As part of the 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, novelists Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle (Even As We Breathe), Kelli Jo Ford (Crooked Hallelujah), and Diane Wilson (The Seed Keeper) discussed their work as indigenous writers celebrating Dakota and Cherokee cultures and traditions amid larger forces of history, religion, and class in America, with Linda LeGarde Grover.
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Thanks to our bookseller for this event, M. Revak & Company.
“Clapsaddle’s lush debut thrusts 19-year-old Cowney Sequoyah into WWII intrigue… The clear, crisp prose hums consistently as the intricate story easily moves along and new details about Cowney’s family’s past emerge. Both an astonishing addition to WWII and Native American literature, this novel sings on every level.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Ford’s storytelling is urgent, her characters achingly human and complex, and her language glittering and rugged. This is a stunner.”―Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Uprooted from their land, the seeds Dakota women carried with them were not just a source of sustenance, but their link to the past and hope for the future, a symbol of their profound bond with the Earth. [In The Seed Keepers] they provide a powerful symbol for Rosalie’s rediscovery of her lost family and the ways of ‘the old ones.’ A thoughtful, moving meditation on connections to the past and the land that humans abandon at their peril.”—Kirkus Reviews
Thanks to American Indian & Indigenous Community Center at Virginia Tech for sharing information about this event.
SARAH LAWSON: Hello and welcome to Indigenous Lit, a program in the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book. I’m Sarah Lawson, associate director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us. A couple notes before I hand over our program to our speakers, please share your questions using the Q and A tab on Zoom. This event has optional closed captioning which you can turn on and customize at any time during the event by using the Closed Captions tab at the bottom of your window. If you haven’t already read today’s books, we hope you will. For details about how to buy them from our bookseller for this event, M. Revak and Company, visit VaBook.org or you can also explore our full schedule and watch past events. While you’re there, please consider making a donation to support the festival’s ongoing work at VaBook.org/give. Thanks to the American Indian and Indigenous Community Center at Virginia Tech for sharing information about this event. We also greatly appreciate the support of all festival sponsors, donors, and community partners.
Now, I’m pleased to introduce our speakers. Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle, author of Even As We Breathe, is the first enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to publish a novel. She has served as executive director of the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, and is an English teacher at Swain County High School, near where she was born and raised in western North Carolina. Kelli Jo Ford, author of Crooked Hallelujah, is a debut author who was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and a Publishers Weekly Best Fiction Books of 2020. She has work published or forthcoming in The Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Missouri Review, and Forty Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial, among other places. A citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, she lives in Virginia. Welcome, Kelli.
Diane Wilson, author of The Seed Keeper, is a writer, speaker, and editor, who has published two award-winning books, as well as essays in numerous publications. She is the executive director for the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance. And our moderator, Linda LeGarde Grover is a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth. She is the author of novels, essays, and poetry that have received the Flannery O’Connor and Minnesota Book awards, as well as others. Thank you all for joining us today. Linda, take it away.
LINDA LEGARDE GROVER: Thank you so much. It’s an honor to be here and to be with these three fine writers of recent novels. And thank you so much to the Virginia Festival of the Book for having us here and this is a very exciting panel that we have. It will be a rich experience to hear the writers talk about their work and their books, and also to have some questions from other participants and we’ll be speaking with each other too. It was just a wonderful reading experience to read these contemporary books and I love these. I love every single one of them. So we’re going to begin here with Diane Wilson and her most recent work, The Seed Keeper. Please take it away, Diane.
DIANE WILSON: Han Mitakuyepi. Hello, all my relatives. It’s good to see you here today. My name is Diane Wilson. I am a Mdewakanton Oyate descendant and I am enrolled in the Sicangu Oyate Reservation. Many thanks to Linda for the introduction and for hosting us, and especially to the Virginia Festival of the Book for the invitation to be here. It’s just an honor to be reading with Annette and Kelli Jo.
So The Seed Keeper was inspired by a true story that I first heard back in 2002 when I participated in the Dakota Commemorative March to honor the 1,700 Dakota women and children who were removed from Minnesota after the 1862 Dakota War. Because they had no idea where they were being sent or how they would feed their families, they sewed their seeds into the hems of their skirts and hid them in their pockets. So even when families were starving, these women protected their seeds for the upcoming generation and for the next season when they had no idea how they would feed their families. So thanks to their courage and sacrifice, we still have Dakota corn to grow today and in fact, I grow it in my own garden.
And while I was working on this book, I also work in nonprofit organizations working on food sovereignty issues and I was blessed to spend time with elders who taught me that these seeds are our relatives and that they are our ancestors and they are sacred beings. I also learned that our food is medicine, which is really important to understand. And that if you can control the food, you can control the people. So all of that is woven into the book.
