Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Robert Bushyhead at Nikwasi

A couple of days ago, I picked up the Macon County News and read of efforts to learn more about the Nikwasi mound in Franklin with ground-penetrating radar. What really caught my attention, though, was an anecdote related by Anne Rogers, from the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at Western Carolina University. According to the article, Rogers attended a Nikwasi dedication ceremony years ago:

She said that after local politicians spoke at the ceremony, Cherokee speaker Robert Bushyhead walked past the microphone and climbed the mound to address those assembled. Bushyhead spoke in Cherokee. Rogers said suddenly the clouds parted and the sun illuminated him. "I had an appreciation for this as Cherokee land," Rogers said.

I had the good fortune to hear Robert Bushyhead speak on several occasions and immediately thought of him when I read George William Featherstonhaugh’s account of a 1837 visit with the Cherokee. The English-born Featherstonhaugh was the first United States government geologist and traveled widely. He happened to reach Cherokee country in August of 1837, during a council meeting at Red Clay, Tennessee.

When he described a Cherokee orator named Bushyhead, how could I not think of Robert Bushyhead?

Because Featherstonhaugh had such a way with words, I’m including more passages than I had first intended from his book, A Canoe Voyage Up the Minnay Sotor:

The expense of feeding this multitude, which was defrayed by the council, was very great. Fifteen beeves were said to be killed every day, and a proportionate quantity of Indian corn used. Twenty-four native families were employed in cooking the provisions and serving the tables which were set out three times a-day. The beef was cut up into small pieces of three or four inches square, and kept stewing for several hours in large pots. The broth of this mess, without the meat, was the first dish offered to us at the excellent Mrs. Walker's, but when it was handed to me I found it was nothing but a mass of melted fat, the surface of which was oscillating about like quicksilver, and I had to send it away at the risk of giving offence.

… Having refreshed ourselves with a cup of tea, we walked out with General Smith, the Indian agent for the United States, to see the Council-house. Crossing the Cooayhallay, we soon found ourselves in an irregular sort of street consisting of huts, booths and stores hastily constructed from the trees of the forest, for the accommodation of Cherokee families, and for the cooking establishments necessary to the subsistence of several thousand Indians. This street was at the foot of some hilly ground upon which the Council-room was built, which was a simple parallelogram formed of logs with open sides, and benches inside for the councillors. The situation was exceedingly well chosen in every respect, for there was a copious limestone spring on the bank of the stream, which gave out a delicious cool water in sufficient quantities for this great multitude. What contributed to make the situation extremely picturesque, was the great number of beautiful trees growing in every direction, the underwood having been most judiciously cut away to enable the Indians to move freely through the forest, and to tie their horses to the trees. Nothing more Arcadian could be conceived than the picture which was presented; but the most impressive feature, and that which imparted life to the whole, was an unceasing current of Cherokee Indians, men, women, youths, and children, moving about in every direction, and in the greatest order; and all, except the younger ones, preserving a grave and thoughtful demeanour imposed upon them by the singular position in which they were placed, and by the trying alternative now presented to them of delivering up their native country to their oppressors, or perishing in a vain resistance.

Featherstonhaugh provides one of the most detailed descriptions of Cherokee dress that I’ve ever found:

An observer could not but sympathize deeply with them; they were not to be confounded with the wild savages of the West, being decently dressed after the manner of white people, with shirts, trousers, shoes and stockings, whilst the half-breeds and their descendants conformed in every thing to the custom of the whites, spoke as good English as them, and differed from them only in a browner complexion, and in being less vicious and more sober. The pure bloods had red and blue cotton handkerchiefs folded on their heads in the manner of turbans, and some of these, who were mountaineers from the elevated districts of North Carolina wore also deer-skin leggings and embroidered hunting shirts; whilst their turbans, their dark coarse, lank hair, their listless savage gait, and their swarthy Tartar countenances, reminded me of the Arabs from Barbary. Many of these men were athletic and good-looking; but the women who had passed from the maidenly age, had, owing to the hard labour imposed upon them by Indian usages, lost as usual every feminine attraction, so that in my walk I did not see one upon whom I had any desire to look a second time. In the course of the evening, I attended at the Council-house to hear some of their resolutions read by an English missionary, named Jones, who adhered to the Cherokees ; a man of talent, it was said, and of great activity, but who was detested by the Georgians. These were afterwards translated, viva voce, into Cherokee by Bushy-head, one of the principal half-breed Cherokees.

