Trail

by Rilla Askew

05/06/2015

Long after I left Tahlequah I dreamed of the place. Not just the town but the earth and waters that surround it. The Tahlequah of my dreams looks nothing like the real landscape. In my dreams the images are primitive, iconic: a dark symbol land. Still, I always know where I am. Usually it’s the small cabin above the Illinois River where I once lived. Sometimes it’s the steep, stone-filled path leading down to the cabin. Except, in reality, there was no such trail. That treacherous footpath above the Illinois belongs to Goats Bluff, miles upriver from where the cabin stood. But the mind will blend. The mind grabs hold of symbols. It tells you what matters. What you long for. What you fear.

There’s the Tahlequah of my memory, a place crystallized in the seventh decade of the last century when I lived there with hippies and rock musicians and Indians and actors and the first gay community I ever knew anything about. I went to school at Northeastern, studied special ed and theater, danced at the Trail of Tears Outdoor Drama south of town. I picked up trash in the little park below Seminary Hall where Town Branch trickles lively over bright green watercress in springtime, creeps slow and debris-cluttered over quarried stones in high summer. I didn’t pick up litter because of any acute environmental consciousness—it was just my work-study job, strolling around campus with a shoulder satchel and a long stick barbed with a nail on the end, stabbing up gum wrappers, red paper Coca-Cola cups, and pale golden Coors cans.

There is also the Tahlequah of now, of course, with its bypass roads and corporate fast-food corridor, its tourists and traffic and burgeoning Cherokee tribal complex: a vital place, growing, active—very much changed from the sleepy town I remember. I go there sometimes, to see friends. To search for something. But the Tahlequah of now isn’t the place I long for.

When I first moved there I was told the town’s name means Two Will Do in Cherokee. The Cherokees had lost a quarter of their people to suffering, starvation, and disease on the Trail of Tears. When they arrived on that terrible journey, the story goes, three scouts were sent out to discover the best place to set up their new headquarters, their “capital.” Two men returned, saying this place here, nestled at the edge of rolling hills near a clear river and running streams, was the best location. The third scout never showed up. Tribal leaders decided that the word of the two who returned was enough, and they set their capital here, calling it Ta’ligwu: Two Will Do. Two Is Enough. I heard this story many times, from many sources, or versions of it. Sometimes the men are called “braves” or “elders.” Sometimes they’re meeting for council, not going out to search. I believed the story then. I doubt it now. It sounds to me like a white man’s story, like the jokey stories I was told as a kid about how Nowata got its name, or Eufaula.

In the Tahlequah of my memory, it is always summer. Say the name, and I see the old Cherokee courthouse on the green lawn of the square, the bustling Shack Café and Morgan’s Bakery down the street, the busy Safeway store with the tree-shrouded park rising above it and the street called Choctaw dividing at the cement wall. I see the deep, still waters of Lake Tenkiller miles away, where we used to swim late at night after rehearsals, leaping off the rocks into the black water at Wildcat Point, leaving behind the litter of our own pale golden cans when we piled into our vehicles at dawn. I see the rippling, stone-bedded waters of Baron Fork Creek east of town, remember the blond girl who floated away from our party on an inner tube one summer day stoned on pot and beer and was found later, drowned.

I see the winding green snake of the Illinois River, the dense woods pressing in on all sides, thick with vines and clotted undergrowth. I feel the humid air on my skin. My ears buzz with the din of cicadas in the hot afternoons, the relentless scritch-scritch-scritch of tree frogs at night. I see an army of black specks marching up my leg from where I’ve stepped in a nest of newly hatched seed ticks, hear the slaps of paddles on water, the shouts of drunken canoeists coming down the Illinois. “Do you work here?” they ask as I collect their empty beer cans and drop them in a pile on the gravel bar below the cabin. The river is a drinking game to them, a Disney ride, an exotic adventure.

“I live here,” I say.

