Conversation with Grandma Jo

My Turtle Drum

(A conversation I remember from the year before I started college; the image is one of my shaman drums)

“Beulah, Annie, and I spent most of our youth at the Eufaula Indian school. We’d go home over the Christmas holidays and in the summers. Government agents took all the grade-school-aged children from their families and put them in the new boarding schools to learn English and a trade. Training the young to take their place in ‘civilized’ society was another part of the plan to end the old ways.”

“We’re you sad to leave your home?”

“A little at first, but we three liked the adventure and getting to be away from home. Mother put your great Aunt Lena, who was the oldest, in charge of us younger children. We hated how strict she was.

“Eufaula was a female seminary, one of the best of the girls’ boarding schools. Nuns and highly educated teachers came from New England to teach there. Our education was better than what little education the children of the white settlers were getting. The nuns told us to forget our native language and customs and to become good Christians.

“Since we girls already knew some English from our fathers, we did well at our studies. The teachers would praise us. But I felt sorry for the students who didn’t do well. The nuns would beat them and make them sit in the corner of the room with dunce hats.”

“Can you still speak Cherokee?” I asked.

“Oh, no, I’ve forgotten most of the words.”

“What words can you remember?”

“I can still remember the words of a Cherokee song. It’s the one they sang on the Trail of Tears. It’s called ‘One Drop of Blood.’ It goes like this:”

Ga Doh Dah China, Dah Nay Lee, Chee Sa
Oh Gah Chay Lee Sah Gah Way U Hee
Oh Gah Lee Gah Lee, Nah Nah Quoo Yay No
Choh Gee Lah Wee, Star Nay Dee Wee

Oh Gah Chay Lee Gah
Chah Gay Way U Hee
Chah Chay Lee Gah No
Oh Gah Chay Lee Gah

“Wow! That sounded really strange. What does it mean?”

“It means something like this:

Oh what can we offer you, Jesus, our Lord?
You who help us on our way to a far away land.
We can offer our works, our Lord.

Our works are yours. You are our Lord.
Ours, Yours. You are our Lord.
Ours, Yours. You are our Lord.

“I don’t know why it’s called ‘One Drop of Blood.’ Not one word in it is about blood. That’s typical Cherokee. The shamans, that’s the medicine men, receive wisdom from the Great Spirit. Also from the ancestors and the spirits of nature. When they speak the wisdom to the tribe, it’s like riddles, hard to understand. From studying the Bible, I notice Jesus speaks in riddles, too.”

“Why would the Cherokee be singing a song to Jesus on the Trail of Tears? I thought you became Christians in the seminary schools.”

“Actually, we were already Christian. Most of the Cherokee tribal peoples converted to Christianity at least twenty years before the Trail of Tears. To us, God was just another word for our Great Spirit. The main difference was that he had a son, just like a human father. We loved it that his son Jesus cared so much about us that he died for us. Also that we could have a personal relationship with him and pray directly to him without having to wait for a shaman ceremony.”

“Did you have to give up your Cherokee beliefs?”

“Most of our values were the same as what Christianity teaches, so it was no problem keeping them. We forgot some of our old legends and stories, though. At seminary, we knew not to talk about them. The nuns told us what we knew about the healing properties of herbs and plants was just superstition. We knew that wasn’t so; we’d seen them work. But we kept our mouths shut about it. We didn’t want to end up in the corner with a dunce’s cap or worse.”

© Pending publication in 2021 or 2022 in Pageland by Leona Patrick

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