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

"This notebook has become my passion. Discovering it has changed my life."

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.

“Why do you question what you see?” she said, taking my hand and placing it on her face. “Can’t you feel me? Who are you, young boy? Go and look at your reflection in the stream.”

I went to the stream but could not see myself. I tossed a rock into the quivering water, then turned back to the girl, but she was gone. I called for her but she didn’t reply. I looked up at a high tree branch and saw a spotted owl, which was watching me. Frightened, I turned and ran, carrying my sack over my shoulder. I had heard elders talk about people turning themselves into owls and doing evil things to people in the middle of the night. I was more afraid of owls than rattlesnakes. Yet I was not hurt or injured. It was at that same place where I met my wife many years later.

That area too was where I met a man from Talking Rock Creek who told me about a giant frog living near the Chestatee River who was believed to be an angry spirit returned from the grave. The spirit frog was once a hunter who witnessed the transformation of a cornstalk into a beautiful woman, fell in love with her, but died of disease from drinking from the creek, which was filled with snakes and frogs. Her drops of blood in the ground sprang into corn, which he ate so often he became fatter and fatter. I thought about those stories, about fate, life, and death. Thanks to the wisdom of Dragging Canoe, I was fascinated by a hawk that circled in the sky. A bird of prey, the large hawk (tla’ nuwa) was never eaten. I saw the hawk as a strong, powerful creature. The hawk, as Dragging Canoe told me, was princely and contributed liberally to the support of the bald eagle.

I helped Dragging Canoe and his son take the fleshy side of enemy scalps and paint them red and tie them to poles for the scalp dances. At one of these dances one night I met a man named Dasi’giya’gi whose war medicine was an uktena’s shedded skin and burned turtle shell, which he used to smear on his face and body for protection from enemies. He had never been wounded because of wearing this war medicine. He warned me of the seventh hell we were living in, and soon I had dreams of the blood and destruction—a prophetic vision. Dragging Canoe told me: “You will be a visionary with prophetic gifts. You must learn to understand this.” Tecumseh had visions too. He warned us of the soldiers coming, warned of the removal from our land, but he did not warn me of my death or, worse, of my son’s death. As a child I dreamed of words written on the leaves that I could not read. I stood beside the gristmill my father built for grinding corn and watched the leaves scatter in the wind.

Vision, so many visions—and why? I saw other visions too. Nun-Yunu-Wi, the Stone Man, gave me a reddish-brown rock and told me to figure out what to do with it. For three days I looked at that rock in my hands and saw nothing special about it. It was only when I saw the red on my fingertips that I knew what to do. I broke the rock and used the red color to paint my face to hunt rabbits. I was very observant and fascinated by nature as a boy. One summer I swam in Ataga-Hi, the Enchanted Lake, and caught fish with my bare hands. Cherokees believed bodies of water were ways to the underworld, and I listened to my father’s family tell stories about the dangers of bodies of water whenever they visited. Many of these stories were frightening, about owls and bears, evil spirits and rattlesnakes; one in particular was told to me about the Great Leech of Tlanyusi’yi (“The Leech Place”), which is where the Valley River joins the Hiwassee. The Valley River has a rock you can walk across like a bridge to fish in the valley, but when people started fishing they began dying. They started noticing a long red leech that kept itself rolled into a ball until it sensed the presence of a human. Then it unrolled itself and leapt out of the water. Their bodies were found along the bank with their eyes and noses eaten from their faces. One person said these dead people had no tongues. This story frightened me, especially the story of a brave boy who was determined to fight the leech. He set off happily singing a song:

Tlanu’ si’ gune’ ga digi’gage
Dakwa’ nitlaste’ sfi!

I will tie red leech skins
On my legs for garters!

But when he got to the rock, the water began to boil and foam, and the leech leapt up and carried him down underwater, and he was never seen again. This story was told to young people many times when the winters ended and we started swimming in streams and rivers. The question always remained in my head: was there any truth to these stories? Around this time there was also a group of little people who were believed to be spirits, the Yunwi Tsunsdi, who lived in the mountains. Some nights you could hear music and drumming coming from the caves in the mountains, which was believed to come from these spirits, as they were quite fond of music and dancing. In the time of the smallpox epidemic, a hunter in the middle of a snowy winter afternoon found small footprints leading to the mountains, which he believed were the footprints of children. Afraid that these children were freezing to death, he followed the footprints to a cave.