So this story is told through the voices of four Dakota women across several generations from 1862 to 2002. And the seeds themselves open the book with a poem that reminds us of our ancient agreement, to take care of them in exchange for the gift of food. So throughout the book, the story moves around in time alternating between the main character, Rosalie Iron Wing, and the voices of her best friend, Gaby Makespeace, her great-aunt, Darlene Kills Deer, and Marie Blackbird, who is Rosalie’s great-great-grandmother who was 14 at the time of the 1862 Dakota War. And as we follow the lives of these women, we’re also following the story of the seeds until one day, they disappear.
So the story begins as Rosalie Iron Wing is about to leave the farm where she’s lived for 22 years to return to her childhood home on a Dakota Reservation. After her father died, when she was 12, she grew up in foster care believing she had no family and Rosalie had no connection at all to seeds. When she marries a white farmer and learns to garden, she actually begins the journey that will ultimately reconnect her to her family, their legacy of seeds, and her community. So the excerpt that I’m going to read is the moment when Rosalie meets her great-aunt, Darlene Kills Deer, after years of believing she had no family. And this is not a spoiler because I tell you this right upfront in the prologue, so it just gives you an idea of two of the characters. It’s set in 2002.
Darlene Kills Deer had just finished lunch when her nurse invited us into the apartment. Darlene’s voice had sounded so frail on the phone that I was not sure what to expect. My throat was tight, and my eyes burned with fatigue. I felt oddly numb. I couldn’t wait to get this over with. Already, I regretted bringing my son, Thomas, with me.
As I waited for the nurse to hang up our coats, I looked around at the faded carpet, the scuff marks on dingy white walls. Darlene’s third-floor window looked out at an elementary school. The apartment was less than ten miles from where I had once lived ,on the other side of town.
The living room was small, with a television in one corner and two mismatched chairs for guests. A few steps into the room, I stopped abruptly, stunned by the sight of tall corn stalks growing in buckets and cans set on yellow newspapers, their edges curled and stained with mud. The floor was littered with brown leaves. From the curtain rod hung a dozen ears of blue and rose speckled corn, neatly braided. On the ledge outside the window, I could see bits of bread and apple. I began to wonder if Darlene might be senile.
As the nurse quietly stacked a tray with dishes, she nodded toward the two chairs. I moved a pile of folded laundry to the floor and sat down, Thomas next to me.
Darlene was leaning back in a recliner with her eyes closed. An oxygen tank stood on the floor near her chair. A thin cloud of dark hair, streaked heavily with gray, fell around her shoulders framing her thin face, her skin a translucent yellow. I knew her high cheekbones, the sharp ridge of her nose. Bony hands rested on the blanket that covered her lap, the two thin mounds of her legs.
I set the damp package of nettles that I had gathered that morning on the table near Darlene’s chair. As we waited for Darlene to open her eyes, we listened to the low murmur from the television as Bob Barker announced a new winner on The Price Is Right. Thomas straightened the collar of his shirt and sat jiggling one foot, unable to keep still. A plaque on the shelf above the television named Darlene Kills Deer as Miss Indian Princess for 1939. A birch-bark basket held a long braid of sweetgrass. Inside a dusty frame was a photo of a child standing next to a much younger Darlene. They were posing in front of the cabin. The child was me.
When I turned back, Darlene was awake. We studied each other. “It is you,” she said. “You have your mother’s eyes.”
When I introduced Thomas, he stood and extended his hand to her. She looked up at him and frowned. Turning to me, she said, “Rosalie, why is your son in such a hurry?” An awkward silence fell in the room. Then I felt a soft touch on my arm. Darlene leaned forward and patted my hand.
“You did the best you could,” she said, “you had no mother to learn from. Your father passed too soon. And they took you before any of us knew what had happened. That’s how it was back then. They could just come and take your children. That’s why, that’s why…” Darlene began to cough, raising a white handkerchief to her lips. The nurse came in with a glass of water and a pill. We waited while Darlene took her medicine.
“That’s why I had to plant this corn,” she continued with a weak smile. “That’s how I found you. Plants have their own way of talking. It’s not the same here as in the garden, but it was something I could do. I could ask the plants for their help. I could ask the crow for his help, I could talk to the oak trees on the boulevard outside my apartment and ask them to watch for you.
“You must’ve been twelve when they took you. I pounded on desks and filled out paperwork and walked and walked just hoping I would catch sight of you somewhere. Every time I walked past the school, I would stop and look at all the little girls running on the playground. Every time I climbed on a bus, I looked in the face of each child. I dreamed you at night living somewhere behind a metal fence, your face always turned toward the door.
