Wednesday, March 9, 2016

History Rewritten - 5

Men are not worried by things, but by their ideas about things.

They have prostituted their culture.  I went to Cherokee this summer.  I could only stay two days.
-Vernon Bellecourt, American Indian Movement leader

Who controls the present controls the past; who controls the past controls the future.
-The Ministry of Truth, in George Orwell’s 1984.

Among legendary Cherokee figures few, if any, have attained the lofty status of Tsali, aka Charley, aka Old Charley.  That’s understandable if one’s knowledge of the man is limited to the version depicted in the outdoor drama, Unto These Hills.  But for anyone who begins with the documentary record of his final days, the transformation of the Tsali of history to the Tsali of legend is a head-scratcher.   In that regard, a rewording of the Epictetus adage is in order

Men are not inspired by things, but by their ideas about things.

The popular legend of Tsali goes something like this:

During the Cherokee removal, Tsali and his family were taken into custody.  Subsequently, a soldier accompanying the captives was killed and Tsali escaped.  After hiding out in the upper Deep Creek area, Tsali came forward to accept his inevitable execution on November 25, 1838.  As a result of Tsali’s sacrifice, federal officials allowed 1000 of his fellow Cherokees to remain along the Oconaluftee River, thereby avoiding the Trail of Tears. 

So we’re told.  But while the myth is easily refuted, some aspects of the story remain a mystery.  Few incidents occurring deep in the Smokies in the 1830s are as well documented as the death of Tsali.  I would be the last to claim, though, that such documentary evidence is infallible.  Military records in particular should be taken with a very large grain of salt.  Having examined the respective Union and Confederate accounts of the Civil War Battle of Bryson City, I find it hard to believe that they are both describing the same event.  Nevertheless…

Historian Duane King gets to the crux of the matter:

The extent to which Tsali’s death has been glorified in martyrdom staggers the imagination.  To whites and acculturated Indians, Tsali is seen as a combination of the Messiah and George Washington, who made the ultimate sacrifice for the creation of a new state.  

However, many traditional Cherokees view the murder of the soldiers as a hideous crime which jeopardized the entire Cherokee community in the North Carolina mountains.  It invoked the wrath of the United States government.  In their bid to remain in North Carolina, the Oconalufty Cherokees had worked hard to promote an image of peaceful, law-abiding, industrious, model citizens.  Suddenly, through no fault of their own, that image was challenged.

My curiosity led me to trace the evolution of the Tsali story from fact to fiction.  I promptly discovered that several bona fide scholars had already outlined that progression.  Unfortunately, the nuances of the “real” story don’t lend themselves to melodramatic pageants and other tourist bait. 

Clearly, there is a price to be paid for chipping away at a legend.  After University of Tennessee historian John Finger wrote about the facts surrounding the Tsali incident, the blustering, rough-edged, criminal, Principal Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Jonathan “Ed” Taylor, confronted the professor:

We don't need outsiders coming in and attacking our heroes.  Cherokees wouldn't attack George Washington, and you're doing that to us.*

Good.  I don’t want anyone shaking my firmly held belief in GW’s chopping down of the cherry tree or flinging of a silver dollar across the Potomac. Is nothing sacred?

Chief Ed is a funny one to be feigning such sensitivity.  Back in 1991, the Atlanta Braves were catching hell for their mascot and their tomahawk chops even after Chief Noc-A-Homa had been dispatched to the Great Baseball Stadium in the Sky.

But Taylor stepped up to the plate in their defense.

Doug Grow reported on the controversy for the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune:

CHEROKEE, N.C. — Thousands of the tomahawks favored by fans of the Atlanta Braves are made here. So are the chicken-feather headdresses.

``And blankets,`` said Jonathan Taylor. ``Don`t forget to mention we make blankets.``

Taylor is principal chief of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians. He also is a fan of capitalism, the Braves baseball team, Braves owner Ted Turner and the much discussed tomahawk chop.

``We`re not fighting a war-Indians against whites-anymore,`` Taylor said. ``Cherokees just want to make a living. The tomahawk chop is great. Right now, we`ve got 300 Indians working over at the moccasin factory.``

Cherokee is designed to be a tourist trap. It`s filled with places with such names as the Honest Injun Trading Post, Trail of Tears Gallery, Big Chief Swap Shop and Princess Cafe.

American Indian Movement leaders in the Twin Cities and in Atlanta have spoken with a combination of contempt and pity for the Cherokee tribe. One AIM leader, Bill Means, compared the Cherokees profiting from the Braves` success to the Indian scouts who helped the cavalry.

The last line is hilarious, considering that is PRECISELY what happened in the case of Tsali.  Why isn’t that the moral of the story?  “Look how swimmingly things turn out when Indian scouts help the cavalry!!!!”

Background to a Showdown

In 1835, one minority faction of Cherokees signed a treaty in New Echota, Georgia that provided for removal of Cherokees to the West.  But another small faction settled along the Oconaluftee River held fast to the terms of an 1819 treaty which had allowed them to seek United States citizenship and hold lands in the vicinity of Quallatown.  These “Oconaluftee,” “Lufty,” or “Qualla” Indians had enjoyed harmonious relations with their white neighbors, and the white merchant Will Thomas was an adopted member of the group.

When the terms of the New Echota Treaty were being implemented, there was great dissension among the “non-Oconaluftee” Cherokees.  Many who felt railroaded by the small faction of treaty signers did their best to elude the United States Army as it rounded up Cherokees for the removal.  Among those fugitives was a small band led by Tsali.

Most of his early life was spent with the so-called Chickamauga Cherokees of northwest Georgia, about 100 miles away from Qualla.  During the onset of the Revolutionary War, a number of Cherokees in Tennessee sought to distance themselves from the expanding frontier settlements.  Starting in 1776 –77, they migrated southwest and establish a dozen new towns south of present-day Chattanooga.

These Chickamauga or Lower Cherokees had ongoing conflicts with the Upper Cherokees remaining along the Hiwassee and Little Tennessee Rivers.  Black Fox of the Chickamauga served as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1801-1810, and took a major role in treaty negotiations. In 1806, Black Fox relinquished nearly 7,000 square miles of land in present-day Tennessee and Alabama, and was given a lifetime annuity in return.  

A series of such transactions, arguably quite self-serving, did not sit well with certain elements among the Cherokees.  Upper Cherokees complained to President Thomas Jefferson January 24, 1808:

We…can never consider any future Treaty binding upon us, until it is reviewed & approved by a Majority of all our beloved Men, Chiefs & Warriors. This Regulation will effectually prevent all future Misunderstandings of our Engagements and secure Tranquility between us.

Tommy J responded to the Upper Cherokees on May 4, 1808:

You complain that you do not receive your just proportion of the Annuities we pay your Nation; that the Chiefs of the lower Town’s take for them more than their share. My Children, this distribution is made by the Authority of the Cherokee Nation, & according to their own rules over which we have no control. We do our duty in delivering the Annuities to the head men of the Nation and we pretend to no Authority over them, to no right of directing how they are to be distributed. but We will instruct our Agent Colo. Meigs to exhort the Chiefs to do justice to all the parts of their Nation in the distribution of these Annuities & to endeavor that every town shall have its due share. We would willingly pay these Annuities in money which Could be more equally divided, if the Nation would prefer that, and if we can be assured that the money will not be laid out in strong drink instead of necessaries for your wives & children….

