It would be a hard thing to explain. But to me it is holy ground. People travel across the world to walk where Jesus walked. For me it is holy to remember where I came from. I believe it is a gift. Just as the Cherokee people believed the land to be a gift from the Great Spirit.
A couple of days ago we visited the Cherokee Museum. It tells the story of the Cherokee people from their earliest beginnings. The biggest part of the museum is dedicated to their forced removal from their homes in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Kentucky to Oklahoma, what has become known as the Trail of Tears. At first all resisted the removal, but eventually three responses emerged. The first were those who sold their land to the government for five million dollars and received land in the West. These were the first to go. They were deemed traitors by their own people for “selling their birthright.” Then there were those who fought with every legal means they could, resisting to the very end. They even received the backing of the Supreme Court. But the legal proceedings allowing them to stay were ignored, and they were forced to leave anyway. Their journey to Oklahoma resulted in four to eight thousand deaths. This journey is what is known now as the Trail of Tears. The final group are those who fled into the hills, hiding out to escape capture. These eventually formed what is known as the Eastern Band of the Cherokee, who reside in the Qualla Boundary, or Cherokee, North Carolina, today.
Here’s the thing that speaks to me. After all the anguish, turmoil, and disruptive circumstances that the Cherokee people experienced, they still survived. Their stories are still alive. Their culture still undergirds each new generation that emerges. I am struck by the Grace and Mercy of their survival. Because my life has its own upheavals. It seems that I am constantly surprised to find new ways that upheaval has shaped the life I live now. But the Hope that I find in the people of my ancestors is that the Story still continues. They are not gone. I’m not either.
My story continues. I have no idea how or what shape it will take. I just know that it will be a story worth telling, a story worth hearing. I know that years from now when I look back on my life I will see the Hand of Mercy guiding and directing my steps, leading me faithfully through, bringing me to a place where all the mismatched pieces come together for a beautiful and satisfying conclusion. There will be a day when it all makes sense. And I will walk barefoot through the memories of my own life and be grateful.