“Year after year, we’ve kept this vigil. I promised to wait for you until my last breath and now, you’re here.”
So the question that I ask throughout The Seed Keeper is about our relationship with seeds and the ways in which that relationship has changed over many generations and what that change means for us as human beings. To quote Dakota activist and scholar, Harley Eagle, “The question I’m most interested in is how do we fall back in love with the Earth with our seeds?” Pidamaya.
LINDA LEGARDE GROVER: Miigwetch, Diane. Thank you so much. Next, we’ll hear from Kelli Ford whose most recent book is Crooked Hallelujah.
KELLI JO FORD: Thank you so much, Linda. And that was beautiful and so inspiring, Diane. It’s such an honor to be here with both of you and with Annette, so I just want to thank the Virginia Festival of the Book so much for this chance to come together in a little Zoom community for a few moment. It really means a lot to me, so thank you.
I’m going to read a little bit too from Crooked Hallelujah. I guess I’ll talk about it a little bit first. Crooked Hallelujah is a novel-in-stories. So each chapter should be able to be read alone for its own, what I think of as a complete movement. But together, each of those stories tells a bigger story. The book follows Justine and Reney who are a Cherokee mother and daughter. Northeastern Oklahoma is where the Cherokee Nation is, kind of in the top corner there, and Justine and Reney are from the bottom part of that nation. But they move from the Cherokee Nation to North Texas looking to start a better life but it so happens that it’s during the oil bust of the 1980s, so that life doesn’t really look much like they imagined it might. And that’s, I guess, where fiction starts, we get trouble.
At its heart, I think that it’s a story about mothers and daughters. And really, I’ve come to think of it as a love story of sorts between mothers and daughters. I feel like so often we think of our love stories as romantic stories and that’s the only way that we peg them in wider society. But in my life, that’s not the case at all and I think that’s what this book is. It’s a story really, it’s not just about Justine and Reney, it’s a story about four generations of women from this family. A harsh Christian fundamentalist upbringing follows the family, and I think that faith both saves some of the characters and it also breaks some of the characters and kind of haunts them, I think. It also serves to isolate them from the worlds around them.
The book came about, I think, as a result of me following my obsessions really. I didn’t set out to write this book. It felt like this book came to me and it was up to me to understand where it was calling me to go. And now, I realized I was trying to tell the story of place as much as people, and it’s two places really because it’s a fictional town, the Cherokee Nation called Beulah Springs, and a fictional town in North Texas called Bonita. And then it’s a story of a family as well, so it’s a big task in my own story of writing the book.
It took me almost 14 years to understand that I was writing a book and to figure out how to tell the story and find my way through it because I started out just thinking that I was writing short stories and very much wanting to write the best short story that I could. And I would work on it and work on it, and then I would put it down and try to write another to the best of my ability, and it turned out they were coming from the same places. So I was a little bit slow to listen to that, I think, but that’s how the story came to be.
I’ll go ahead and read a bit. I might read a couple of shorter pieces. And I wasn’t going to read this section but I mentioned that I’ve come to understand the book as a love story between mothers and daughters, but also about grandmothers. There’s a line in the book where the youngest generational member, Reney, says that her great-grandmother was her soul mate, and that’s a line that very much comes from my life. That’s how I’ve thought of my great-grandmother.
I was sitting here thinking about what I was going to read, and I have my great-grandmother’s one of her journals here. I’ll show it to you. And this journal, just kind of a random entry and it inspired a list that’s in the short story. It says 1974 on it but through the years, this was her diary. 1977, I don’t know if you can see her handwriting there. But Cherokee was her first language and she used to write the sweetest letters, and this diary is very sweet. But also, it had lists in it. So this was the inspiration for this little… This is just a short piece that I’m going to read for you. It’s called Annie Mae and it might be actually the second story in the book.
July 23rd, 1982—I never can forget. I got the news my poor lost grandson,John Joseph passed when I was braiding my hair, fixing to walk to Dandy Dalton’s to pay on my grocery bill. I already had my purse under my arm when Thorpe Rogers called on the telephone. I couldn’t put any of the sounds he was making into words, but right off I knew.
Thorpe Rogers preached on faith power in a special service the night before—Saints got to be sanctified he said, got to live good and right so lost little ones can see the light. He said it in his language and then he tried to make it right in Cherokee for me and the other old ones. Thorpe Rogers raised up his arms like a picture of Good Lord’s love—In heaven, he said, we shall reap our rewards. Then his face kind of broke in two and he said—But we got to get there, Saints.
We had a good long service like the ones that used to set my soul to burn. But going home I did not feel good. The Sequoyah Hills, always sweet to me, looked down like cold mountains. Even the moonshine on my arm felt like a stranger. Dear babies Reney and Sheila by me in the back seat did not make me better. Maybe I knew, but only in my heart first. John Joseph was going cold right then.