People searched for him and thought he had been eaten by wolves or a bear, but when he returned a few weeks later, he told them he had become ill with smallpox and that the Yunwi Tsunsdi people had taken care of him until he was feeling well enough to leave. They were no taller than his waist, he said. Their hands and eyes were fire. They were night travelers and did not wish to be seen. Their teeth were crooked, but they swallowed the sun. Our people say if you hear music and drumming coming from the mountains at night, it is likely the Yunwi Tsunsdi. But we do not know why they are so secretive. Is their secretive nature to be helpful, or is there some other motive? We are not sure, but we hear them in the mountains.

Years later, in 1838, when I was a man with a wife and two children, I took my family to hide in a cave in those same mountains. We believed strongly in Tecumseh’s warning of the soldiers coming to remove us from our land, and nobody wanted to leave. We were frightened but ready to defend the land. Our people would refuse to leave even though we were tricked by the government with their fraudulent treaty. We did not trust them and knew how crucial this time would be. I told our village in the Cherokee language: What we do will affect our people for years to come. One of the wives hiding in the cave was so afraid for her new baby that one night she came running out into the summer rain with a tomahawk, yelling, “Kill! Kill!” I was not there, but they told me she felt the presence of a spirit’s strength so powerful she threw the tomahawk into the night sky, in the rain, and it never came down again, was never found anywhere. That night it hailed large ice pellets.

Our people would refuse to leave even though we were tricked by the government with their fraudulent treaty. We did not trust them and knew how crucial this time would be. I told our village in the Cherokee language: What we do will affect our people for years to come.

Some of the men introduced us to the Christianity religion and read from the book of Matthew as it had been translated by one of the men from New Echota. We discussed peace and sacrifice. We also talked about the treaty and our humility.

[Compiler’s note: I have to wonder about the reference to religion here, as the widely known “Great Spirit” could very well have resulted from the need for Native Americans to compare certain characters from ritual and creation stories to a Christian god. While many Native Americans practice Christianity today, there is no doubt an entire Native American Christianity based on creation stories/mythology is still practiced and is likely unknown to many non-native people. One has to wonder whether Tsala’s stories here reflect this belief.]

Soon our children’s fears passed! One night I woke to the drumming of spirits, or so I thought, and walked outside to look to the trees. The drumming stopped and I saw nothing. I thought of the Yunwi Tsunsdi living far off in the darkening lands, singing their songs and drumming, heeding a warning for all of us. It is coming, they would sing. I looked to the sky: there I saw the great blacksnake, the screech owl, the horned owl, and a group of people walking—they were all moving toward a giant tree in the sky. The tree was on fire and burning so fiercely I could feel the stinging in my eyes as I watched, then smoke began to cover them and the ashes fell from the sky like falling stars and I had to cover my eyes and go back inside the cave, where I lay awake until dawn. My wife said this was a strong vision of what was coming our way. All the pain and suffering. All the walking, the deaths. My wife is my guide even in moments like this, as she knew I had visions like Dragging Canoe.

And the next night the soldiers arrived. The ones who swarmed on our land like a pack of wolves began firing their weapons. Now there was a great misery upon us. The soldiers were ordered to be civil but they ignored the order and destroyed our cabins and barns. They slaughtered our chickens  and hogs and cattle. They prodded our wives and elders with bayonets as they forced them out of their homes and to stockades. Many of our people had nothing but their clothes—everything else was gone. Soldiers dug into graves to steal the gold from our dead, never bothered by the stench of corpses that filled the air. Though we were safe in seclusion, two other men and I couldn’t stand that we were not helping our people, so we set out. My brave son, nearly a man, came with us.