How long was it before I came to understand that my life was only superimposed on the land? That I was not of it, merely on it. I don’t know. Years maybe. But I do know when my awakening started—in summer, in the 1970s, when I hung out day and night with the dancers and actors and Cherokee villagers I worked with
at Trail.

The full title of the pageant was The Trail of Tears Outdoor Drama at Tsa La Gi, but most of us just called it “Trail,” or sometimes “Tsalagi” (the initial sound pronounced halfway between dja and cha), which I was told meant “Cherokee” in Cherokee, implying it was their own name for themselves, though in fact their name in their native language is Ani-yun-wiya, or the “Real People.” Not that anyone explained that to me then.

Tsa La Gi was also the name of a place—not designated so by the Cherokee people but by an organization called the Cherokee National Historical Society, unaffiliated with the tribe, formed in 1962 by a white retired army colonel, Martin Hagerstrand, who was married to a mixed-blood Cherokee woman, the kind and lovely Marion Brown. The site near Park Hill had been the original home of the first school for women west of the Mississippi, the Cherokee National Female Seminary, built in 1851 at the height of Cherokee flourishing after the Trail of Tears, and destroyed by fire in 1887, the same year Congress passed the Dawes Act forcing allotment of tribal lands. Forty-four wooded acres of tall oaks and thick-leaved hickories, the compound featured a museum, a replica of an early day Cherokee village, and the Tsa La Gi Amphitheater where the Trail of Tears drama was performed. Excavated out of the earth itself, the theater had steeply raked seating so that audiences might look directly down on the action, a lushly wooded mountain, crisscrossed with stone walkways, rising in back of the performance space, and, on either side of the stage, giant turntables on wooden platforms to facilitate scene changes. Not far from the entrance, three enormous columns from the burned seminary stood like haunting memento mori amidst the trees.

How long was it before I came to understand that my life was only superimposed on the land? That I was not of it, merely on it. I don’t know. Years maybe.

Some local Cherokee women and their offspring would work all day in the Ancient Village, weaving baskets, demonstrating how to make blowgun darts or play stickball, and then walk across the shaded park to the amphitheater at dusk to perform in the drama as villagers—extras, essentially, who had no speaking parts and were paid less than the actors and dancers, but if they were Indian they did get to go onstage in their own hair and skin. Most of the white female dancers had to sweat under the stage lights in bulky black braided wigs, their skins smeared rust red with a theatrical compound known as Texas Dirt. I was only an understudy dancer, and not a very good one, as I will tell you now and would have told you then, but I tried very hard. My own hair was long and thick and dark enough that I was allowed to go wigless, though I still had to dab my damp sponge in the ruddy powder and smear my face and arms and legs before donning my costume—at least until midsummer, when my tan got dark enough that I could go onstage in my own skin. Halfway between dark and light, that’s how I saw myself. The program listed me as part Cherokee because that’s what I thought I was. That’s what I’d always been told.

Each evening at 8:00 the stage lights came on, the music roared to life, and we all shuffled onto the stage in rags and tattered blankets, reenacting the forced march of the Cherokees from their homelands to this territory in the west. The full cast drudged slowly through ominously lit space to the accompaniment of dirge-like music while the white actors who played Cherokee leaders began to orate. We stumbled and collapsed, some of us dying dramatically and being carried off—a bit of staged business we’d negotiate ahead of time, because it was our only chance to grab the audience’s attention. Offstage, we’d sit on the concrete ramps leading to the turntables, our skirts hiked to our thighs or our shirts open, the scratchy blankets thrown aside as we sweated in the sultry evening heat, smoking cigarettes, flirting, fooling around. I didn’t then think it an insult to make an entertainment of that brutal American act of ethnic cleansing, that homegrown death march known as the Trail of Tears. It was my understanding that the tribe approved of the drama, and none of the villagers seemed bothered by our lack of reverence. And anyway, the history in the play was true. More or less.