The boy never could stay out of trouble even when he was a little one. Cracked his head diving in Bluff Hole, July 3rd, 1972. He could hear a song one time and play it all the way through, humming it out as he go. Didn’t matter—he sold the electric guitar Thorpe Rogers gave him for five dollars so he could buy up Dandy Dalton’s candy, January 12th, 1969.
I used to back then put down things that happen in this nice notebook that Lula gave me. Always put my thoughts in there as best as I could, just for me. John Joseph passed the day before his own birthday, the day before this country would ever call him a man. After I put that down, I could not write another thing in here for a long time. The nice leather book was just ledger. I add up my charges for the month— [here’s the direct quote]
39 cents, shortcakes
89 cents, hairnet.
3 lbs. Crisco, 2.10
25 cents, pop
66 cents of Liver loaf
1 dollar cash
I stay on my knees after altar call ends now. But I don’t hardly pray. I look for pictures in the altar wood. Try to make out long-gone faces when I know I should lean hard on myself to get up and go back to my seat. I stay there so long the church goes still. I hear little ones rustling on pallets and sweet sister Saints praying—Thank you, Jesus. Thorpe Rogers and Lula start up again. They weep and moan with Good Lord’s love. My children, so strong in their chests. That muscle can only be from Good Lord. Cannot be me or their cowboy daddy, with his drinking and Lord knows what else.
I feel hands on me. Skirts dance by, fan me cool. I know they pray this old Indian is finally meeting Holy Ghost, praying good like I should, with fire. Truth is, all I pray is to be able to pray. Maybe pray to be strong when I need to be.
One night right before he passed, I woke to a broke front door and John Joseph asleep on the living room floor. He had 12 stitches sewed up over his eye. Drunk running around in Sequoyah County and an argument over a girl got him hit with a tire iron. He opened his eyes to me standing over him. He looked scared for a minute but not of me. Then he came back to me. He stretched and poked his finger on the end of the thread holding him together. He said—She’s so pretty, Granny. He could not pray either.
I shushed him. Lula was still asleep with one of her spells. She would be in a bad way with John Joseph there smelling like beer joints and the screen door broke. Thorpe Rogers wouldn’t let him come home from drinking no more already.
I should have got on my knees and prayed. Drag him by his hair and tell him—You pray! And tell my own self too that Good Lord was listening and believe it down in my pitiful heart. But I thought to myself—I will fix it. I put bologna on to fry and called my sister Celia in Hominy.
Celia married an Indian like she should. A big Osage man who spoke his language and went to college. A man who kept his hands where he should. He would have work for John Joseph.
I blackened the edges like John Joseph liked and handed him the phone. Celia said—Nephew, you come stay with us, but you don’t come home drinking. He hung up and tried to argue, but Lord Lord, that boy listened to somebody finally.
He went to Hominy and didn’t come home to Celia’s one night after he got there. He took up with some running wild cousins and didn’t come back ever. Demons know fire too. Maybe demons chased him so hard that he could not slow down until he stopped for good on the side of the road where he came to such terrible awful rest after 18 years. Nearly 18 years.
He told me before I sent him up to Hominy to die—Granny, them old boys and their tire iron ain’t got nothing on me. You should have seen them! And then he laughed, squinched up his busted eye, and doubled over. Black hair sticking all over everywhere, needing a haircut.
John Joseph tried to fix the broke door with masking tape and a screwdriver before he left. That boy fiddled all morning with the flapping door, singing Elvis Presley songs to me. Never fixed it right. It’s still stuck together with tape. Needs a new screen. I told him so that morning. I told him so and I sent him off to that highway in Hominy. I should have locked the door and never let him leave. Should have tried to scare him with the love of Good Lord. John Joseph probably would knew better. That boy has a way right to my insides. He tapped the screen with the screwdriver and winked with his good eye. He grinned and said—I’ll take care of it, Granny.
I give nickels to pay on dollars I charge. I add up, take away. Nothing evens out, and I don’t think it will get fixed ever. I just as soon it stay that way. I see the tape and remember John Joseph holding a screwdriver and eating fried bologna I fed him, grinning up at me, good eye and bad eye trying to hide behind that greasy hair. I remember him like that. Try to. Bent over but looking up. Just a warm boy still, saying he’s sorry for the trouble but, he’ll make it all right. And this old lady don’t say nothing to him. Don’t drag him down to pray, don’t pick up the telephone to conspire him away to death. I take that sweet, running boy in my arms. I press my face in his wild hair and hold on.
And I think that that is my time. Thank you so much.