We attacked and fought, but there were too many of them. They surrounded us. One of them hit my son with a shovel and I lunged at him with my knife, cutting his arm. The other soldiers pulled me off and held me down. They tied us with rope. I told them I wanted to die before my son, but they did not agree. I closed my eyes and lowered my head as they pointed their rifles at us. I begged my son not to open his eyes, even when they told him to.

ADORNMENT AND ENTERING THE SPIRIT WORLD

This gift I inherited from my forefathers brings visions, prophecies. I saw a man who had been executed with his son, and I knew his spirit would become either an eagle or a hawk. He was in the third form of our ancient deities, and his name was Tsali.
–Cherokee spiritual leader, speaking of a vision, 1803

My beloved family: time among the dead is mysterious, therefore I do not understand the reason why I awoke when I did. Time among the dead may not exist at all the way humans experience it during life. Time may be felt: u-di-tle-gi, u-hyv-dla! (It is hot, it is cold!). My wife and daughter had adorned us in gold and jewelry and buried us. Adornment is important in death, as it is in life, and those from the Long Hair Clan made it known that we were beautiful, even absent of our spirits. In my death, in darkness, I felt the aching of my wife’s suffering. In death, as we slept beneath the earth, with the worms and the cold mud and rocks, to the soulful howl of the coyotes and the drumming of our people, as we slept beneath the feet of our people who stomped the ground and shook the heavens, I felt my wife’s suffering.

So strange how I could feel her suffering as if it were my own. The suffering was so great, in fact, that I felt my spirit move restlessly in an unfathomable darkness. How long was I dead? Surely not long! I crawled out of the earth like a beast in the night, with necklaces made of bear claws and gold, with wet mud and worms matted to my hair, which hung to my chest. I crawled out of the grave and felt as strong and mighty as a horse, even though I knew I had died. I could see for miles. Most of our people were at stockades without their homes, waiting to be moved west. Our people were being forced out of our land, this I knew, but I could not understand why. My thoughts were cloudy and confused as they can be in sleep. I tried to remember my name but I fell into a strange loss of thought.

The question that seemed most apparent: for what reason did I awake?

Why did I see these visions in the night? I saw government wagons and oxcarts and soldiers with rifles. I heard the crying of children and saw our feeble elders being lifted into the wagons. I saw a flash of light across the sky. A pale mist swirled before me like a small tornado, holding the image of someone I recognized: my son, a strange vision unlike anything I had ever seen before. I wasn’t able to speak or call his name, and in an instant he was gone, dissolved into the night. Across the land I heard the wailing of someone in pain.

“We are Ani-yun’ wiya, the principal people!” I shouted.

But when I spoke I heard no language, no sounds of words. Instead I heard from my mouth a tiresome roar. The soldiers must not have heard me, as I was very far away. I shouted again—“Ani-yun’ wiya!”—and this time not a roar or even a growl but a weary moan. Nobody seemed to hear me. I became frightened of myself, and for a moment I wondered if I had changed form or identity. As I examined myself, I saw I wore a buckskin, and I could not feel my skin. Clearly, I was a spirit of some sort. A spirit able to move, see, and speak. When I walked, my footsteps made no sound, though I felt the earth beneath my feet. I stomped my foot on the rocks and grass and heard nothing. I tried to adjust to the elements, breathing deep. I did not hunger or thirst, but I could not recognize my surroundings. I cried out in Cherokee like a wounded dog and heard my voice trail off.

Again I was faced with the question of my identity. It seemed I could not think clearly.

Where was I?

And what was the reason for my spirit awakening?

I did not recognize my hands or my legs or my feet, though I saw myself as a strong, fierce presence. The air sharpened the sting in my eyes and I knelt down and felt the ground for dirt, which I rubbed together in my hands to create heat. I placed my palms on both eyes, and when I opened them this time I saw that I was on my own land, near the spot of my burial. Then I saw the spirits of those who had died before me, warriors, hundreds of them. I saw their sleek figures and raven-black hair and a thick, swirling dust building behind them. They wielded black and red clubs, the colors of courage and blood. They were watching me from a distance—for what reason I do not know. And I could hear them calling out:

Ayanuli Hanigi! Ayanuli Hanigi!
Walk fast! Walk fast!