You propose My Children, that your Nation shall be divided into two and that your part the Upper Cherokees, shall be separated from the lower by a fixed boundary, shall be placed under the Government of the U.S. become citizens thereof, and be ruled by our laws; in fine, to be our brothers instead of our children. My Children I shall rejoice to See the day when the red men our neighbors become truly one people with us, enjoying all the rights and privileges we do, & living in peace & plenty as we do without any one to make them afraid, to injure their persons, or to take their property without being punished for it according to fixed laws. but are you prepared for this? have you the resolution to leave off hunting for your living, to lay off a farm for each family to itself, to live by industry, the men working that farm with their hands, raising stock or learning trades as we do, & the women spinning & weaving Clothes for their Husbands & Children? all this is necessary before our laws can suit you or be of any use to you.

By 1811, other outside factors complicated the turmoil among the Cherokees.  The Shawnee leader Tecumseh came south to persuade the Five Civilized tribes to join his proposed pan-Indian alliance to resist the Americans.  He exhorted the Muscogees in October 1811.  General Samuel Dale, who was present at the meeting, claimed these were the words of Tecumseh:

In defiance of the white warriors of Ohio and Kentucky, I have traveled through their settlements, once our favorite hunting grounds. No war-whoop was sounded, but there is blood on our knives. The Pale-faces felt the blow, but knew not whence it came. Accursed be the race that has seized on our country and made women of our warriors. Our fathers, from their tombs, reproach us as slaves and cowards. I hear them now in the wailing winds. The Muscogee was once a mighty people. The Georgians trembled at your war-whoop, and the maidens of my tribe, on the distant lakes, sung the prowess of your warriors and sighed for their embraces. Now your very blood is white; your tomahawks have no edge; your bows and arrows were buried with your fathers. Oh! Muscogees, brethren of my mother, brush from your eyelids the sleep of slavery; once more strike for vengeance; once more for your country. The spirits of the mighty dead complain. Their tears drop from the weeping skies.

Let the white race perish. They seize your land; they corrupt your women; they trample on the ashes of your dead! Back, whence they came, upon a trail of blood, they must be driven. Back! back, ay, into the great water whose accursed waves brought them to our shores! Burn their dwellings! Destroy their stock! Slay their wives and children! The Red Man owns the country, and the Pale-faces must never enjoy it. War now! War forever! War upon the living! War upon the dead! Dig their very corpses from the grave. Our country must give no rest to a white man's bones. This is the will of the Great Spirit, revealed to my brother, his familiar, the Prophet of the Lakes. He sends me to you. All the tribes of the north are dancing the war-dance. Two mighty warriors across the seas will send us arms. Tecumseh will soon return to his country. My prophets shall tarry with you. They will stand between you and the bullets of your enemies. When the white men approach you the yawning earth shall swallow them up. Soon shall you see my arm of fire stretched athwart the sky. I will stamp my foot at Tippecanoe, and the very earth shall shake.

If those were indeed the words of Tecumseh, such sentiments drew mixed response in the South.  A Cherokee leader, The Ridge, after observing Tecumseh among the Muscogee, threatened him with death should he ever set foot upon Cherokee territory.  On the other hand, Tsali was very receptive to Tecumseh’s message and during a national council of the Cherokees, he argued for war against the Americans.  After a heated debate, The Ridge prevailed with his arguments in favor of maintaining peace with the Americans. 

Several weeks later, though, the Southeast was rattled by the New Madrid earthquakes.  Tsali asserted the temblors fulfilled Tecumseh’s vow that by stamping his foot at Tippecanoe, “the very earth shall shake.”  With prophetic fervor, Tsali warned of a coming apocalypse for the Cherokee Nation and convinced many fellow Cherokees to retreat to the Smoky Mountains to find safe haven.  Tsali, his wife, and three sons relocated from Georgia to the Nantahala River near its confluence with the Little Tennessee and lived quietly for the next quarter century. 

This brings us to where the scholars begin to trace the evolution of Tsali from man to myth. In November 1838, United States Army troops under the command of General Winfield Scott were tracking down recalcitrant Cherokees trying to avoid their forced removal.  A number of holdouts, including Tsali and his family, were hiding along the Little Tennessee River and its tributaries.   Will Thomas was assisting the army by organizing a party of Oconaluftee Cherokees to help track down the fugitives.

Rounding Up the Fugitive Cherokees

I was aware of the military correspondence regarding the matter, but I was surprised to find that the records were published in numerous periodicals within a month of Tsali’s death.  An overview of events is found in a November 6, 1838 letter from General Scott, at the headquarters of the Eastern Division of the War Department in Athens, Tennessee.  At that point, he knew of the killings committed by Tsali’s party and was awaiting their capture, shuttling army troops in and out of the region.  

Troops were ordered from North Carolina to the Canada frontier, July 21st, on the assurance of Brigadier General Eustis, their immediate commander, that all the Indians …had been collected and sent in to the agency for emigration….

 In a few weeks, [it was] discovered that perhaps 300 had escaped…by retiring to distant hiding places in the same range of mountains, beyond the limits of the late Cherokee country; which number was in the months of July and August augmented by forty or fifty [more], who stole away singly from the principal emigrating depot…

Early in August I sent Lieutenant Scott, with a detachment of mounted men and Indian runners furnished by the Cherokee authorities, into those mountains, who succeeded, by the aid of those runners in bringing to the agency about 90 of the fugitives…

On the 12th of September I dispatched Lieutenants Larned, Johnson, and Smith, with a larger detachment of mounted men, and a double set of Indian runners, furnished as before and [they apprehended] about 60 prisoners, all of whom were captured, not one having yielded to invitation or persuasion on the part of the runners.

Lieutenant Larned estimates the remaining Indians in the region (subject to emigration— that is, excluding those who have acquired the right to remain on the Oconeelufty, Haywood county, under the laws of North Carolina,) at about 200 souls, including 40 warriors. Five of the latter were the prisoners of Lieutenant Smith, and [they] murdered two of his men and wounded a third.  Indeed he had no others with him at the moment, the rest of his party being on the return from a search for Indians, and only half a mile off when the prisoners made the attack.  That this act of hostility was wholly unprovoked by any unkindness, is evident from the fact that the two men killed had dismounted and lent their horses to the murderers to ride, who pretended to be lame or fatigued.

Tsali Kills His Captors and Escapes

In a November 5 letter to Lieutenant Larned, Lieutenant A. J. Smith went into greater detail concerning the murders committed by the Cherokees taken into custody:

Agreeably to your instructions, dated September 17th, I repaired immediately to Oconeelufty, North Carolina, for the purpose of collecting all the Indians in that neighborhood belonging to the nation. After two weeks unsuccessful search at Olufty, I started to S. Carolina, in pursuit of a large number of Indians that had been reported to me to be in the vicinity of Pickens. I found a camp of sixteen, and brought them to O.

On my return to the place, I found orders for us to return home as soon as practicable. On our way down the little Tennessee river I heard of a party of Indians within a few miles of us, and thinking it my duty to collect them, if possible, I proceeded in company with Mr. Thomas and three men to their camps, sending the other party on down the river in charge of a sergeant and eight men. I found but eight at their camp, but understanding that there were twenty belonging to the company, I concluded to stay with them until next morning, hoping they would all come in. I was, however, obliged to start with only twelve of the company.