LINDA LEGARDE GROVER: Many thanks, Kelli Jo. Next, we will hear from Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle her new book, Even As We Breathe. Thank you, Annette.
ANNETTE SAUNOOKE CLAPSADDLE: Thank you so much. I am thrilled to be here and a little intimidated to read after Diane and Kelli Jo. But Linda, thank you for hosting us along with the Virginia Festival of the Book. It’s just such a great event to be a part of. I am currently in Swain County, North Carolina where I teach school, and I am from Cherokee, North Carolina. And part of the novel is set in Cherokee, North Carolina and the other part of the novel, Even As We Breathe, is set in Asheville, North Carolina. Today, it takes me about an hour to get to Asheville, but the novel is set in 1942 and it would take about two hours to get between Asheville and Cherokee.
So in the summer of 1942, the Grove Park Inn and Resort in Asheville held foreign nationals and Axis diplomats as prisoners of war, just for that summer. And it created this odd situation where you have diplomats or technically prisoners, but their prison is an upper-class resort in the mountains of Western North Carolina. And it’s also located so close to the sovereign nation where the Eastern Band is located in Cherokee. So it was really this odd historical information that drove my interest in writing this narrative. I was familiar with Japanese internment camps being set up on Indian reservations out west to some extent, and have always been interested in questions of citizenship and how identity is rooted in place and how politics can change that at any given time.
And so, the real history of Grove Park led me to this fictional story. What I think is kind of funny about Even As We Breathe is at no point in time when I was writing it did I consider it historical fiction. It is clearly historical fiction set entirely in 1942. But I was far more interested in the commentary it has on current situations, on current questions we have in terms of citizenship and belonging and systems of prisons on our land. So it took actually, I think, the publisher having me fill out a questionnaire about where this belonged. I di dnot realize it was historical fiction. But it is very much, I think Kelli Jo mentioned this about her book, it’s very much setting-driven of time and place really pushed the book forward.
So the protagonist, Cowney Sequoyah, is a 19-year-old young man from Cherokee who goes to work at the Grove Park that summer as a member of the grounds crew. He’s joined by another young Cherokee woman named Essie. They don’t know each other all that well before they leave for the Grove Park, and he becomes very much interested in Essie for all kinds of reasons. They developed a very significant friendship, a relationship that is kind of hard to define, until the point that he is accused of being involved in the disappearance of a diplomat’s daughter. And that certainly causes problems for Cowney in all kinds of ways including his relationship with Essie.
Cowney goes back and forth between Cherokee and Asheville, in the book. And while he’s in Cherokee, we learned a little bit more about the complexities of his family. His father was killed at the very end of World War I. His mother died shortly after giving birth to him. And so, Cowney was raised by his grandmother, Lishie, her first name is Lishie, and a little bit by his Uncle Bud, but you’ll see in the section that I’m about to read, they have a pretty strained relationship.
So I thought that I would start by reading really from Chapter 1 and I’m going to cut it off and move into another chapter from there, so it won’t be consecutive the whole chapter. The book itself, the concept of the book, for me, is very much divided into sections of bone, blood, and skin. And the reason being, I kept thinking about how we make so many determinations about identity based on those three very temporary aspects of who a human are, and what is really important is that spirit of who we are.
So the first chapter, I included an epigraph from Tom Belt. He’s a member of the Cherokee Nation. He’s not Eastern Band, but he has lived in the Eastern Band community for much of his life, especially much of his later life. And he is a good friend. I was in the middle of writing this book, and we were walking into a coffee shop in Cherokee, and Tom has a tendency to do this, he just says really wise things just out of the blue and I’m like, “Oh, let me write this down.”
He had opened the door to the coffee shop, and I don’t know how it came about, but he said to me, and this is an epigraph from the book, “That’s the thing about ceremony, it must have three things. It must be for the right reason at the right time and it must be in the right place.” And that really, for me, helped to structure how I thought about the story that I was telling as if it is a ceremony when we tell a story. So I’ll start with Chapter 1.
I don’t remember the day my father died. I don’t remember Lishie standing at the clothesline when the soldier came to tell her the news. I don’t remember the way she nodded her graying head, turned, went back to pinning shirts and skirts, unable to cry for a long while. I don’t remember how relieved Lishie was that his body, under the circumstances, would be returned when so many others were not. I don’t remember my father’s face cradled in the pine casket by one of Lishie’s special quilts. I don’t remember any of that. Barely four months old at the time, I couldn’t have. I’ve constructed images from stories and pictures and stitched them into one of Lishie’s quilts.