The script in those years, and for most of the amphitheater’s history, was an epic melodrama by a white professor named Kermit Hunter, who’d also penned the script for a twin pageant in North Carolina about the Cherokees in the years before Removal. It was a white man’s version of Indian history, told simplistically, if sympathetically, with spectacular special effects—dance! music! costumes! flash pots in the Civil War scenes!—but none of that bothered me. It was, after all, a pageant: by definition “an elaborate public spectacle illustrative of the history of a place.” I did object to the fact there was only one significant female character, a sappy love interest named Sarah who spends most of the play acting like as big a ninny as any white female character in an old Western. I also didn’t much care for how the Green Corn Dance had us all stooping over and whooping like bad imitations of Hiawatha and Pocahontas to a pounding Russian composition by Shostakovich. Overall, though, I loved working at Trail.

My nights were filled with excitement and performances and partying and learning people’s ways I’d never known before. The choreographer was a wonderfully flamboyant Jewish man from New York City named Marvin who taught me words like schmattaand mensch. I felt ushered into a secret world with my gay friends, a kind of parallel hidden society that had been around from time immemorial, though I’d never known it. The dancers, both gay and straight, accepted me. They were kind to me, actually. Sometimes I wondered at how these performers who’d been training all their lives could be so tolerant of a clumsy girl who couldn’t tell step-ball-change from chassez, or execute either very well. But they plopped their dance bags next to mine on the gym floor at rehearsals, showed me how to stretch my muscles without pulling a hamstring, how to wrap my ankles, avoid shin splints. I felt at once inside and outside, a part of and apart from.

It was a white man’s version of Indian history, told simplistically, if sympathetically, with spectacular special effects—dance! music! costumes! flash pots in the Civil War scenes!—but none of that bothered me.

I can’t say at what point I began to be uncomfortable with how the tragedy was told, the message the audiences left with. In the play, after much fighting and killing between Cherokee factions and a great deal of flashy spectacle, the story ends with the Cherokee people and the white citizens of Oklahoma uniting joyfully on the first day of statehood in 1907. The Cherokees are relieved and happy; they dress up in straw boaters and bustles, and dance a celebratory ragtime dance. The music swells, and Sarah’s voice, cracked with age, weighted with wisdom, comes over the loudspeakers to tell the audience, in an astonishing mixing of metaphors, that the Cherokee people did not die in 1907 but were reborn, like the ancient phoenix: “The red man is like a crimson thread running through the texture of this new state… like red flowers growing on the green bosom of Oklahoma.” And the largely white audiences shake themselves loose from the dream, climb the steep stairs to return to their tour buses and cars believing this is all to the good: no more sorrow, no more deadly divisions between the Cherokees, no more white folks taking away Indian homelands. A blessedly unified, peaceable world on the shining green breast of Oklahoma.

Except, I grew up here. I knew it wasn’t so.

I couldn’t then have named for you the kinds of troubles that lay ahead for Indian people in Oklahoma after 1907—the Osage Reign of Terror in the 1920s, for instance, when scores of Osages would be murdered for their oil headrights; or the federal relocation policies of the 1950s and ‘60s, when Indian families would be relocated from their allotted lands to distant urban areas, as Wilma Mankiller’s family was moved to San Francisco in 1956; or the chillingly named “termination” policies that would continue to steal Indian children by systemically adopting them away from their tribes into “civilized” white homes; not to mention pervasive poverty, lack of self-determination, the relentless leaching away of Indian lands. But I knew intuitively, and by witness, the power of racial bias in this state. I’d seen it growing up in Bartlesville, living in Shawnee, Tulsa, Tahlequah—more subtle for Indian people than for black people, true, but it was surely there, a wordless color hierarchy within the dominant culture that said the darker your natural skin color, the lower your status.

