Literary Hub

Brandon Hobson on Recovering Cherokee Myths from His Grandfather’s Notebook

The same encroaching spirit will lead them upon other land of the Tsalagi.
–Chief Dragging Canoe, 1740-1792

Osiyo! Last year my grandfather passed away, quite suddenly, of a heart attack, and since that devastation I have begun to embark on a journey to live my life according to traditional Cherokee teachings. I had never followed these teachings before, despite my traditional Cherokee upbringing in Oklahoma, where my grandfather raised me from the time I was four until I left for college.

His name was Eli Wadie Chair, and he was a full-blooded Cherokee who believed in the spirit world of the ancient Cherokee teachings. I loved him very much. He was a man who told me stories my whole life while staring at birds outside our window. A man who believed strongly in talking to wolves and hawks and in the desultory joy of watching the trees.

The first time he took me to Geronimo’s grave in southern Oklahoma, he quoted Geronimo, “The sun, the darkness, the winds are all listening to what we have to say,” and afterward I began to think about Geronimo’s life, about justice, good and evil, the dead and living. With history showing its temperament, such equivocation shouldn’t be surprising. And shouldn’t we all be worried about our spirits before it’s too late? By too late, I mean death, of course, unless the world burns up first, or unless people are swallowed up by earthquakes, as Wodziwob the Paiute prophesied in the 19th century.

Traditional Cherokee belief teaches that all souls after death continue to live on as spirits, some manifested into the bodies of animals while others are unseen. My fear is dying, and dying too soon. I have no reason for such a fear except speculation for what will happen to my spirit after I die, especially as I continue to study traditional Cherokee teachings.

Traditional Cherokee belief teaches that all souls after death continue to live on as spirits, some manifested into the bodies of animals while others are unseen. My fear is dying, and dying too soon.

I recently spent a smokeless night in the living room of my grandfather’s house, where he died in a chair with a certain notebook open like a dead bird in his lap. The notebook contained hundreds of pages of drawings, symbols, and stories written in the Cherokee language by a man named Tsala, apparently my ancestor, whose death and after-death spiritual journey is detailed in the following selection, which I have provided with much wonder and horror.

Having at first piqued my curiosity, this notebook has become my passion. Discovering it has changed my life.

My first question upon the notebook’s discovery was what does this say about my ancestor? However, as I continue to piece together Tsala’s writings, the more interesting question might be What does it say about death and the spirit world? Again, I had given very little serious thought to ancient Cherokee teachings, always dismissing them as mythical, but since I have begun compiling every piece of writing I can from this notebook, having read the creation stories and spiritual stories, poems of violence and suffering and indecipherable scribblings, having seen drawings of buffaloes and birds and smoking pipes, I am left astounded at the possibilities of what can happen to the spirit. I take the notebook with me everywhere, always thinking about it.

There are specific dates and names concerning the stabbings of innocent men. There are detailed references to spirits walking and spirits flying and spirits reincarnated into the bodies of animals and birds. These characters are inexhaustibly memorable. Such is the case with the story presented below, which also deals with one of the cruelest events in US history—the Trail of Tears. Many Cherokees knew this brutal event was coming and prepared as much as they could, hiding their families in caves in the mountains. According to Cherokee teachings, the 13 heavens ended in 1519 on the day Cortés landed in Mexico. 300 years later, in the beginning of the period we Cherokees call “the seventh hell,” President Jackson ordered the removal of Native American people from their land. (Wado, Prez, old fool! Did you know westward was the direction taken by the spirits of the dead?)

Of course, this was a time of betrayal and suffering and death. Are we the lost tribes of Judah? According to my grandfather’s notebook, my ancestor Tsala believed so; he was one of many who hid his family in the caves to avoid leaving the land, though sadly the soldiers executed him with his son. Before his own death, my grandfather was in the middle of translating Tsala’s writings, and there is still much to be translated.

Is this something anthropologists, historians, writers, archaeologists, painters, and poets could use to help keep Native American heritage alive? How aware is the public of the cultural dispossession and displacement among the Cherokees and other tribes throughout history? Certain textual references to spirits and reincarnated spirits seem overwhelmingly complex, and they might actually be more sad than sapient, an apotheosis of courage and resilience. I consider everything I’m translating as indispensable to the development of the human mind.

My grandfather’s interest in storytelling, much like my own, led him to learn the language, and today I study the language too, on warm days when I sit outside on my back porch and blow smoke rings from his buffalo pipe. Do not assume I’m not mortified by everything I’m translating, particularly the post-death account, the spirits walking westward, the brutality from soldiers forcing the tribes out of their land. I am learning to pay attention to the outside world. I no longer hunt animals or kill insects. I no longer fish or swat at bees or mosquitoes, not even flies. Though hunting was a profession, a Cherokee would not kill a wolf, as wolves were messengers to the spirit world. Owls, however, are considered ominous by many Cherokees. It is believed people can turn themselves into owls at night and travel around to do evil things to other people.