I do not remember the paleness of the pine box as it was precariously lowered into the deep earthen hole. I do not remember Preacherman sprinkling dry specks of red clay on top, an act that later seemed terribly disrespectful to my six-year-old self when Lishie explained it to me at an aunt’s funeral—an act that made me wonder if my father deserved such treatment.
I don’t remember Preacherman announcing, “Dust to dust,” but he must have.
Sometimes I think that I remember smells, but only when I smell them at new funerals
I remember one taste, though it must have just been repeated so many times after that day that I’ve convinced myself of it—the bitterest salt I have ever tasted—Lishie’s tear when she scooped me up and held me so tightly that my open lips smashed into her cheek.
“You were his,” I think I remember her saying. “You are mine,” I am certain I remember her saying. Even though all of this is surely impossible.
I don’t remember my uncle Bud, or rather his shadow, jutting from the doorway. But there has always been a shadow between him and me, between him and my father, so it must have been there that day.
I don’t remember the many different scales of cries from many different throats.
Gunshots surely rang—must have been twenty-one, three from seven men. I seem to remember more.
Bud shouted, garbled and wet.
Too young to even crawl, I could swear I remember running past folded arms and hiding beneath one of Lishie’s special quilts until a new sun rose and all I could smell was coffee.
I awoke to find Lishie had curled herself around me, indistinguishable from her homespun patchwork.
That’s the impossible memory I’ve crafted. No amount of time visiting Bud’s house changed that.
I wonder if the bones of my father are exposed and clean now. I picture a perfect white skeleton, fully intact, framed within the pine coffin—like the one I saw in anatomy class. So perfectly preserved, the bones could teach. I know it sounds odd to speak of my father like that, but you have to understand, I never knew him in the flesh. I never felt the breath of his lungs. His memory is as much a skeleton as his body.
Yet Lishie was always present. It was as if she radiated—sometimes even radiated right through me. I remember walking in her door after I returned from junior college. I hadn’t said a word, and surely hadn’t made up my mind if I was ever going back. She looked up from where she sat in the rocking chair, sighed a heavy sigh, and let her hands fall from her quilting to rest in her lap. “Oh, Cowney,” she whispered. That is all she said, but I knew she knew everything. She understood far more than even I did about how I was feeling and how I would come to feel. I knew then and there I wasn’t going back because she knew it first. She wasn’t judging me or even pitying me. She just stirred within me until it was all sorted out.
Except for the valley land that began pimpling with improvised storefronts, Cherokee was not the Cherokee of today. Cherokee was mud-chinked log cabins burrowed into mountain hollers, surprising expanses of neat garden rows jutting across rare unwooded land at the end of roughly carved dirt roads—half washed away in the spring and summer and impassable with snow in the winter. But no matter where human life chose to carve its mark on the land, it did not stray far from water—creek, river, stream, or fall—follow one and you would find Cherokee. You would find the smoke from woodstoves. You would find red clay ground into a fine, ginger dust coating the surface of life. And you could not find it directly from any highway. To trust a road is still a road when it looks like a creek is not and has never been for the tourist’s heart. Yet it is only that trust that will get you from a road sign to a home. Or, in my case, from Lishie’s, where I lived, to Bud’s, where I worked.
And I think that’s my time so I will stop there.
LINDA LEGARDE GROVER: Okay. Thank you very much, Annette. I don’t know, I’m so touched by the identity rooted in place that applies to all three of these wonderful novels. And now, if there are questions or comments from any of the participants or amongst ourselves here, we certainly welcome and entertain them. Okay, I don’t see something in the chat box right now or the question box.
One thing that I thought, and I’d like to ask each of the three women here, is in your books, there is an absolute, very native sense of what happened before the time of the story, who was there before the time of the story, and then what is going to be passed on, in teaching and learning from the story, what goes on to the next generations that there is reason and purpose. I’m wondering if each of you three could comment on that really specifically with your book.
KELLI JO FORD: Sure, I can try to start us off. There was talk at different points in the editing process because I had this collection of stories I’ve been writing. I had stories that started. Right now, the book starts when Justine is 15. I had stories that went back to when she was 11. I had a story, at one point, there was a prologue when the great-grandmother was a child being picked up with her little sister at an Indian orphanage. So there was question of how to focus this book, and at one point, it was definitely suggested that maybe it really was Justine and Reney’s story. And in a sense, it is. I think that they’re really the main characters, but the more I thought about it, the more I understood that you can’t tell Justine’s story, for instance, without telling the story of her mother. And then you can’t tell Reney’s story without telling the story of her great-grandmother. These women were all connected, and I think that that connection really is at the heart of the book.