It may be hard for some contemporary readers to recognize the racist underpinnings of a state that today proudly proclaims itself to be “Native America” and uses a sanitized version of Indian history to draw tourists, a place where half the white population claims the ubiquitous “Cherokee” great-grandmother. I don’t know why Cherokee became the proprietary eponym for Indian, but it happened long before my time, along with the obligatory “high cheekbones” proof of such ancestry, as my Papaw Allie always pointed to on his own face. His purportedly part-Cherokee mother was born in Texas and migrated to Indian Territory with her family as a young girl—and, yes, from her pictures I believe she could have been part Indian, and, yes, there were Cherokees in Texas in the mid-1800s, a few, but there were also Comanches and Wichitas and Caddos and Tonkawas and other tribes you don’t hear white people claiming to be “part” of. Maybe it’s because the word Cherokee sounds so nice in English—it’s easy to pronounce, has that satisfying throat click in the middle, and white history has proclaimed the Cherokees to be a “civilized” nation, so somehow that led to the adoption, even in my grandfather’s still very prejudiced era, of Cherokee as the only acceptable tribe to be from—if one were going to claim to be Indian at all.

The 1970s were a transitional period between the overt racism of my great-grandparents’ day, when some families hid their Indian blood because they thought it not good or smart to be Indian, to the tremendous surge of Native American wannabes today. Even in the ‘70s it was acceptable, though not yet chichi, to be of Indian descent. But the bias against full-bloods remained. I could hear it in the racist “drunk Indian” jokes told by white friends, see it in the faces of certain dark-skinned kids who were bullied or ostracized at school. The progression from covert prejudice to it’s-cool-to-be-Indian accelerated rapidly toward the end of the century, a cultural shift that was hard to miss. I’ve often remarked that when I left Oklahoma in 1980, nobody was Indian. When I came back in the 1990s, everybody was.

But in Tahlequah, and especially those summers at Trail, it seemed to me that traditional Cherokees and those of us from the dominant culture lived side by side, our worlds superimposed one on the other, as my life on the river was superimposed on the landscape, but our realities did not touch. Somehow either they, or we, were a hologram. Many of the performers were of Indian descent, proud of their heritage, but white in their way of being. Others looked as white as I did, or more so—pale skin, auburn hair—and yet had more kinship to Indian ways than others with greater blood quantum. There was an unfathomable difference, which I felt but could not name. The layers were beyond my ken: there was a social layer, how we all behaved with one another; a layer of ceremony and tradition, which I heard about but was not privy to; layers of politics, sentiment, romanticism, culture; a hidden spirit layer that was palpable to me but beyond my grasp. I felt it most acutely in the natural world around Tahlequah, the hills cradling the town, the rivers and streams that lace through there, the thick woods closing in on all sides. I sensed it in the shaded grounds of the complex itself, with its ghostly post oak trees, its charred brick columns from the old female seminary standing sentinel as the tourists filed back to their buses in the dark.

My first summer at Trail there were two star dancers, Eddie Burgess and Dewey Dailey. Both were Indian, both stunningly talented—gifted beyond the level of ability one might expect at an outdoor drama. Their dancing dominated each night’s performance. They were point and counterpoint, darkness and light: Eddie, compact, muscular, was the Death Dancer who followed the Cherokees through all their dark days on the Trail, shaking his rattles, taunting them, leaping and tumbling about the stage in scenes of death and destruction. Dewey, long and lithe and graceful as a Balanchine, was the Phoenix who rises from the ashes at the end of the play. These days I can’t imagine not knowing the tribes of any of my Indian friends, but in those days I didn’t think about it. I never asked what tribe they were, whether either of them was Cherokee or not.