My mother used to tell me a story about when she was a young girl walking home with her sisters at sunset and saw an owl swoop down and attack a young boy who was playing in his yard. The boy fell down screaming as the owl dug its talons into his head and face until the boy’s father came out and the owl flew away. The boy lost an eye and suffered severe scars to his face.

Since I have begun compiling every piece of writing I can from this notebook, having read the creation stories and spiritual stories, poems of violence and suffering and indecipherable scribblings, having seen drawings of buffaloes and birds and smoking pipes, I am left astounded at the possibilities of what can happen to the spirit.

What does it all mean? Are there in fact truths in the ancient Cherokee myths? A case could be made that there is more to the outside world than one thinks, though I can understand too how one would see my vulnerability or state of mind as questionable. It isn’t uncommon today not to follow the ancient stories in such serious contemplation. We teach these stories as myths and as part of our culture and history. Certainly I consider a ubiquitous spirit in my presence, and though I hear no voice or whisper, I remain aware.

A hawk visits me from time to time, swooping down to a fence post across the yard, and I can’t help but wonder if the hawk is Tsala reincarnated. His spirit lives in the hawk; he travels around my land, protects me. I wave to him and he cocks his head. I watch him circle in the sky, swoop down to claw into some field rodent, and carry it away to eat. I watch him devour it in the middle of a rocky road. Later the hawk returns to his post, perched proudly, watching me. What does it all mean?

My grandfather’s spirit too must be out there somewhere. Has he risen from his grave and walked the earth, or is he soaring in the air? Is he a hawk, like Tsala, perched on some fence while his wife lies feeble and sick in bed? He once told me he had watched his father walk into the sacred fire in the northeastern Oklahoma woods and disappear, leaving no physical remains. “We are the Ani-yun’ wiya,” he told me. “Our cyclical reincarnation views are often misunderstood or ignored by our neighbors, but keep your eyes open! Look around you! What do you see crawling in the fields? Flying in the sky? Be kind to them; you never know who they might be.”

As the following selection suggests, perhaps we should retain integrity where ethics raise questions regarding myth and history, fact and fiction, the seen and unseen. I remain hopeful. Wado.

–Brandon Hobson (Gonjiam Plains Hospital, Oklahoma, 2018)

ANI-YUN’ WIYA

It is sweet to die in one’s native land and be buried by the margins of one’s native stream.
–Tsali, Cherokee medicine man awaiting execution, 1838

When I was a child, Dragging Canoe taught me to look to the yonder sky, where I saw visions of the dying. I saw people walking alongside oxcarts, carrying their children and their food while soldiers sat in wagons with their guns. I saw the fighting of warriors and soldiers across the land as my people hid in the bloodstained grass. I saw people dying of starvation and disease. I saw the slaughter of the fattest cattle and the passing of the war pipe while our people mourned for the dead. I saw slaughtered horses and snakes lying in the red dust at night. A deaf boy running through a field while soldiers called for him to stop; when he didn’t, they shot him dead. I saw the burning of ranches and stage stations, and afterward the feasting and dancing. A wind sweeping down into a dead body and giving birth to an eagle, who flew away into a white dawn. I saw bursts of fire in the sky and bodies trailing away like smoke.

Visions, visions, visions of the dying—what did it mean for me? For my family? For my people?

My father, the medicine man, taught my brothers and me to hunt, and in those early years I hunted so often I was followed everywhere by crows and magpies. Coyotes came out of the woods and stared at me with their tongues hanging out, waiting for food. One day while hunting, my brother, Attoka, found a bear cub in the woods. There was no sign of another bear, so he approached the cub but didn’t kill it. My father had taught us that our ancestors had hunted only for food, not sport, and that once an animal had been killed we should perform a ritual to the spirits for forgiveness and to explain that we needed the animal for food. Animals were not to be exploited, my father explained. This had to do with our fundamental concern for harmony, and should still be followed. The bear cub was tame at first, even before Attoka fed it corn from his hands. Then the cub turned and clawed at my brother, tearing flesh from his face that left an opening revealing his teeth and bone. When he made it home there was so much blood on his face and chest I thought he was going to die. The elders held two healing ceremonies that lasted from morning into late at night. Very late I listened to one of the elders tell me that good and bad spirits were roaming our land. He said the good ones become eagles, hawks, or birds in the sky. The bad ones turn into wolves and show their pointed teeth.

I saw the burning of ranches and stage stations, and afterward the feasting and dancing. A wind sweeping down into a dead body and giving birth to an eagle, who flew away into a white dawn. I saw bursts of fire in the sky and bodies trailing away like smoke. Visions, visions, visions of the dying—what did it mean for me? For my family? For my people?

I was intrigued with the elders’ stories of spirits. One day I came to a stream where a bison was drinking. I moved quietly and sat behind the bushes, pulling my bow and arrow from my sack. I did not think it was anything more than a bison, but when I looked back up at the stream, I saw a beautiful girl instead. Her hair was long and unbraided. I stood and approached her, captivated by her beauty. She smelled of prairie flowers and wild sage.

“Where is the bison?” I asked.

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