This day I expected to overtake the other command, but was forced to stop at James Welsh's. There I found an express with a repetition of your previous orders.  From thence I made rny way, with all possible speed, down the river, ordering, by express, a portion of the men of the first command to join me immediately. On the evening of [November 1st] I discovered an unwillingness among the Indians to travel, and, in order to make greater speed, I put some of the children on horses, but it was with great difficulty I could then get them along, I suspected.all was not right and frequently cautioned the men to be on their guard.

Shortly after sunset, I discovered a long dirk-knife in the possession of one of our Indians, and ordered it to be immediately taken from him. He turned it over without any hesitation; and we had proceeded but a short distance before I spied an axe, which I also ordered to be taken from them, but I am sorry to say, too late, for I had scarcely finished the order, before I saw the axe buried in the forehead of one of our men.

This being the signal for attack the others fell immediately to work, and in less than one minute, they killed two, wounded a third, and commenced searching them, and carrying off every article they could lay their hands on. I fortunately escaped unhurt, and owe my life in a measure to the spirit and activity of my horse.

Search for the Killers

Returning to General Scott’s letter, plans for capture of the offending party are outlined:

The country to be searched by Colonel [William S.] Foster is very extensive, and in the greater part, extremely difficult to traverse, both for horse and foot. It abounds in deer, wild beef cattle, and hogs. I suppose that the expedition may be out about four weeks…

The instructions which I shall give the expedition, (which has commenced its march,) will have nothing in them of a vindictive character, except as regards the murderers, and I shall change my former orders so far as to permit the troops to fire on any warrior who flies.

The Indians lo be pursued are mere outlaws. They have obstinately separated themselves from their tribe, and refused all obedience to the orders and entreaties of its chiefs. Nevertheless, they shall be again summoned to deliver themselves up, with a promise of kind treatment to all except the murderers. Every Cherokee in this neighborhood who has heard of the recent outrage has expressed the utmost indignation and regret, and it would be very easy to obtain from the emigrants on the road any number of warriors to march with the troops against the outlaws. I shall, however, only accept of the services of a few runners, to bear invitations of kindness, deeming it against the honor of the United States to employ, in hostilities, one part of a tribe against another.

Col. Foster will also have the aid, as runners, guides, and interpreters, of some of Mr. Thomas's Oconeelufly Indians, as well as the personal services of Mr. Thomas himself, who takes a lively interest in the success of the expedition.

Besides punishing the murderers and capturing the other fugitives, the expedition has another important object, viz., to prevent those Indians who, unprovoked, have commenced hostilities, from murdering the White families thinly scattered over that mountainous region.

Finally, on December 5, Captain John Paige announced “mission accomplished”:

I have the honor to report the arrival of the troops from the mountains; they having captured the five murderers, four of which were executed, and the fifth was pardoned.  The Lufty Indians that reside in North Carolina rendered great assistance in finding them. After the murderers were caught, they were tied to trees, the troops drawn up, and the Lufty Indians shot them.  The families of the murderers (nine in number) were brought to this place and will go west accompanied by the troops as prisoners.  The troops will all leave this nation in a few days…

Eyewitness to Tsali’s Execution

In these accounts there is nothing to indicate that the Oconaluftee Indians faced any risk of deportation.  So where did we get the idea that Tsali “sacrificed” himself so that “his people” could remain in the mountain? Five years afterwards, an eyewitness to Tsali’s execution gave a deposition to Joseph Welch, Justice of the Peace. This account explains that the small group of Cherokees who executed the Tsali party did gain the right to remain in North Carolina as a reward for their cooperation, a far cry from the legendary tale:

This day personally came before me, Joseph Welch, one of the acting Macon County Justices of the peace in and for said county, Jonas Jenkins, aged forty one years, a respectable citizen of said county who, after sworn according to law, deposeth and saith as follows:

That about the fifteenth of November 1838, he was employed to accompany Euchella and about forty Cherokee warriors that had been employed by Colonel Foster of the United States Army to aid in capturing Charley and three other Cherokee Indians that had as he was informed murdered two soldiers by the names of Perry and Martin belonging to the 4th Infantry a short time previous to the time he entered the service.

After the Cherokee company and the few white hunters that accompanied them captured three of the murderers, deponent aided to guard them to where Colonel Foster was, then stationed with the United States troops near the mouth of the Tuckasegee River on the Little Tennessee River in the above mentioned county.

A few days afterwards the murderers were tried by the Cherokees, found guilty (as deponent as informed) and deponent was present when they were shot by a guard of the Cherokees under the direction of Euchella in the presence of Colonel Foster and the United States Army which was drawn up on the bank of the Little Tennessee River to see them executed.

Euchella and the chiefs and warriors that composed the company were directed to assemble at Colonel Foster's tent to hold a talk. Colonel Foster when they were assembled informed them that they had seen in the punishment of those murderers the consequence resulting from an attack on the United States Army and murdering citizens. He stated that he was aware of the important services they had rendered the United States in capturing and executing those murderers and that only one by the name of Charley remained to be captured and executed, he would leave them to perform that part of the duty and would immediately march his army out of the country and in consequence of the meritorious services rendered the United States by the Cherokee chiefs and warriors in performing the services he would close the emigration and permit Euchella and his band as well as all the Cherokees remaining in the country (except old Charley's family) to settle in and unite with the Cherokees at Qualla Town that had been citizenized.

He advised them to send runners to bring in their friends that had been lying out in the mountains to avoid being taken to Arkansas to inform them of the permission granted them to settle at Qualla Town and become citizens of the state, advised them to say to their friends not to lie out in the mountains any longer suffering with hunger but to take his advice and settle at Qualla Town and not scatter off among the whites, to live in friendship with their white neighbors and make good citizens and he assured them that they would never be molested by the United States.

Euchella replied before they were made citizens of the United States. that they had aided the white people in their war against the Creek Indians and now since the government of the United States had been so kind to them as to permit the Cherokees remaining to remain citizens of the state of North Carolina, they would always be found ready as American citizens to render their adopted country all the aid in their power against her enemies.

Euchella and the other chiefs and warriors belonging to the company took leave of Colonel Foster and Euchella, informed him when his warriors had captured Charley that he should be dealt with as the chiefs had promised and though he might be in a foreign country when he heard from them, he should have no reason to accuse them for not performing on their part in good faith all they had promised him. The Cherokee company then marched up the Tuckasegee River towards Qualla Town and the American Army started towards Tennessee as deponent was informed, he did not wait to see them on their march but they were preparing to march when he left with the Cherokee company.

The next day Wachucha and some other Cherokees met the Cherokee company with old Charley who they had captured on Nantahala and the next day afterwards Euchella and the chiefs tried him, he acknowledged he had killed the soldier and that he expected to die for it when he done the act. Euchella after the decision was made informed Charley that he would be shot at twelve o'clock. A short time before twelve he told Euchella to hunt up his children that had been left in the mountains when he was taken first to be emigrated, to be a father to them talk good to them, give them good advice, to tell them what had become of their father and that it was his request that they should die in that country and never go to Arkansas.