Eddie and I had grown up together in the same Oak Park neighborhood in Bartlesville; his house was just a few blocks from mine, his younger brother in the same class as my sister. I hadn’t known him well then because he was a couple of years behind me in school, but I did know he was a fabulous gymnast. It was Eddie’s gymnastic mastery, incorporated into the dance, that made his performances so breathtaking. He had an almost terrifying skill. He rolled and tumbled about the stage in a kind of controlled frenzy that seemed to me at once balletic and thrillingly wild. Eddie partied as hard as any of us (in that summer stock milieu drinking and carousing were just what we did), but he was also the hardest-working performer I’d ever seen in my life. The first to arrive at the theater, he’d be warmed up and ready to go, having practiced some uncountable amount of time by dusky evening when we all came sauntering and chattering in. His girlfriend, Cindy, is one of the dancers I especially remember as being kind to me that summer, and so was Eddie, in fact, though he was so much the star, and had the authority of dance captain besides, that I recall admiring him more from afar than being inside his circle.

Dewey was simply beautiful: sculpted face, arched brows, lush lips. The first time I saw the musician Prince I thought, God, he looks like Dewey Dailey. In fact, though, Dewey was even more beautiful than that. His performances as the Phoenix were exquisite: feathered, weightless, lighter than air, he seemed to soar beyond the reach of gravity, the symbolic creature who does battle with Death near the end of the travails, is vanquished, burned in the fire, but rises again from the ashes, transfigured to a small Indian boy on a shield, lifted above the heads of the dancers in a triumphant drum-pounding, brass-thrilling, heart-racing theatrical climax at play’s end.

Night after night we dancers ran in circles around the leaping, pirouetting, half flying Phoenix, flapping our sheer red and orange and yellow flags—the schmattas of Marvin’s designation—like flames of fire around the dying bird. Night after night, Dewey died in the flames, and night after night, was reborn as one of the little Cherokee villager boys raised up on a shield. Night after night, Sarah’s aged voice came over the loudspeaker to declare that the Cherokees had always believed that the  “Great Spirit” had destined them to do “one great thing,” and to suggest it was perhaps this, the creation of this new state of Oklahoma, that fulfilled their destiny. And night after night, in bustle and gingham skirt, I kicked and strutted that two-step ragtime “1907” with a silent, inarticulate rebellion in my chest, an inchoate sense of wrongness: Surely the Cherokee people did not see it this way.

How could they? Statehood meant further destruction of the Nation, more land theft, the complete usurpation of self-determination. It meant this land they had suffered so terribly to reach was no longer Indian Territory but, in a brutal transmogrification of two Choctaw words meaning red people, this place was now White Man’s Land.

I don’t mean to say I was outraged back then, or that I understood yet how my own family’s migration into I.T. in the late 1800s was part of the relentless story of theft and displacement, or that I was attuned to how thoroughly white-biased and appropriated the script at Trail of Tears was. I mean only that I’d started seeing things in a new way. I mean that, deep inside me, an awakening had begun—an awakening that was as much artistic as it was social or political, because I loved what Eddie and Dewey did on the stage every night. The acting in the play was heavy handed, oratorical, overwrought. The choreography was a New Yorker’s stereotyped vision of how to evoke Indian dances, even though, yes, we had shell-shakers in the Green Corn Dance—Cherokee women with heavy pebble-filled turtle shells strapped to their calves—and there was a dance called the “Ribbon Dance” which had the men and women in beribboned “tear” shirts and dresses, though the movements looked rather like a European maypole dance. But the sheer artistry of those two dancers, night after night, took my breath away. Death Dancer and Phoenix. Darkness and Light. Destruction and Survival. Their unending duel, vanquishment, and triumph epitomized the layers of spirit and story I could perceive but not name.

The last summer I danced at Trail was 1977. That was the summer Elvis died, and New York City went dark in a blackout that wrapped the city in violence and fear. The summer Florida voters heeded Anita Bryant’s anti-gay crusade and repealed their gay-rights ordinance. The summer three little girls were brutally murdered near Locust Grove and a Cherokee man named Gene Leroy Hart hid out in the hills north of Tahlequah, evading capture for that horrific crime which many locals said he did not commit. I heard talk. The Little People hid him, they said. No, others countered: It was the old Cherokee full bloods living deep in the hills who kept the fugitive from being found. Some said Hart was stigini, a shapeshifter, a night-walker-about.