It’s a book with great struggle and strife and disillusion. But ultimately, these are women, I think, that, to get to your question, what they are passing onto each other is this kind of ferocity in their love and commitment, making sure that the next generations don’t just survive but they’re lifted up and they’re doing that in the best way that they can. They’re not always… Sometimes they butt heads over it, but I think at the heart is this connection through the generations. And even as the two youngest generations leave the Cherokee Nation, they keep returning. They’re going back and they’re going back, and they’re carrying one another with them wherever they go ultimately, I think.
LINDA LEGARDE GROVER: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Thank you.
DIANE WILSON: Well, I really resonate with the description of your book, Kelli, the way that you’re telling four generations. In my own novel, it’s somewhere around that, same. It’s a generational novel told through four different voices, two of whom are contemporary time, but then stretching back to the 1862 Dakota War. The question I was trying to explore through their different stories is to look at the way the Dakota women took care of their seeds and their families and their food. And how that work was so much a part of who they were as Dakota people, because it’s all about knowing the place where you live and having that close relationship with the plants and the animals and the seasons so that you can survive. Because in Minnesota, it’s a challenge. Every year, I just wonder how did they do it when it’s 30-below. And so, that idea of that commitment, that incredible skill and understanding of the place where you live.
And then we come forward in time to Rosalie who, because of the way that assimilation has impacted their family, is now down to the thinnest thread of connection to who she is and that legacy of her grandmothers. And I think when you get to that point, and this is not an uncommon story these days, when the language has been displaced and so much of our knowledge around foods, what happens then? Can you find your way back and how would you do it? And so that, to me, was a really important theme, that intergenerational sharing, and that even when you’ve reached that furthest out edge of assimilation, that there is always something that can bring you home. And that in this story, it was the seeds that work in companionship with this family to bring them home. So great question, Linda.
LINDA LEGARDE GROVER: Oh, thank you.
ANNETTE SAUNOOKE CLAPSADDLE: Yeah. When I think about the generations that are discussed throughout the narrative, even though I have one narrator throughout the whole novel, actually we hear stories all the way back to removal period and then it’s a retrospective narrative where he is telling the story really to another generation. I wanted to think about family in a different way as opposed to how we track family through blood relation, but instead look at it in terms of our relationships that we build within our communities. So for example, Lishie, his grandmother, is actually his paternal grandmother, but the word Lishie in Cherokee means maternal grandmother. And so, she had just served that maternal role for him to help raise him. And so, by playing that role, she kind of earned that name. And then Cowney, not to give anything else away, grapples with who is playing what role in his familial life.
And I think that that’s so connected to the stories we tell about who our people are, who our family is. It’s less about the blood line that we typically identify people by but more so the relationships that we’ve played in each other’s lives over centuries. I think about what Kelli Jo was talking about as a soul mate, her great-grandmother I believe is what she said. I would imagine it doesn’t mean that that’s the person that she spent the majority of her life with, but there’s a special connection there that makes her closer. That’s what I was getting at with the perspectives going across the years in Even As We Breathe.
LINDA LEGARDE GROVER: Thank you. There is a question here. It’s for everyone. How difficult is it to research your topics with the tribes?
ANNETTE SAUNOOKE CLAPSADDLE: I’ll just keeping talking since I was…
LINDA LEGARDE GROVER: Okay.
ANNETTE SAUNOOKE CLAPSADDLE: It’s not hard at all for me because I live here. I live in the place that I was writing about. Even though it is historical, I felt like I had access to that historical information. Specifically, I use a lot of pictures to think about landscape. There are not a lot of records as to what was happening at the Grove Park, for example. But because I was living in the community that I was writing about, I know the people that I need to talk to for historical information, I know where the records are. It made it really easy for me, so I got off easy.
LINDA LEGARDE GROVER: Okay.
DIANE WILSON: I actually have been very fortunate that for the past 15 years I’ve been working in food sovereignty with two different native organizations, both of which are very much engaged in seed work, so I got to learn my seed work firsthand. And actually because I showed up as a volunteer, I learned it from the ground up and started just with weeding, where we all start as volunteers. And then grew up in these organizations, then become the director. So I feel really blessed that so much of the knowledge that I brought into the novel was from the elders that I worked with, from the communities, from the programs that we had. A lot of my work has been in an urban setting in Minneapolis where we work with a lot of different tribes. But it’s been that opportunity to work firsthand with those seeds and to really understand that relationship from a native perspective that informed my book.
KELLI JO FORD: Thanks, you all. For me, the research was really about things from the period I was writing about. And like Annette, I didn’t realize I was writing historical fiction until I was invited later even in the process. I was invited to the History Book Festival. I was like, “History book? I was writing about the ’80s, the ’70s. Oh, right. I guess so.”