He told them he was a brave man and not afraid to die and when he was chained to the tree to be shot he showed no symptom of fear. Euchella promised him what he requested in relation to his children should be performed, a bandage was place over his eyes and three of the warriors were selected to execute the sentence and at a signal given by Euchella with his hand, the three selected fired, one ball passed into his brain and two balls into his breast, deponent aided in digging his grave and burying him on the bank of the Tuckasegee River.

The Cherokee company immediately marched on towards Qualla Town. A few days afterwards deponent was at that town and saw about thirty of the outlying Cherokees including men, women, and children almost naked move into the town to settle there in pursuance of the instructions given by Colonel Foster in permitting those Cherokee Indians to remain with the best arrangement that could have been made, that the interest of the government of the Cherokees and the white citizens were promoted thereby. Colonel Foster's whole regiment unaided by the Indians could not in his opinion have captured those murderers against this time. The large beds of laurel in which they had secreted themselves rendered it impossible for him to have taken them with his troops, deponent further saith, as sworn to and subscribed before me August 16, 1843.

So there you have it.  Myth debunked. 

The Legend Takes Root

Before long, the legend of Tsali took on a life of its own.  A prime suspect in this process is Will Thomas, though his motives are not entirely clear.  We do know that Thomas was an informant to Charles Lanman when that writer travelled through Qualla a decade after the Cherokee removal. 

Lanman’s retelling appeared in his book, Letters from the Alleghany Mountains.  His embellishment of Tsali’s dying words is a stock feature of the romanticized “noble savage” literature of the nineteenth century:

Another of the characters I intended to mention is named Euchella. He is a very worthy chief, and now in the afternoon of his days. He is quite celebrated among his people as a warrior, but is principally famous for important services rendered by him to the United States Government during the Cherokee troubles. He, and a band of one hundred followers, first attracted public attention by evading, for upwards of a whole year, the officers of Government who had been commanded to remove the party beyond the Mississippi. It having been ascertained, however, that Euchella could not easily be captured, and would never submit to leave his country, it was determined that an overture should be made, by which he and his brotherhood of warriors could be secured to assist the whites in their troublesome efforts to capture three Indians who had murdered a number of soldiers. The instrument employed to effect a reconciliation was the Indian trader, Mr. Thomas, who succeeded in appointing a meeting with Euchella on a remote mountain-top.

During this interview, Mr. Thomas remonstrated with Euchella, and told him that, if he would join the whites, he might remain in Carolina, and be at peace. “I cannot be at peace,” replied the warrior, “because it is now a whole year that your soldiers have hunted me like a wild deer. I have suffered from the white man more than I can bear. I had a wife and a little child—a brave, bright-eyed boy—and because I would not become your slave, they were left to starve upon the mountains. Yes; and I buried them with my own hand, at midnight. For a whole week at a time have I been without bread myself, and this in my own country too. I cannot bear to think upon my wrongs, and I scorn your proposition.”

It so happened, however, that he partially relented, and having submitted the proposition to his warriors, whom he summoned to his side by a whoop, they agreed to accept it, and from that time Euchella became an ally of the army. It was by the efforts of Euchella and his band that the murderers already mentioned were arrested and punished. They had been condemned by a court martial, and sentenced to be shot, and the scorn of death manifested by one of them, named Charley, is worth recording.

He had been given into the hands of Euchella, and when he was tied to the tree, by one arm, where he was to die, (to which confinement he submitted without a murmur,) he asked permission to make a few remarks, which was of course granted, and he spoke as follows: “And is it by your hands, Euchella, that I am to die? We have been brothers together; but Euchella has promised to be the white man’s friend, and he must do his duty, and poor Charley is to suffer because he loved his country. O, Euchella! if the Cherokee people now beyond the Mississippi carried my heart in their bosoms, they never would have left their beautiful native land—their own mountain land. I am not afraid to die; O, no, I want to die, for my heart is very heavy, heavier than lead. But, Euchella, there is one favor that I would ask at your hands. You know that I had a little boy, who was lost among the mountains. I want you to find that boy, if he is not dead, and tell him that the last words of his father were that he must never go beyond the Father of Waters, but die in the land of his birth. It is sweet to die in one’s own country, and to be buried by the margin of one’s native stream.”

After the bandage had been placed over his eyes, a little delay occurred in the order of execution, when Charley gently raised the bandage, and saw a dozen of Euchella’s warriors in the very act of firing; he then replaced the cloth, without manifesting the least anxiety or moving a muscle, and in a moment more the poor savage was weltering in his blood. And so did all three of the murderers perish.

Qualla Town, North Carolina, May, 1848.

One More Bite at the Apple

Forty years after Will Thomas told Charles Lanman about Tsali, he retold the tale to James Mooney, an ethnographer who spent several years among the Cherokee at Qualla and compiled Myths of the Cherokee.  At this stage of his life, Thomas’ mental faculties may have been seriously compromised. Either that, or a tendency toward self-aggrandizement resulted in his taking a more central role in the Tsali story as it was channeled by Mooney.

It remains to speak of the eastern band of Cherokee—the remnant which still clings to the woods and waters of the old home country. As has been said, a considerable number had eluded the troops in the general round-up of 1838 and had fled to the fastnesses of the high mountains. Here they were joined by others who had managed to break through the guard at Calhoun and other collecting stations, until the whole number of fugitives in hiding amounted to a thousand or more, principally of the mountain Cherokee of North Carolina, the purest-blooded and most conservative of the Nation. About one-half the refugee warriors had put themselves under command of a noted leader named U′tsălă, “Lichen,” who made his headquarters amid the lofty peaks at the head of Oconaluftee, from which secure hiding place, although reduced to extremity of suffering from starvation and exposure, they defied every effort to effect their capture.

The work of running down these fugitives proved to be so difficult an undertaking and so well-nigh barren of result that when Charley and his sons made their bold stroke for freedom General Scott eagerly seized the incident as an opportunity for compromise. To this end he engaged the services of William H. Thomas, a trader who for more than twenty years had been closely identified with the mountain Cherokee and possessed their full confidence, and authorized him to submit to U′tsălă a proposition that if the latter would seize Charley and the others who had been concerned in the attack upon the soldiers and surrender them for punishment, the pursuit would be called off and the fugitives allowed to stay unmolested until an effort could be made to secure permission from the general government for them to remain.

Thomas accepted the commission, and taking with him one or two Indians made his way over secret paths to U′tsălă’s hiding place. He presented Scott’s proposition and represented to the chief that by aiding in bringing Charley’s party to punishment according to the rules of war he could secure respite for his sorely pressed followers, with the ultimate hope that they might be allowed to remain in their own country, whereas if he rejected the offer the whole force of the seven thousand troops which had now completed the work of gathering up and deporting the rest of the tribe would be set loose upon his own small band until the last refugee had been either taken or killed.

U′tsălă turned the proposition in his mind long and seriously. His heart was bitter, for his wife and little son had starved to death on the mountain side, but he thought of the thousands who were already on their long march into exile and then he looked round upon his little band of followers. If only they might stay, even though a few must be sacrificed, it was better than that all should die—for they had sworn never to leave their country. He consented and Thomas returned to report to General Scott.