In the distance I saw fires aroused from smoldering coals. I saw Dragging Canoe and his father, Chief Attakullakulla, holding their clubs. I saw the Wolf Clan warrior Five Killer and his wolf, Black Fire. I began to walk to them, but before I could reach them, a great wind came up and they transformed themselves into a flock of blackbirds and flew away. So it was that I was left alone in the night near a stream reflecting the quivering moonlight. I approached the water and leaned over to look at my reflection—my immaculate reflection! The image peering back at me in the water was not the face I had during my life, but some hazy figure whose eyes I could not see.

In death, as we slept beneath the earth, with the worms and the cold mud and rocks, to the soulful howl of the coyotes and the drumming of our people, as we slept beneath the feet of our people who stomped the ground and shook the heavens, I felt my wife’s suffering.

I stood and looked to the sky, where I saw two twinkling lights in the darkness. The question of what my purpose was for returning to earth loomed in my head and I heard the howling of a wolf across the stream and saw that the wolf appeared to be in pain, lying on its side. I found I could walk through the stream in shallow water, though I felt no bottom to it. I crossed the water to the wolf, which howled again in pain, and I could see that the skin on the wolf’s neck had been ripped off, exposing blood and bone. I knelt down to the wolf and placed my hand on the wound, which made the wolf stop howling. Then the wolf spoke:

“There is a great sadness coming on the people and this land,” he said. “Your people will be forced to leave, to move west, and many will suffer and die.”

I did not speak to the wolf, but he knew I did not trust him.

He said: “If you want a sign that I speak the truth, you must first throw me into the water.”

“For what purpose?” I said.

“Throw me into the water and it shall be known,” the wolf said.

So I did as instructed, lifting the wolf and placing him in the shallow water, where he let out a high-pitched scream, and I was afraid I’d hurt the wolf, but he told me: “Look now at my neck.” And as I did so, I saw that the wound had healed. Then I stood back and the wolf came out of the water and shook his body dry.

“For this I will protect your family,” he said. “For this, because you are a spirit, you should know that you can transform yourself into a creature for eternity. Now go to your family in the mountains.”

The wolf started to walk off, and I shouted to him: “Wolf, how do I change my form?”

He turned his head and looked back at me: “Believe you have wings and you fly. Believe you are an animal and you roar. Believe you are dead in the mud and you sleep with the worms in the mud.”

You should understand some humans are tricksters disguised as animals. Many of these tricksters are coyotes, foxes, sometimes birds. But I believed the wolf! Looking into the distance, I recognized the mountains and followed the trail leading to them. I never tired. I walked and walked. Along the way, I stopped and washed my hair in a stream. My reflection was too dark to see, even in moonlight. The water rippled. I cupped water in my hands and drank as I had done in my life. Despite the winter, the water running down my chest and back didn’t feel cold. I stood and began following the trail. As I walked I never grew fatigued—I felt as though I could walk all night. I could lift the heavy rocks around me and build barricades, shelters. The more I walked, the more my strength grew beyond anything I’d felt.

I saw the spirits of those who had died before me, warriors, hundreds of them. I saw their sleek figures and raven-black hair and a thick, swirling dust building behind them.

In the ground I saw wagon ruts. I saw footsteps, handprints, all leading toward the mountain, and I knew the soldiers were looking for those hiding in the caves in the mountain. I leaned down and smoothed them out with my hands. It was urgent I erase any tracks they could find. I knelt down and smoothed the dirt. I kept smoothing it and, strangely, my back was not in pain as it had once been during my lifetime. I got down on my hands and kissed the land, our land. They wouldn’t steal it from us. They wouldn’t, I was certain. This must’ve been my purpose in awakening, to keep them from pushing us out.