August 5.—The voices of the Cherokees already at morning worship awoke me at the dawn of day, and dressing myself hastily, I went to the Council-house. Great numbers of them were assembled, and Mr. Jones, the Missionary, read out verses in the English language from the New Testament, which Bushy-head, with a singularly stentorial voice and sonorous accent, immediately rendered to the people in the Cherokee tongue, emitting a deep grunting sound at the end of every verse, resembling the hard breathing of a man chopping trees down, the meaning of which I was given to understand was to call their attention to the proposition conveyed by the passage. This I was told is an universal practice also in Cherokee oratory. When they sang, a line or two of a hymn printed in the Cherokee language was given out, each one having a hymn book in his hand, and I certainly never saw any congregation engaged more apparently in sincere devotion. This spectacle insensibly led me into reflection upon the opinion which is so generally entertained of its being impossible to civilize the Indians in our sense of the word. Here is a remarkable instance which seems to furnish a conclusive answer to scepticism on this point. A whole Indian nation abandons the pagan practices of their ancestors, adopts the Christian religion, uses books printed in their own language, submits to the government of their elders, builds houses and temples of worship, relies upon agriculture for their support, and produces men of great ability to rule over them, and to whom they give a willing obedience. Are not these the great principles of civilization ? They are driven from their religious and social state then, not because they cannot be civilized, but because a pseudo set of civilized beings, who are too strong for them, want their possessions ! What a bitter reflection it will be to the religiously disposed portion of the people, who shall hereafter live here, that the country they will be so proud of and so blest in was torn from the Aboriginals in this wrongful manner. God be thanked, that in acquiring the dominion of India, Great Britain protects and blesses the people whose country owns her sway !

Mr. Ross invited us to dine with him at his house to-morrow. In the evening the same scene of gormandizing was again exhibited, the woods gleaming with fires in every direction; several thousand Indians being scattered about in small groups, each with its fire, near to which a few sticks were set up, and a blanket or two laid over them to screen the women and children from the wind. The greatest tranquillity prevailed, and I walked about among them to a late hour, observing them, and asking the men the names of things with a view to catch the pronunciation.

August 6.—Rising at day-break, and taking a cup of tea, I went to the Council-house to attend divine service. From a rostrum erected near it, a native Cherokee preacher delivered a very long sermon to a very numerous assemblage of Indians and white people who had assembled from various parts. The discourse came from him with great vehemence both of action and voice, gesticulating and grunting at every instant, and never stopping to take breath, as it appeared to me, in half an hour. It was like a continual stream of falling water. All the Cherokees paid great attention to the sermon, and the most perfect decorum prevailed. After the sermon we had a psalm, led by Bushy-head, the whole congregation uniting in it. Mr. Jones then preached in English, and Bushy-head, with his stentorian voice, translated the passages as they came from the preacher, into Cherokee. During all this time, the ardent beams of the sun were pouring upon our bare heads. I felt at length as if I could not bear it much longer, and therefore went away before we were dismissed, rather than by covering my head to appear to offer any irreverence.

But I digress…

Returning to Robert Bushyhead, I found his obituary published in the Telegraph (London), of all places. I recommend clicking on that story to learn more about his role to preserve the Cherokee language, despite government policies that almost erased it from the culture:

Bushyhead first heard English when he was six, a year before he was enrolled in a government boarding school. The emphasis there was on discipline and the children were forbidden to speak Cherokee. Bushyhead and his friends would sneak down to the furnace room to talk Cherokee. They were frequently caught and punished with a severity normally reserved for illicit smoking or chewing gum. Almost all the children punished later declined to teach their children Cherokee for fear that they might suffer similar punishment.


Gary Carden said...

I heard Robert Bushyhead speak many times. My favorite is at the dedication ceremony at the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum in Vanore, Tennessee. The crowd attaending the ceremony included TVA executives, tribal council members, UT students and a generous number of Cherokee artists and craftsmen. Just before Robert spoke, someone irritated him by asking him if he thought the Cheorkees crossed the Bering Strait thousands of years ago. "Why does it never occur to them that maybe we went there? Why does it always have to be us that came here?" Then, he dismissed the whole issue by saying, It is not important. When I go to the airport, the train station or the bus station, they never aske me where I came from. They always say "Where are you going."

Gulahiyi, don't be such a stranger.
You haven't visited my blog (or posted) in a long time.

GULAHIYI said...

Gary (or should I say "Gray Hackle"?)

Thanks for the Bushyhead story. I've been keeping up with your exploits. That northwest corner of SC is pretty fine, eh?

I'm doing my best to stay out of trouble. I was going to run away and join a monastery, but they only want guys aged 20 - 40...fresh meat, as it were. Which rules me out! Oh well.