Now occurred a remarkable incident which shows the character of Thomas and the masterly influence which he already had over the Indians, although as yet he was hardly more than thirty years old. It was known that Charley and his party were in hiding in a cave of the Great Smokies, at the head of Deep creek, but it was not thought likely that he could be taken without bloodshed and a further delay which might prejudice the whole undertaking. Thomas determined to go to him and try to persuade him to come in and surrender. Declining Scott’s offer of an escort, he went alone to the cave, and, getting between the Indians and their guns as they were sitting around the fire near the entrance, he walked up to Charley and announced his message. The old man listened in silence and then said simply, “I will come in. I don’t want to be hunted down by my own people.” They came in voluntarily and were shot, as has been already narrated, one only, a mere boy, being spared on account of his youth. This boy, now an old man, is still living, Wasitû′na, better known to the whites as Washington.

Enough Already

I have only scratched the surface of the “mythification” of Tsali, but frankly I find it too tiresome to proceed.  And I am eager to get back to the 16th century and following the trail of Hernando De Soto.  For further reading, including a closer look at the evolution of the oral tradition of the Tsali legend among the Qualla Indians, the following sources are all essential:

Duane King, “Tsali: The  Man Behind the Legend,” Journal of Cherokee Studies, Fall 1979. Excerpted online: 

John Finger, “The Saga of  Tsali: Legend Versus Reality,” North Carolina Historical Review, January 1979.
(Also at  )

Paul Kutsche, “The Tsali  Legend: Culture Heroes and Historiography,” Ethnohistory, Autumn 1963.

Also, for a modernist critical approach that breaks free from such confining paradigms as chronology, historical fidelity, patriarchy, and the dreaded Old Dead White Guys, a recent dissertation might be of interest.  Actually, as doctoral dissertations go it is fairly engaging:

AUGUSTÉ, NICOL NIXON, Ph.D. The Rhetoric of Nuna Dual Tsuny: Retelling the Cherokee Trail of Tears. (2006) Directed by Dr. Elizabeth Chiseri-Strater. 170pp.   This dissertation discusses ways to examine historical events such as the Cherokee Trail of Tears through various rhetorical lenses and scrutinizes how to negotiate meaning via these strategies.  This work will contribute to the current discourse on how rhetoric and rhetorical strategies guide the reexamination of a unique American Indian/Euro-American history.   To accomplish this task, I examine the Trail of Tears event through rhetorical lenses that utilize dynamic genres such as ethnohistory, witness, and women’s voice.
Even those doing the best works of history and archaeology are combining evidence and imagination, in an unavoidably imperfect way.  Rebuilding the distant past is like assembling a 1000-piece puzzle missing 900 pieces.  Of course there is room for “various rhetorical lenses.”  If someone is peeved that a great native feminist utopia was subverted by the arrival of Ol’ Whitey, then give voice to that great lost cause.  I get it.

If some inspiring moral can be drawn from the Tsali story, as it is generally marketed, fine.  I get it.  But why the bitter resistance to hearing the extremely strong evidence of another, contradictory, story?  One in which the Oconaluftee Cherokees had little to gain or lose from the shenanigans of a guy named Charley.  A fellow who might have been something other than a selfless martyr.

Having spent most of my life in these mountains, I consider the history of this place to be MY heritage, too.  And I have spent decades studying that history, to see this place not just as it is today, but as it was long ago.  So I’m surprised, though perhaps I shouldn’t be, at how hard it is to sweep away the misinformation and get to something solid, or as solid as a reconstruction of the past can be.

Admittedly, when I read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or George Orwell’s 1984, it doesn’t strike me as fiction, so much as a critique of current events, troubling events.  And those books warn what happens when the past is appropriated or erased by the powers-that-be. I find some satisfaction in fighting back against that form of oppression in whatever small and feeble way that I can.  At least that’s one way to justify my obsession with historical minutiae.


*Note - The Ed Taylor quote appears in a Washington Post article (9/14/2004), When Myth Meets Reality, by Bob Thompson.  Describing the way that a “top ten list” of Eastern Cherokee cultural events was chosen for inclusion in the National Museum of the American Indian, my overwhelming response is deep sadness. From the article, “Event No. 9 was the opening of the casino on Nov. 13, 1997.”  The article delivers an interesting critique on the struggles faced by the museum to balance tribal involvement with historical integrity.  Hopefully, intelligent policy has prevailed over the PC crowd by now, but who knows.  Everybody gets a trophy.

I would not go to the National Gallery of Art to see popsicle-sticks-glued-to-construction-paper presented as “art.”  Nor would I go to the NMAI for a celebration of worthless junk spawned by a tribe’s marketing arm.


Vern Bellecourt, rest his soul, was right about those who prostitute their culture. Long ago and far away, I interviewed Mr. Bellecourt.  I only wish I could have taken a ride with him through Cherokee.  Now THAT would have been an interview! 

Thursday, March 3, 2016

History Rewritten - 4

Red Thunder Cloud was frequently mentioned in local media. He once sued the town of Southampton for $100,000 for "damages to the cultural development of Catawba Indian language" after the town dog warden destroyed nine of his dogs, which he had taught Catawba commands...

His successful life-long masquerade puts him in a class with the Englishman who was the Ojibway Grey Owl (1886-1936) and the African American who was the Blackfoot Buffalo Child Long Lance (d. 1932), both the subjects of films. But Red Thunder Cloud's accomplishment in becoming a speaker of Catawba puts him outside the class of ordinary impostors...

- April 2000 report on "the last speaker" of Catawba language

When I started looking into the decline and extinction of native languages of the Southeast I did not expect to encounter a candidate for the Hoaxster Hall of Fame. 

One of the all-time great hoaxes has to be the Yes Men, posing as Dow Chemical spokesmen, making it onto the BBC News to apologize for the Bhopal disaster and announce a settlement to the victims.  The ruse was promptly exposed, but not before Dow Chemical stocks tumbled, and actual Dow officials took the air to disavow any apology or settlement. Brilliant.

Another prior inductee in the HHOF is Alan Abel, maybe the greatest media hoaxster of all time.

Investigative reporters "exposed" Abel's purported "School for Beggars:"

And Abel planted a number of "fainters" in the studio audience of Phil Donahue's show, creating quite a stir:

I'm not sure "hoax" is the word for Forrest Carter, author of the beloved memoir, The Education of Little Tree: A True Story.  The continuing affection for this book, telling of the young Carter’s introduction to his Cherokee heritage while raised by his grandparents, is phenomenal.  Few books published in the past 40 years have been so venerated.
Even now, the Amazon reviews for the book are testimonials of the sort you seldom see, almost worshipful. Surprisingly infrequent are comments regarding the fictional nature of the work, or the fact that Forrest Carter was also Asa Carter, segregationist mastermind.  His story is told in the remarkable documentary, The Reconstruction of Asa Carter. 

It is worth watching just to see jaws hit the floor when close friends of Forrest are exposed, for the first time, to films of Asa in his prime.  They are utterly dumbfounded.  Asa Carter was credited with writing the famous “Segregation now, segregation forever” speech by George Wallace.

Carter decided Wallace wasn't racist enough in 1968 and sought office himself to more effectively push his own agenda:

Eventually, inexplicably, he ceased to be Asa and reinvented himself as Forrest, writing the The Rebel Outlaw: Josie Wales, which was adapted into a classic Clint Eastwood film. Likewise, The Education of Little Tree (1976) was adapted for the screen.