Hart’s disappearance seemed, that summer, another part of the ineffable mystery, another layer of what I could not understand. There were haunting, persistent rumors. He would never be found, some said. He was a modern day Ned Christie, a Cherokee man unfairly declared outlaw by the white man’s law, but not by his own. Others hated and feared him, had convicted him already in their minds because of the news stories. Details of the manhunt covered the news every day, along with veiled rehashings of the unspeakable crimes against three innocent little girls—a tragic, horrific outrage, an unendurable heartbreak for their families that I could hardly bear to think of it. How could someone, anyone, do such a thing?

We know the ending now, or part of it anyway, what eventually was told in the news: how Hart would elude the searchers well after summer’s end, through the winter and into the following spring, when he would be captured and brought to trial. How he would be acquitted of the Girl Scout Murders for lack of evidence but sent to the McAlester State Penitentiary anyway to serve out time on a prior conviction. And how, three months after that, he would fall dead of a heart attack while running laps in the prison yard, which some said was inmate justice, covered up, and others said, no, it was Cherokee justice, because Hart really did do those terrible murders, and Cherokee medicine had taken care of him in that way.

I don’t know the truth now any more than I knew it then, that last summer in Tahlequah, when Hart was a fugitive hiding in a landscape of clotted undergrowth and clear running streams—like the area where I lived with my boyfriend in an isolated cabin on the banks of the Illinois. I thought of him out there sometimes. If I happened to awaken on a moonless night, say, to lie in darkness as thick as a wall, listening to the night sounds all around me: the tree frogs’ insistent chorus, rhythmic and relentless as torture; the scrabbling of tiny mousefeet in the pine rafters overhead. The low, repetitive hoot of an owl in the trees across the river. I don’t remember being afraid. Only watchful. Only listening. I began to understand in a feeling way, a wordless gut- and dream-level way, that I was no more a part of the landscape than the weekend float-trippers. I was only passing through, my life merely superimposed there. I was the hologram. The night sounds could have been anything, I told myself. Animal creatures, human fugitive, or something more intangible and dangerous—a shapeshifter, perhaps. But if so, it didn’t have to do with me. I wouldn’t be vulnerable. I was too white.

In 1989 my first published story, “The Gift,” about a mixed-blood Cherokee boy who descends a steep treacherous path to a cabin above a river, appeared in Nimrod’s spring ‘Oklahoma Indian Markings’ issue. Those same pages are where I first read a Joy Harjo poem. It’s where I met the work of Linda Hogan, Joe Dale Tate Nevaquaya, Louis Littlecoon Oliver, where I first saw the gripping photographs of Richard Ray Whitman, the drawings of Shan Goshorn. I had left Tahlequah, left Oklahoma, left acting for the life of a writer, and was then living and teaching in New York. In December that year, I attended the Modern Languages Association conference in Washington, D.C., because the brochure I’d received in my mailbox at Brooklyn College included a listing for a gathering of Indian writers: “Readings by Emerging American Indian Poets.” That listing was the only reason I went.

I sat in the back of the conference room, shy and self-conscious, acutely aware of my separation. My aloneness. On the front rows the writers all sat together. I could see the backs of their heads as they leaned toward each other, their long hair fanned out on their shoulders as they laughed together. They were familiar to me in a way that I didn’t know anyone else in that room, none of the other white teachers, academics, students. I couldn’t hear what they were laughing about, but I knew the kind of laughter it was, could hear it in my mind, that dry, ironical aaaayyy Indian humor. The feeling I had as I watched them was like going home after a very long time away. Like being almost there.