I remained kneeling in the dirt, crawling like a wounded dog, smoothing out the footprints and wagon ruts. My back and body remained strong. Time was unknown to me, and I kept crawling and smoothing dirt for what must’ve been hours without pain or fatigue. After a while I stood and saw that the sun was on the horizon and realized I had been crawling all night. I was near the mountain now, and my body felt better than it ever had, so I began to run. I ran toward the mountain as fast as I could run, and the wind in my hair felt like hands, as if I were being guided. I was not out of breath when I reached the mountain. I was still not tired, not even breathing heavy, and in the morning’s dim sunlight I could now see my skin was gray, ghostly.

In the cave my daughter was sleeping, covered with blankets. I stood and watched her for a long time. I did not wake her. Soon I moved quietly toward her and knelt down. I reached out and touched her hair lightly with my hand. I was happy I could feel her hair in my fingers. I touched her back gently, then her forehead. She stirred in her sleep from my touch and, quite suddenly with her eyes still closed, swatted at my hand. I should tell you, Sonja, her hand passed right through mine! This was very disheartening for me because I knew I could touch and feel but people weren’t able to touch or feel me. Perhaps this is the way of the spirits when we roam about the earth to see our families. I can tell you that it was sad, at least in that moment, but I was happy to feel my daughter’s hair and see her. Then I stood and saw my wife across the cave, stripping corn.

The beautiful woman, her hair hanging down her body, facing away from me. I moved silently so I could see her face. I wanted to embrace her, but I knew she could feel me and it would disturb her forever, so I remained at a distance. I was very quiet. My feet made no sound as I sat and watched her. I thought of when we grew corn and squash, sunflowers and pumpkins, when we dressed deerskins together, when we walked at night together to be alone. Then I began to silently weep. I lay down beside my daughter and wept—for her, for my wife, for our people hiding in the mountain. I wept for the people who were beaten. I wept for the people who were already in wagons and walking west. I wept for all who were suffering and dying. I wept for my son.

I got down on my hands and kissed the land, our land. They wouldn’t steal it from us. They wouldn’t, I was certain. This must’ve been my purpose in awakening, to keep them from pushing us out.

I spent all day at the mountain, following them and watching them. My wife began to weep, telling our daughter about my wife’s parents going west. They were too old and would not return to us, and I saw my daughter’s eyes grow sad as she lowered her head. Then they went out to gather sticks with some of the others, and the men went into the woods to hunt. I stayed and watched my daughter play and all the while felt at ease knowing they were safe, at least for the time being, as the soldiers were gathering the others to migrate. I began to understand too my purpose for returning, and that this purpose had to do with justice for our people. I sat in a darkened cave and meditated the rest of the sunlight on this, and when I came out I could see the orange sun on the horizon to the west. I moved across the mountain to my wife and daughter, who were sitting with others by a small fire, eating. I heard laughter from children, the most pleasing sound.

After bidding a silent goodbye to my wife and daughter, I left the mountain and headed back to the wagons. In the morning light I ran along the trail and felt as though I were gliding with my arms spread like wings. Time—whatever time I experienced—seemed to move slowly during this run, and I had a strange and intense vision of people walking wearily through the snow. On and on they trudged, hunched forward in the wind. I saw a storm coming from the west. I saw people falling to their knees, dying in the rain. I saw the guards with their rifles and the scowls on their faces, and I felt the misery sweep over everyone like a cold wind. I saw the terror and brutality and heard the crying of infants and children. I saw the guards with their beards whom I would soon see face-to-face, this I knew as a spirit, the men whose presence would send me spiraling into the night in a fit of anger, the ones I vowed revenge on, the ones who slept with their ugly mouths open and their white bellies uncovered, their jugs empty, their bodies drunk and freckled and light haired and stinking with sweat and evil.

I saw too the manifestations of others like me—the roaring bear in the woods; the soulful, howling coyote; the eagle circling in the endless sky—and I knew I was not alone. A curiosity came over me when I saw these things, and for a moment I felt my anger lift away in the silence of the night. I was calmed by the sounds and visions of the night as I moved forward. I thought of what I taught my children: harmony, peace. Anger is like flooding water, building and building to destruction. What do I do next? Do I wander like a free spirit or do I seek justice? I stood in silence, looking to the yonder sky as Dragging Canoe had taught me as a child.