The Great New Age High Priestess Oprah oohed and ahhed over Little Tree when she recommended the book in 1994, but backed off as soon as she learned about Asa:
I no longer—even though I had been moved by the story—felt the same about this book.  There's a part of me that said, “Well, OK, if a person has two sides of them and can write this wonderful story and also write the segregation forever speech, maybe that's OK.”  But I couldn't—I couldn't live with that.
It's one thing to struggle with the "true identity" of a work's creator, but what about the truth of a work itself?    

The question arises – does our cultural heritage emerge from what happened?  Or is our cultural heritage composed of what we imagined to have happened?  Is one more authentic or more legitimate than the other?  By the same token, is the Unto These Hills comic-book version of Cherokee culture something to be corrected or to be celebrated?
Questions like these started swirling after I considered the case of Red Thunder Cloud, of the Catawba Nation.  But before Red takes his turn in the spotlight, let’s dip into Deep Waters: The Textual Continuum in American Indian Literature.  Author Christopher Teuton tells of a July evening spent in Tahlequah, Oklahoma listening to stories from Cherokee traditionalists Sequoyah Guess and Sam Still:
A sixth-generation direct descendant of his namesake, Sequoyah Guess knows well the differences between the written history of Sequoyah’s work and the oral stories that recount his accomplishments….
Sequoyah, whose English name was George Guess, is thought to be the only person in human history to have created a written language from scratch, albeit through “idea diffusion.” Although he was illiterate, Sequoyah saw the value in writing and created his “talking leaves,” a system that culminated in the eighty-five signs of the Cherokee syllabary….
Sequoyah was asked “why and how he invented the alphabet,” to which he replied that “he had observed, that many things were found out by men, and known in the world, but that this knowledge escaped and was lost, for want of some way to preserve it.  He had observed white people write things on paper, and he had seen books; and he knew that what was written down remained and was not forgotten.”…  Sequoyah saw his people’s need to record their knowledge in writing and so he created the system. 

By the light of the fire Sequoyah Guess explains the contrasts between the Sequoyah of record and the man his family recalls.  The first Sequoyah’s father, a man named Guess, was not English but a Cherokee…. The syllabary project took him nearly twenty years to complete, not twelve, as scholars commonly claim….Most important, Sequoyah did not create or invent the Cherokee syllabary.  His family claims that he developed the syllabary from a much older language, one used by an ancient priesthood called the Ani-Kutani….
Since the civil war with [and destruction of] the Ani-Kutani, Cherokee culture has carried deep within it an anxiety regarding the means of communication that was the guarantor of [the Ani-Kutani’s] authority, the source of their knowledge, and the impetus for their arrogance: writing….
The story of [pre-contact] Cherokee writing is bound to face skepticism, if not outright dismissal, the lack of corroborating documentary evidence makes it apocryphal.  However, Cherokees have been telling this story for a long time, and it gains its authority and meaning within a Cherokee cultural context.

Teuton explains how he approaches this story of Sequoyah, the Ani-Kutani and Cherokee writing:
I want to imagine what this story means from a Cherokee cultural perspective…. Considering oral traditional stories allows me to reinterpret the historical record, coming to new conclusions regarding the ways knowledge was encouraged to exist in Cherokee society….

Through their use of writing Euro-Americans had become, symbolically, the successors of the Ani-Kutani.  For the Cherokee to maintain control over their own cultural knowledge it was necessary to reestablish a form of their own writing….
From first contact European writings have been used as a form of control to colonize, proselytize, and subjugate Native America.  The study of oppressive uses of writing in the form of treaties and laws is a part of the intellectual foundation of Native American studies, and the critique of the argument that writing establishes authority while the oral tradition is ephemeral has been well established. 
Fascinating stuff.  Does this help to reconcile the gaps between the legend of Tsali (selfless martyr who sacrificed his life so the Cherokees could remain in the mountains) versus the relatively thorough documentary record that describes him as a murderer who had thrown a monkey-wrench into the plans of a Cherokee remnant that had worked out a shaky agreement to remain in the mountains?  History, but not the popular legend, suggests that Tsali was hunted down and shot by Cherokees who sought to eliminate the threat that he posed to their retention of a homeland in North Carolina. 
Is one more legitimate than the other?  Does the telling of the story create the story?  Do apocryphal tales transmit truths otherwise lost by conventional historic methods, but essential to understanding a culture?

Living near the marketing epicenters of “authentic Cherokee culture” and “authentic Appalachian culture” as long as I have, I've acquired a bias.  We've had enough of the same "legends" repeated ad nauseum, enough of the hucksters hawking them, enough of the customers for phony heritage tripe.
A couple of years ago, one show that will remain unnamed shot a program on Judaculla Rock. It was the overblown, conspiracy-theory, pseudo-scientific “investigation” one would expect and even cast an “authentic Appalachian guide,” who happened to be some dude that showed up in Bryson City a few years ago, grew out his beard, put on a rustic costume and adopted poor grammar to market himself as a Gen-yew-wine Hillbilly or something like that.

  Band of clowns tailor made for Main Street Sylva

But people love his act, just like they loved Marvin Sutton’s portrayal of moonshiner “Popcorn Sutton.”  I could hardly believe it when I read the outpouring of comments after Popcorn’s passing in 2009, utter nonsense like:
We made ‘Popcorn’ what he was and then killed him for it…

He couldn’t turn the water into wine, but he sure could turn it into likker…

Popcorn Sutton was a saint and a martyr…

Over and over, its the same dilemma:

Marvin or Popcorn?
Forrest or Asa?
Sequoyah or George Guess?
Tsali the fugitive murderer or Tsali the sacrificial lamb?
Red Thunder Cloud or Carlos Westez?
On the other hand, I appreciate the point of view explained by Christopher Teuton.  And the more I consider the twentieth century “Catawban” Red Thunder Cloud, the more I wonder if “Catawban” should be in quotes or not.  His life is the one of the most perplexing case studies I have seen over what constitutes genuine cultural identity. And understanding cultural identity is essential to figuring out what happened in the mountains between, say, 1492 and 1776.
With little further comment beyond that, let’s meet Red Thunder Cloud.  First, his obituary from the New York Times, January 14, 1996:
Red Thunder Cloud, a member of the Catawba Nation who was steeped in the history of the American Indians, died Monday in Worcester, Mass. He was the last human link to the ancient language of his people.

Thunder Cloud, who was 76, died in St. Vincent's Hospital after a stroke, friends said Thunder Cloud was also known as Carlos Westez and lived in Northbridge, Mass. He was a storyteller and earned money from selling his own line of teas from herbs that he collected in the woods around his home.

"It's always sad when the last living speaker of a language dies," Carl Teeter, emeritus professor of linguistics at Harvard University, said on Friday. "There were once 500 languages in North America. About a hundred are still spoken, and half of them are spoken by older people." Dr. Teeter said the Catawba language, like others, had died off because of prejudice. Not so long ago, he said, Americans who spoke Indian languages "weren't treated too well."

Dr. Teeter described Catawba, an oral language with no written form, as related to the Sioux family of languages. He said the similarity indicated that there may have been considerable movement among Indian tribes hundreds of years ago.

