Riding Tails of Trails: Part Five. Trail of Tears
In town we learned that Labor Day weekend is also the Cherokee National Holiday. It was soon evident that thousands of people visit Tahlequah and the surrounding area to participate in festivities.We left the town of Talaquah and headed a few miles south for Park Hill, home of the Cherokee Heritage Center and National Museum. The forty-four acres upon which the center sits was part of the former Female Seminary and bought from private holdings in the mid-1960's by the Cherokee National Historical Society. It is a place that exudes memories and voices.Turning east off of Hwy 82, we followed a parade of vehicles turning left into a grove of gracefully twisted black trees. It was as if we were entering a strange land of shadows, disturbed and pinpricked by trucks and cars parked everywhere under sweeping branches. A woman at the entrance laughed as she told us to find any place, anywhere,and park; "Just watch out for the other drivers. They often don't see you on bikes." We smiled with an implied shared sense of riding motorcycles and slowly searched for narrow places to safely park the bikes.I'll be eyes behind you!Thanks, Wylie.Coyote!!We found two narrow spots next to an overgrown cruiser and gingerly parked out of each other's ways. Including the cars around us. Behind us was the outer line of venders' tents. We got a few looks as we shed gear, exchanged boots for sandals, hats for helmet, and generally blended in with the rest of the visitors.I remained an unenthusiastic photographer on this adventure, but leaving the camera was not an option. Although it was slung around my neck the entire time this visit, buttons were rarely pushed and it seemed oddly obtrusive. But then, so did my entire presence. My visit there felt more uncomfortable with each step I took, as if parts of me awoke and claimed amnesia; I began to feel a loss of identity, a struggle for long-dead identities that I never met. A general state of internal and subconscious confusion.Many times I felt as though I were a long-lost kin, not knowing those that came before me, those that existed and those that might be. Yet, a kin that was forgotten and forsaken hovered somewhere inside me, somewhere around me. It was not me; but it was one of my own. It was as though I were slipping between theater sets: one performance here, one there, one behind me, one in front. Stepping off solid ground into a rocking boat knowing my legs were no longer my own. Slipping through shadows and voices. seeing ghosts, hearing whispers and long-distance singing. I felt like I was never really seen; as if no one could see me, nor could I see them. I felt lost.I wondered if this was a lost connection between my great-grandmother. I don't remember feeling this way in Tennessee where I felt more close to her than I did here. And when I stood on the banks of the Arkansas River in Arkansas. Here, it was entirely different.Many people were strolling around the grounds, visiting vendors, buying food items, and wandering to various points of interest on the grounds. I wanted to remain a shadow. Asked what I wanted to do, I immediately found myself responding to Ed, "Visit the museum."As we walked inside the low lumbering building, I passed several displays of material objects. Most were the winning participants of an art show sporting shiny red and blue ribbons. Except for two examples of extraordinary contemporary pottery, which captured my interest, I passed them by and found myself in the permanent exhibit of the Cherokee History and Trail of Tears.A sign at the entry announced a ban on photography, which I respected. Besides, it seemed disrespectful to flash and grab portrayals of a family's historical plight to near extermination. I don't think I could have taken photographs even if they were permitted. Photographs are captured images, some are invented images; they are 'dead voices' of the past, of the vanished. They capture only a point in time and space, unrevealing of the surrounding connections. They can deceive one to a belief of an arrested past, or they can tickle the imagination to seek that which lays beyond the image. For me, this time I wanted to be surrounded by the living past; with living voices mingling with whispers of the past.I was directed through a collage of history of the Cherokee people. Their voices and places were everywhere. As I strolled amongst exhibits depicting the Cherokee people, I longed to hear the real voices; the stories, the voices flowing from faces. Reading and viewing the exhibits I was a bystander, a disconnected 'Other'. I wanted to see lips move, see their eyes, hear the feelings in the voices. I slid off the bike and sat on a ledge outcropping. The gravel trail snaked alongside the mountain and through the trees as though it were a still stream with no water. The trees and shrubs, lichen and granite ledge muffled any sounds, yet I could almost hear moccasins walking along the trail, buckskin clothes and black hair blending easily. I could feel their presence, even though they had been gone over 150 years ago. They knew these forests and mountains like the creases in their babies’ skin. Here they derived physical and spiritual sustenance, and near here they hid from the soldiers and encroaching settlers. Their ghosts faded in and out as I sat watching and listening. I, on the outside, yet partly on the inside. Perhaps I would see a ghost of my self walking softly in those moccasins. Maybe my great-grandmother.
As one moves along the exhibits and stories of the Cherokees on the Trail of Tears, you round a corner and find yourself behind white life-sized 'people' in various poses on the floor in front of you. In the low-lit galley, they all face ahead, stumbling, kneeling, steadying the kin and stranger next to them, heads covered in shawls and blankets, bowed and forelorn. Silent. Yet the silence exudes feelings that draw you into them, into their plight, their aching souls. I stood on a hill, on the outskirts of Jeruselum in Israel, rooted to the ground staring at tens of starved people –women, men, and children- most naked, torn cloth hanging on others, their skin conforming to the bones barred by wasted muscle. All memorialized in bronze patina. Faces revealed hopelessness, pain and fear. Silent screams forever escaping open mouths, eyes that can’t shed tears, fingers that will never clutch anything other than death and empty air. You can’t look away, your throat is tight and your heart is ripped open for thousands of needless deaths. I cannot speak; I have no voice. Yet I ask the eternal question as it resounds in the very air I breathe: Why?Slowly I walked from the galley and into the entrance and light. People mingled by, but I could not feel them. I cannot swallow. Mouths spoke, but I could not hear them. I opened my mouth, but I could not speak. The question tumbled out unspoken and unheard: Why?Ghosts are choking you. You ask too many questions.
Labels: Oklahoma, Trails of Tears