Yuchi poet Joe Dale Tate Nevaquaya was one of the writers; his brother Richard Ray Whitman also read, and Elizabeth Woody, Carter Revard, many wonderful writers. When Joe read his poems, though, I had an experience, heart-catching, indefinable, that burned the poem in me, not with intellect but in silence, in fiery recognition. I can’t explain it exactly, but it happened that night and every time I’ve heard him read his poems since. Afterwards, I loitered at the edge of the crowd angling forward to talk to the writers. I wasn’t leaving but I also didn’t know anyone to talk to, or what to say if I did. Joe Dale was standing off to one side near the front, leaning against a wall, quiet and watchful; his separation from the others made him seem as alone and shy as I felt. I went up and told him how much I’d enjoyed his reading. We started talking, I don’t recall about what—it wouldn’t have been poetry because I’m inarticulate on that score; very likely it was about where we’re from, the Oklahoma we grew up in. Later, as the writers were all making plans to go out to a restaurant, his brother Richard Ray (I didn’t know yet they were brothers) said to me, “You coming?” I said, “Um… yeah!”

For a few hours a bunch of us sat at pushed-together tables in a D.C. restaurant, talking hard and fast as we could talk, laughing and joking, and the feeling I had was one of familiarity and discovery, and also of coming home. When the place closed, we spilled out onto the sidewalk, where snow was beginning to fall. We all milled about in the snow-sifted light, still laughing, still joking, exchanging phone numbers and trying to recall directions to our various hotels. I had my car because I’d driven down from New York, but they’d all flown in from Oklahoma, St. Louis, Washington state, so it took a while for everyone to sort themselves into various cabs for the trips to their hotels. Moments later I stopped at a red light and glanced over at the vehicle idling next to me, a yellow taxi, where I saw Joe Dale and Richard and some others in the backseat waving at me; we all waved and laughed, rolled down our windows to holler at one another, till the light changed, and they went their way, and I went mine.

Long months later, on a summer night in his mother’s backyard in Oklahoma City, during one of our long, late into the night, word-firing conversations that made my heart and the top of my head feel like they could explode, Joe Dale and I spoke about that evening, the final hours of the year, the very decade, and he said, “The universe shifted that night.” I said, “Oh, yes.”

Because, for me, it was true. Looking back, there are only a few things I know for sure about my journey to becoming a writer, and one is that the first most powerful influence on that journey was my husband, and the second most powerful was Joe Dale Tate Nevaquaya. In concentric, radiating circles the influences ripple out from there. I wouldn’t be the writer I am or write what I do without those friendships that forged and shaped me, the ones that began that snowy night in Washington, D.C. The first Oklahoma writers I knew were Indian writers. They were the first to make me see, through their words, friendship, books, poems, passionate discussions deep into the night, what this place is, what it has been, what we are all doing here, or trying to do. To this day they’re the community I feel most… well, not a part of. Not apart from. They’re where my heart is. Their imprint on me is unchangeable. They were the first pure artists I’d known, the first “makers,” whose very way of seeing is art, and back before them, there were Eddie Burgess and Dewey Dailey and their exquisite artistry at the Trail of Tears Outdoor Drama at Tsa La Gi.

Eddie left Oklahoma, as I did, to pursue an artistic career. We met for drinks one night in New York in 1981. We talked about Trail, the people we’d known, how far it felt like we’d come. He was then dancing with a New York company, Jennifer Muller/The Works. Later he would travel the world as a dancer and teacher and eventually become the respected and much beloved chairman of the dance department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Peck School of the Arts. A photograph of him at the barre with other dancers shows a warm, affable smile, sleek bald head, fringe of gray hair, and, still, that compact, ferocious dancer’s body, even in middle age. It’s strange to see him that way, so different from the dark longhaired young dancer he was when I last saw him, and yet the same. The photo is on his memorial page, along with testimonials from other dancers whose lives Eddie touched, because he’s gone now. He died too young, in his sleep, at the age of 58. His bio on the website doesn’t mention that he was full-blood Cherokee.