In the 1940's, Thunder Cloud made a complete recording of all he knew of the Catawba language for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. About that time, he also recorded some ancient Catawba songs for the Smithsonian Institution. Derek Jordan of Putney, Vt., a friend of Thunder Cloud's, recorded two albums of Catawba songs and legends by Thunder Cloud in 1990.

Mr. Jordan said Thunder Cloud had learned Catawba as a boy from his grandfather, Strong Eagle, and from tribal elders. Eventually, there were only two Catawba speakers left: Thunder Cloud and a woman, who died about 40 years ago.

Foxx Ayers of Columbia, S.C., a Catawba and friend of Thunder Cloud, recalled on Friday that he resisted his grandmother's efforts to teach him the language because he feared he would be ridiculed. "I wish now that I'd learned," said. Ayers, 71.

Mr. Ayers recalled one happy experiment with the language. One day years ago, he was visiting Thunder Cloud, who used to sell pottery made by Mr. Ayer's wife, Sarah, who is also a Catawba. Mr. Ayers's arms were full of pottery when he found his way blocked by Thunder Cloud's dog. The dog responded only to commands in Catawba. So Ayers tried one phrase he had heard Thunder Cloud use (roughly "Swie hay, tanty," or "Move, dog"), and the dog obeyed.

Alice Kasakoff, a professor of anthropology at the University of South Carolina, said the conversion of many Catawbas after visits by Mormon missionaries to their enclave in South Carolina may have hastened the decline of the Indian language.

Estimates of the number of living Catabaws range from several hundred to more than 1,000. The nation's headquarters is in Rock Hill, S.C.

In its scarcity of close relationships, Thunder Cloud's life seemed to foreshadow the passing of the language only he spoke. Mr. Ayers said he recalled that Thunder Cloud was married for a time to a Blackfeet woman, but that the union dissolved.

Lenora Pena of Center Falls, R.I., who described herself as Thunder Cloud's closest friend, said he prayed each night in Catawba.

Thunder Cloud left no known survivors. Ms. Pena said that Thunder Cloud had a sister but that they had lost track of each other many years ago.

Via the Smithsonian Institution, more about his complicated life:

Red Thunder Cloud, whose death on January 8, 1996, was widely noted as also being the death of the Catawba language, was one of the most colorful and enigmatic figures in American Indian linguistics in the twentieth century. His claim that he was a Catawba and a native speaker of the language, doubted by some and defended by others, can now be definitively evaluated. But while enough information is now available to give a good picture of who he was and where he came from, his life and his work still raise challenging and fascinating question.

Red Thunder Cloud introduced himself to Frank G. Speck, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, in a letter of May 14, 1938. He states that he is "a 16 year old Catawba Indian and a Junior at Southampton High School" on Long Island.1 He guesses that he was a "little fellow" when Speck visited the Catawbas (whose reservation was in Rock Hill, South Carolina), but says that "as a very young boy I was brought up among the Narragansett Indians of Rhode Island. I have only been living with the Shinnecocks since July 27, 1937." He says that he has studied American Indians since he was in the fourth grade and has visited many eastern groups, including several in Virginia, "though I was a tot when I visited some of them." He reports plans to leave in August "for my home down on the Catawba Reservation" in South Carolina, and then to travel to Haskell Indian Institute in Lawrence, Kansas. He mentions the interest of Shinnecock Indians on Long Island in learning about their language and his desire to help them in this, referring to a letter from Speck to a Shinnecock named Running Eagle replying to inquiries on this subject. He says that he intends to obtain a copy of Gatschet's Catawba sketch and inquires about the price of a "vocabulary" that he understands Speck has published.2 "Fortunately for us the Catawbas our language is not entirely lost. Besides the lady you mentioned in your letter [sc. to Running Eagle] I think that there are two others of our tribe who still speak the language down to Catawba." He makes no claim that he knows any Catawba and does not refer to any member of his family. He signs himself "Chief Red Thunder Cloud."

When Frank T. Siebert, Jr., was doing fieldwork on Catawba in April, 1941, a local schoolteacher told him of receiving correspondence from Red Thunder Cloud, who claimed to know the language. A month later Siebert met him at the Gramercy Boys' Club in New York. Siebert often recalled his surprise on being approached by what appeared to be a young black man wrapped Indian-style in a blanket. In two or three hours of elicitation he obtained a couple of dozen Catawba words and somewhat fewer numbers, covering slightly more than three pages of a small exam book. His recollection years later was that Red Thunder Cloud knew considerably more than this, "between 100 and 250 words, ... numeral count up to ten, and occasional short expressions." Red Thunder Cloud also told him two traditions, one of tying buffalo hoofs to the feet to lure enemies into an ambush, and one of using rattlesnake venom on pine needles as booby traps. He said he had learned Catawba from his grandmother, Ada McMechen (Blue Moccasin), who had died about 1924. Siebert thought that he might have remembered some Catawba from his grandmother but had supplemented his recollections from published materials. He considered a Catawba-speaking black grandmother possible, since Sally Brown Gordon had reported once meeting in a market in Charlotte, North Carolina, a black woman who spoke good Catawba. But Siebert recognized the two war practices Red Thunder Cloud described as the same ones attributed to the Catawbas of the 1750's in James Smith's captivity narrative.3

Beginning in 1938, Red Thunder Cloud worked for Speck on small projects collecting ethnographic data and folklore among Long Island Indians, and he received from him some training in "field methods of recording notes etc." He also collected among the Montauk, Shinnecock, and Mashpee for George G. Heye (Museum of the American Indian) and for the American Museum of Natural History. During this period he also published several papers on Long Island ethnography and folklore, and he amassed a large collection of photographs of Long Island Indians.5  In December, 1943, he spent two weeks at Penn "furnishing information about the ... language of the Catawba tribe," recording songs, and aiding in ethnobotanical research. A statement that he "assisted Speck in informant courses" at Penn implies additional informant work, which a vita he prepared in 1973 refers to as "dictat[ing] ... Catawba Texts to Anthropology Classes," but Speck seems never to have published any linguistic data from him.6  Also in 1943, he told Speck the tradition regarding the use of rattlesnake venom, crediting it to his grandmother Ada McMechen, who had "learned it from her grandmother, Mildred Harris, a woman who died sometime before 1900 at the age of 99. Both women were of Catawba descent."7

With a letter of introduction from Speck, Red Thunder Cloud made his first visit to the Catawbas, for about two weeks, in February, 1944. Later, most likely in 1945, he spent about six months studying the language intensively with Sam Blue and Sally Gordon, as recalled by Sam Blue's grandson, Chief Gilbert Blue. In defending Red Thunder Cloud's reliability as a fieldworker in 1946, Speck stated that "he speaks Catawba, as we know for a certainty."8  When interviewed in 1957 by William C. Sturtevant (then of the Bureau of American Ethnology and now of the Dept. of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution), Sam Blue and his daughter-in-law Lillian said that they doubted Red Thunder Cloud was an Indian. Sam Blue thought that he had learned the few words of Catawba that he knew from Speck's books. In a letter to Speck written after his return, Red Thunder Cloud defended himself against this suspicion.9