ETERNAL SKY SPIRIT

I have heard that lost silence. You have not heard it because you have not been dead.
–Tenskwatana, Shawnee (1775–1836)

There is no death, only a change of worlds.
–Chief Seattle, 1854

The question as to whether I should confront the soldiers and kill the ones who executed my son and me occurred to me over and over as I neared the stockade. But I was never a violent man and could not see myself as a violent spirit. Still, I found myself walking to the stockade where the wagons were being loaded by guards. I moved quietly, knowing they would not see me, or so I thought, but when I found myself hissing the closer I got to them, I knew they could hear me, knew my sound was threatening or at least fearful because one of the guards responded to me.

“Listen to that,” one guard said to the other.

“I don’t see anything,” the other said, looking in my direction.

“But did you hear it?”

The second guard never responded. I wasn’t sure if he was frightened or annoyed, but he walked away from the wagon and left the first guard alone. It was at this point I decided to move in closer and see whether he noticed me. He took a drink of a jug and wiped his face with a rag. For a moment he looked around to see whether anyone was watching him. Though I wanted to attack him, I knew it was not the right time; still, I moved in his direction out of the darkness until he turned and looked at me. I saw his face and knew he saw me, though he did not look frightened. I wondered if he thought I was one of our people coming to talk to him.

“Your plan is to harm us,” I said to him. I heard my own voice this time, not a growl.

He stared at me, confused. He took a step to the side and gripped his rag as if trying to gather what he wanted to say.

“Say that again?” he said.

“I said your plan is to hurt us,” I told him again, taking another step forward.

Vengeance is a word not to be used lightly. Vengeance is not death. It is not evil. It is not to be taken for granted or ignored. Vengeance, mixed with anger and fury, can be more harmful than good. You should understand everything about vengeance and its importance for justice, for order and harmony. This is the way we believe, the way our ancestors believed. This is our way.

The question as to whether I should confront the soldiers and kill the ones who executed my son and me occurred to me over and over as I neared the stockade.

The soldier shook his head, confused. It was clear he didn’t understand what I was saying even though I could clearly hear my voice. As if by some curse, I felt compelled to attack and tear into his body with my hands and teeth and kill him instantly. I felt a burst of rage at the sight of him looking back at me, yet I did nothing. I did nothing because I thought of my wife, my daughter, and my son. The soldier couldn’t touch me, just as my daughter was unable to touch me even though I could feel her. I was safe because I had no body, no flesh, only spirit. My plan, therefore, changed as this guard looked at me through narrow eyes, and I could tell the longer he looked at me, the more afraid he became.

“Do you understand what you’re doing to these people?” I asked him. “Do you see what’s happening? Look around you, soldier.”

He stepped back and spoke the name of his god. He now looked terrified as I moved closer. He saw my spirit as an anger manifested into human form. He saw my fury.

I made a noise, a moan, but he turned and fled. I knew I had frightened him, and this satisfied me. It excited me as much as the thought of killing him. The night filled with the smell of meat cooking and I thought of the many times I snared and skinned rabbits for stew, though I did not hunger, even with the strong smell. I remembered chopping wood near this place in the middle of winter when my wife was nursing my daughter. I thought of our triumphs and struggles, the pain we endured throughout cold winters. My mind filled with angry, evil thoughts about the migration, and again I considered the question What was my reason for becoming a spirit? To kill or seek justice? Or to protect you, all of you, for years to come?

My beloved: I yearned for vengeance for my son, my family, our people—and yet I turned into an ageless hawk, strong and adept, and flew westward into the night sky.

__________________________________

From Conjunctions, Issue 71: A Cabinet of CuriosityCopyright © 2018 by Brandon Hobson.

Brandon Hobson
Brandon Hobson
Brandon Hobson is the author of the novel Where the Dead Sit Talking, a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award for Fiction, and other books. He has won a Pushcart Prize, and his work has appeared in magazines such as The Believer, The Paris Review Daily, Conjunctions, NOON, Post Road, and in many other places. He is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation Tribe of Oklahoma and is a faculty member of the low-res MFA program at Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, OR.





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