I don’t have a middle-aged picture of Dewey Daily to contrast with my memories. He didn’t make it that far. He was Otoe-Missouria and also Kaw and Muncie. He, too, died too young, much younger than Eddie, in Dallas, from complications related to HIV. In my mind I can’t see him any way except as the soaring, unfettered, red-and-white-winged Phoenix. Like Tahlequah itself, Dewey is crystallized in my mind at the height of his young beauty.

When I return now I drive by the old haunts looking for what has changed and what hasn’t. Some places have vanished, like Sixkiller’s Barbecue and the tiny frame rent house on Allen Road where I once lived. Some have been transformed, like the old QuikTrip on Goingsnake, which is now the continuing education office for NSU. Some remain the same. In the park below Seminary Hall, Town Branch still rushes or trickles over the stones, the watercress is still a bright springtime green, campus litter still catches in sluggish rotations in the slow eddies in summer. South of town, fast food joints are strung now like bright corporate Legos on the road to Muskogee.

Sometimes I turn east off that road toward Park Hill, winding my way along the two-lane blacktop to the Cherokee Historical Center. That’s what they call Tsa La Gi now, and it very much lives up to its name: a beautiful native stone museum with a permanent exhibit about the Trail of Tears, a newly built village, where visitors can see the same kinds of flint napping, basket weaving, stickball demonstrations tourists saw in the Ancient Village, but with a difference—there is an atmosphere of pride and autonomy, an authenticity of ownership I didn’t feel at the outdoor drama back in the day. The three giant columns from the Cherokee National Female Seminary stand where they’ve always stood, a place of honor, in front of the museum.

If you walk around back, through the tree shrouded parking lots and beyond, you can just see the mottled gray roof of the amphitheater rising barely above the earth. Bypass the yellow caution tape sealing the area off for safety, angle your way around to the west, where the tape has deteriorated and begun to sag, and you can enter the amphitheater at the end of the dim covered hallway where the audiences once went in. The wooden slats at the bottom of the housing are ragged, eaten away, black with damp and mold. Everywhere is the odor of mildew, rotting wood. Here the audiences would wind their way around the perimeter to their numbered rows, line up during intermission for popcorn and hotdogs and the colorful souvenir programs that told all about the Trail of Tears, stand in urgent lines snaking from the restroom doorways into the crowded hall. If you move through the shadowed space to the open archway, you can look down onto the stage, where small trees and sumac bushes are growing up through the asphalt. The giant overhead fans are broken, hanging loose from their moorings. The loudspeakers, where Sarah’s voice came on to tell audiences about the Cherokees’ destiny, have been torn out, wires dangling from the sound booth. The folded seats rim the stage like teeth, faded pink, mildew stained. And the little mountain behind the stage, where the Death Dancer once shook his rattles in the searing lights and leapt and tumbled in an orchestration of death-defying movement and sound, is overgrown as a jungle, chaotic, forbidding. All is rot and deterioration, the slow leaching away, through years of sun and cold, drought and rain, of what had been built here. In the distance you can hear the shouts of the stickball players inside the village—Cherokee players, men and boys, their cries of triumph, their joking laughter, just as it should be. As it should always have been.

I never go back to the river to see if the cabin is still there. I think I know it isn’t—the place was decrepit, little more than a tarpaper shack even when I lived there decades ago. It lives on in my memory, though, that cramped, one room cabin and the treacherous path leading down to it—a trail that, in reality, doesn’t exist. Except in my dreams. Except in my stories. The steep rock-strewn path where a young mixed-blood boy is carried down to the cabin under his father’s arm in “The Gift.” The home, in my novel Harpsong, of Calm Bledsoe, a mixed-blood Cherokee trapper who is murdered by white thieves. These places are seated deep within me; they’re not the landscape of my heart but a dreamscape seared in my subconscious, my memory, everlasting, waiting to be dreamed awake.


Originally published in This Land: Spring 2015.