Finding Family Stories

A Chapter from The People Who Stayed: Southeastern Indian Writing After Removal 

University of Oklahoma Press

Great-grandma sat in a rocking chair near the big white front door. It was summer and the door was open. 

“Play a tune for us, Grandma.” My mother said. 

But Grandma didn’t want to play the harmonica, didn’t want to take out her teeth, not in front of so many people. The house was filled with relatives. Perhaps she sensed my disappointment— she told me a story about when she and Great-Grandpa were sharecroppers. I remember almost nothing of her sharecropping story, only “We were sharecroppers” stayed with me.

All her life, Great-Grandma had been a Cherokee, but in 1953; the same year I was born, the government decided Grandma was Lumbee. Uncle Elmer signed up right way, but Grandma said that was just folks talking and it couldn’t change anything.
Squinting at me, Great-Grandma said, “Child, you got eyes green as water ferns. Doesn’t matter, they’re still Indian eyes.” Her words made me feel all warm and cozy inside. My great-grandparent’s home was the center of my world. My aunties with their high rounded cheeks, laughed and teased with me, while my uncles discussed politics, and the cousins played together like a pack of wild pups.
I can only remember my great-grandparents living in an old single-story white frame house in California, with a rock behind each door and chickens in the backyard. But when my dad was growing-up, after they moved from Oklahoma to California they made their home inside an old circus tent.

“Grandma’s stove was in the center,” My father explained, “The stove pipe poked through a hole in the top of the tent.” I was ten, brown-haired and freckle-faced, when dad told me this story.
Every Sunday Great-Grandma made chicken and noodles on an old cookstove in the kitchen. My dad remembers her making them in the circus tent, she made a huge pot, there were lots of black-haired cousins.

For the first time in thirty years, I found myself surrounded by all my uncles and aunties again. I became the pest I was at age ten and begged to hear the family stories when my cousins gathered around the table.

Aunt Lydia, my grandpa’s younger sister, sat across from me, a hand-rolled cigarette hung from her mouth.
“We’re a family who all got raised with our great-great parents nearby.” She explained. Aunt Lydia spoke in a flat hill dialect; her smile without teeth brought a grin to me face.
“Your grandpa and me, we learnt from our great-grandma to dig Sweet Root from the ground. Yellowroot, Lady’s Slipper; she knew all of them.” 

My grandfather leaned forward. “She sewed quilts and none of us kids ever wore moccasins.” He said. Grandpa is fond of letting me know our family became respectable homesteaders in Oklahoma and he almost never talked about his great-grandmother.  

Once I saw a photograph of her, she was square and brown, sturdy, but not pretty, with boot moccasins on her feet. Aunt Lydia said she sang in the evening and that she lived to be ninety-nine years, nine months and nine days.
“She died peaceful in her bedstead.” Grandpa reported. His face was flushed, yet it was cool in the kitchen; an early October breeze came in through the propped open screened door. Uncle Elmer, grandpa’s older brother pulled up a straight-back chair, sat down and began giving the lowdown on what he remembered. He peered over the rim of his glasses, his skin was dark from the sun, white hair feathered behind his ears.
“My mother was from the forgotten tribe.” Uncle Elmer explained and I asked what that meant.
“If you drive through the Carolinas towards Virginia, you’ll go through where the big army base is and just back this side is the Lumbee tribe. My mother, it turns out, wasn’t half-white like everybody thought, she was half-Lumbee.” Hearing this, Grandpa almost went to his knees, he waved his arm, nearly knocking my coffee off the table and said that Uncle Elmer was a possum-headed idjit and that he remembered everything all wrong.
I got up to go to the bathroom. Grandpa and Uncle Elmer’s voices faded in and out. As a kid I had a hard time finding my way through the snowstorm of words that blew between them. I looked at myself in the lighted mirror of the medicine cabinet. My cheekbones are level with the tops of my ears, I have tiny deep-set eyes and new gray hairs on my head are strong as little wires.  I know I’m somewhere between one-eighth and one-quarter Indian. I should leave it at that and think about something else, but I fill hours trying to decide on an exact amount.
When I came back to the kitchen Aunt Lydia had a raccoon soaking in salt water, getting it ready for steaming. Her secret to barbecuing a raccoon was to steam it tender first. While she dusted it with onion soup powder and ladeled sauce on both sides, Aunt Lydia blew little puffs of smoke from the thin cigarette she had rolled.
“That’s bad for your health.” Uncle Elmer said in a way that didn’t sound like he was joking. The cousins tried to change the subject, then it was quiet for a moment that soft autumn morning. Aunt Lydia let out a deep sigh, “I don’t need a big brother telling me what to do. I’m old and I’m tired of it.” She walked out on to the porch, I followed. This was a side of Aunt Lydia I’d never seen before and I dared more.
“Grandpa and Uncle Elmer tell me conflicting stories.” I confided. Aunt Lydia clutched at her cigarette like it might fly out of her hand. Her lips moved gently.
“They’s just too taken up with theirselves. Your uncle Elmer’s got the notion we’d be better if we were tribal members and `your grandpa thinks we’d be better if we weren’t Indian.”  At eighty, Aunt Lydia’s skin was like clay, so smooth and brown. She flapped her hand in front of her mouth hiding her bare gums. We stood quiet side by side for a long time; the air was clear and the wind still. 

Aunt Lydia lit another cigarette, “Trust your memories.” She warned, “If you do, you’ll find everything you want to know is already inside you.” 

And then Aunt Lydia surprised me; she talked about what was good medicine and bad. Her shoulders had bent as she grew older, but Aunt Lydia was straight as a young girl while she told me her stories. Her words came from far away and sounded like wind in the trees, like running water, and for a few minutes I was lost. But I caught her last phrase and it guided me like a rope tied from the house to the barn in a blizzard. She said, “We’re a family of mixed bloods, and there’s nothing wrong with what we are.”