So Crooked Hallelujah, for me, is a really, really personal book. It’s not strictly autobiographical, but it’s very much in ways… It’s definitely inspired by… Like Reney, when I was very little, I lived in a household of four generations. And I slept with my great-grandmother, and my mom was really young. I mean, my mom was 16 when she had me. And so, my mom and her sisters and different cousins were in and out, and my grandmother, and my great-grandmother. So I grew up in this household of really strong, funny, tight women. And when I was little, we were holiness Pentecostal, so I was really just drawing from personal experience of family stories and growing up on a palette underneath a pew and a tambourine banging, shout your bun down, kind of church.
So I wasn’t researching a lot, I was pulling a lot from within. But I reach out and talk to people, aunts, my mom, ask questions, stories. When I go home, I ask my grandmother stories but she doesn’t really remember a lot, but I have family journals and things like that, which is such a blessing. My computer sits on one thing to raise it up, my grandmothers and my great uncles, her brothers, shared it as well, this wooden folder. It’s like a Trapper Keeper but it’s made out of wood and it’s from the ’40s, and it’s notes from when they were at Chilocco Indian School. So it just feels like the research is just really close. It’s just a matter of gathering and spending time with it, for me.
LINDA LEGARDE GROVER: Okay. Thank you. I would like to ask another question too. I was struck by Annette’s phrase about identity rooted in place, which is a thread running through all of these stories. I’m wondering if you could each comment on that a little bit. I know we still have about seven minutes left so there’s room to do this. Can you certainly link that into your own stories here?
DIANE WILSON: I’ll just jump in. My story is rooted in the South Central part of Minnesota, and I’ve lived in Minnesota all my life. So that idea of, excuse me, really understanding where you live and in terms of the seasons and the impact on… I look at it from that relationship with plants and animals and water. And how that becomes your food in a traditional diet, that you would’ve needed that really sophisticated understanding of what was available when and that your survival depended on your relationship with that place. And so, by focusing on seeds and then that relationship to land, it’s a way of looking at how it’s changed and evolved but remains present as a really fundamental part of native people.
LINDA LEGARDE GROVER: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
ANNETTE SAUNOOKE CLAPSADDLE: I’ll just jump on from there because I appreciate what Diane says about this need to survive from the land from the earliest point and how that has also evolved to a protection of those sources. So knowing that the future is unidentified right now and we know that we’ve survived on this land for so long, and that we have to continue to protect those resources. Even if we don’t know exactly why in the moment, there may be a future reason for it that hasn’t been identified yet.
I’ve had this conversation with a lot of people around these stereotypes of native characters communing with the land in some kind of magical way. It’s something I like to play with in my writing to take the reader up to that edge, but to say we’ve spent centuries protecting this land, living with this land, of course we know this land, of course we understand this land and all of its resources, it’s nothing that’s magical. It’s something that as human beings existing on this planet, it’s essential in order to be in community with our surroundings. And I think that when you think about what you value, that is who you are, that is your identity when you identify your values like that.
KELLI JO FORD: That’s really, really powerful, Annette and Diane. That’s really moving. I feel ready to get outside right now, take it all in. There’s something that Lula, who’s the grandmother character in Crooked Hallelujah, does and she paints landscapes of Sequoyah County. She paints other things too, but one thing that her daughter, Justine, cannot understand really is why she sees so much beauty in Sequoyah County and loves it so much, loves the land and the hills. There’s a line that’s like she doesn’t understand why she sees so much beauty in these scrubby hills. And I think that’s my own grandmother very much. She loves Sequoyah County so much that even though her daughters left, she insisted on staying even when she couldn’t care for herself and she would rather go into a home there than go and live with her daughters who would very much love for her to come, in a different state. She says that she was born in Sequoyah County and that’s where she’s going to die.
And that’s something that I think, so having one of the younger generations not understand her love of that place is something that I think just comes from our family grappling with, trying to understand it. And it’s something that, as a citizen of the Cherokee Nations an at large citizen at that, it’s only recently, in thinking about the removal in a different way, I think that I felt great sorrow, like Annette and I aren’t neighbors, that removal made my family from Oklahoma. But I think that I’ve come to realize recently that that’s powerful. That’s about survival. And of course, people like my grandmother who are born and insist on dying there, of course, they take great pride in that because it’s not just about a story of sorrow, right? It’s much greater than that.
LINDA LEGARDE GROVER: Indeed. Yes, beautifully said. Thank you so much for that. It is much more. Well, it’s time for us to wrap things up. Many, many thanks to our speakers today and to everyone who is watching. Please consider buying these featured books from your local independent booksellers or using the link that’s provided in the chat. And you can also check out our other events in the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book at VaBook.org. And again, migwech. Thank you from the heart. Migwech.
KELLI JO FORD: Thank you, everyone.