The Native Strain
“We never talk about the Native strain,”
My mother warned in secret, early on.
My father honored her. Our photos – drawn
From generations, grey with filmy grain –
Were never framed and flaunted, on display
Like other people’s. Faces by the dozens
Remained in albums – uncles, aunts, and cousins
Enclosed in boxes, shelved and stowed away.
Her father, although handsome, could not “pass.”
But this fact was as absent from discussion
As crass vernacular, or formal Russian,
Or choruses of “mountain man” bluegrass.
Our Native ties, however, were the sole
Connections we could talk about at all:
A tightly-bound clan, insular and small,
Whose lives we heard as through a locked keyhole.
To read my mother’s scrapbooks, one would think
The Indians were our one folk, for none
On our “white side” received us -- they would shun
Us totally, to be our “missing link,”
So they received her mention on no page.
This was Grandmother’s lifelong punishment,
Dishonoring her people – wild, hell-bent
On “savages,” at fifteen years of age.
No single nor escorted Anglo member
From my maternal granddam’s well-heeled kin
Would travel down by train, nor enter in
To my grandfather’s house, that I remember.
Occasionally, I might overhear
Some snippet of a whispered conversation
Long-distance -- when my wild imagination
Would rampage, and the mystery disappear.
The while Monk drew a breath, I never saw
Those Scots Virginians. Untamed Tennessee
Became an oft-seen, second home to me –
The birthplace of my “alien” papaw
They called “Damned Injun” to Grandmother’s face.
On Lover’s Leap -- the tragic promontory
Where Cherokees maintained the moving story
Of Sautee’s and Nacoochee’s deaths took place,
The ancient Romeo and Juliet
Of Native America— he loved to stand;
On Lookout Mountain, where he could command
A view of seven states, all in a set;
Where Chickamauga Cherokees defied
Colonial encroachment, and no cragging
Of cliffs is customary – there, where Dragging
Canoe once took the Cherokee to hide.
Those were the photos hung in every room,
Of precipice and mountain, peak and bluff:
High, low, as though there could not be enough,
With scenes of snow, by harvest, or abloom.
Cliff faces were the faces we would see,
The hill, the valley, and the still, blue lake:
The earth for whom our forebears would forsake
Their tribe, their culture, and their family.