Red Thunder Cloud introduced himself to Sturtevant in a 1958 letter offering aid in contacting eastern Indian groups and survivors, including three speakers of Wampanoag: "My mother is a Catawba Indian and my father a native of Tegucigalpa, Honduras of Honduran and Puerto Rican parentage. I speak Catawba, Spanish and Pourtegeese and am able to find myself in Cayuga, Seneca, Mohawk, Narragansett, Micmac, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Creek and have some smattering of Choctaw, Sioux, Winnebago in addition to being able to recognize some of the other Indian languages when I hear them spoken."10

In 1964 and 1965 Red Thunder Cloud worked with G. Hubert Matthews, then at MIT, to document the Catawba language. Their 1967 publication of five texts (two dated to February, 1944) included information on Red Thunder Cloud's family history and a genealogy that indicates which relatives (all on his mother's side) were Catawbas and which of these spoke Catawba. His full name is given as Carlos Ashibie Hawk Westez. His father is Carlos Panchito Westez, and his mother is Roberta Hawk. His father's parents are Teodoro Sanchez (from Honduras) and Feliciana Mendoza (from Puerto Rico), and his mother's parents are William Ashibie Hawk (a Catawba speaker, son of Robert Hawk and Susan Scott Cobbs) and Ada McMechen (not a speaker, daughter of George McMechen and Mildred Harris). Earlier generations on his mother's side are also given. In defending the authenticity of Red Thunder Cloud's Catawba to C.F. Voegelin, the editor of the International Journal of American Linguistics, Matthews referred to the genealogy as one that Sam Blue and Red Thunder Cloud "were able to work out" and which "linked him with Catawba that Chief Blue knew." Red Thunder Cloud specifically claimed that he had learned Catawba from his mother's father, also called Strong Eagle, a lawyer who graduated from Yale Law School and died in 1941. He gave his mother's Indian name as Singing Dove.11

Red Thunder Cloud was frequently mentioned in local media. He once sued the town of Southampton for $100,000 for "damages to the cultural development of Catawba Indian language" after the town dog warden destroyed nine of his dogs, which he had taught Catawba commands. Some of his activities, with further references, are described in the obituary and the note on media reports by Victor Golla in SSILA Newsletter 15.1:2, 4-5 (1996). He was a familiar figure at local fairs in New England, selling a line of herbal medicines under the name "Red Thunder Cloud's Accabonac Princess American Indian Teas" ("fresh from the American forest to you"). He also reported that he had "rescued some Montauk vocabulary from oblivion," and sometimes claimed to speak Montauk.12 He was married for a time to Jean Marilyn Miller (Pretty Pony), said to be a Blackfeet, who appeared with him at powwows and other presentations.

On his death certificate, based on information provided by his friend Leonor Peña of Central Falls, R.I., his name is given as Carlos Westez (with aliases Red Thunder Cloud and Namo S. Hatirire) and his occupation as "Shaman." He is described as having been born in Newport, R.I., May 30, 1919, the son of Cromwell West and Roberta (Hawk) West. In the subsequent probate documents, his sister, a retired member of the faculty of the University of Maryland at Baltimore, appears as administrator, and his name is given as Ashbie Hawkins West, the name under which he had been enrolled in high school (with a recorded birth date of May 30, 1922) in the year he wrote to Speck and by which he was first known to the Shinnecocks.13   In fact, his full name at birth was Cromwell Ashbie Hawkins West. He was enumerated as Cromwell A. West in the 1920 census and used the name Cromwell West when he was employed at the Newport City Wharf, 1935-1937, as a watchman and later a chauffeur. His father was Cromwell Payne West, a drugstore proprietor in Newport 1917-1937, who is listed in the 1900 and 1920 censuses as a black man born in Pennsylvania in 1891. By 1894 his father's father, Theodore D. West (born in Virginia), and his father's mother, Elizabeth R. West (born in Pennsylvania), had moved with his father to Newport, where his grandfather worked as a barber (or "hairdresser").14  From about 1929 to 1933 Roberta West was not listed as being in Newport, and Leonor Peña believes that during this time she lived with her children in North Carolina, near the Catawba Reservation.15

The name Carlos Ashibie Hawk Westez is a transparent modification of the name Cromwell Ashbie Hawkins West, given that the father's name in the 1967 genealogy is Carlos Panchito Westez instead of Cromwell Payne West. If everywhere in this genealogy Ashibie is changed to Ashbie, Hawk to Hawkins, and Westez to West, it becomes on the mother's side the genealogy of Roberta West, who was born Roberta M. Hawkins in Baltimore in 1891. (She also used the names Roberta M.B. West and Roberta C. West.) Roberta Hawkins' father was William Ashbie Hawkins (1862-1941; LL.B. Howard Law School, 1892), one of the first black lawyers in Baltimore and a prominent civic leader, born the son of the Rev. Robert Hawkins and Susan (Cobb) Hawkins in Lynchburg, Va. Her mother was born Ada M. McMechen (/mék, the daughter of George H. and Mildred McMechen of Wheeling, W. Va. George H. McMechen's occupation is given as "plasterer" and "mechanic." Ada McMechen Hawkins' younger brother, George William Frederick McMechen (1871-1961; B.A. Morgan College, 1895; LL.B. Yale Law School, 1897), Ashbie Hawkins' law partner, was another prominent member of Baltimore's black community; the business and economics building at Morgan State University in Baltimore is named for him.16

Red Thunder Cloud also mentioned that he had a cousin Gerald Brown (Running Beaver; d. 1952) who spoke Catawba, the son of his mother's sister, Hazel Hawk, and William Brown. Roberta West had a sister Aldina Haynes (d. 1940), who briefly lived in Newport under the name Aldina H. Brown in the 1930's, but W. Ashbie Hawkins' 1941 obituary mentions only two grandchildren, who were presumably Red Thunder Cloud and his sister.17

Cromwell Ashbie Hawkins West's life as Red Thunder Cloud confronts us with basic questions of race and identity that are emblematic of our age.18   His successful life-long masquerade puts him in a class with the Englishman who was the Ojibway Grey Owl (1886-1936) and the African American who was the Blackfoot Buffalo Child Long Lance (d. 1932), both the subjects of films. But Red Thunder Cloud's accomplishment in becoming a speaker of Catawba puts him outside the class of ordinary impostors, and the not insignificant work he did on Catawba leaves us as linguists with challenging problems of interpretation and evaluation.


This article appeared in the April 2000 issue of the Society for the Study of Indigenous Languages of the Americas Newsletter and is reprinted here by courtesy of the Society.

This report owes much to information from Edmund S. Carpenter and William C. Sturtevant, including extensive files, and was greatly facilitated by the assistance of Andrew Boisvert and other staff of the Rhode Island Historical Society; Phyllis Waters, University of Maryland Archives; Richard Behles, University of Maryland at Baltimore; Vivian Fisher, Morgan State University; Robert S. Cox, APS; Martin J. Hackett, University of Pennsylvania Archives; Thomas Blumer; Wes Taukchiray; and others acknowledged in the sources.


1 Letter, Red Thunder Cloud to F.G. Speck, May 14, 1938, American Philosophical Society. 

2 A.S. Gatschet, "Grammatic Sketch of the Catawba Language," American Anthropologist, n.s., 2:527-49 (1900); F.G. Speck, Catawba Texts, 1934.

3 Letter, F.T. Siebert to I. Goddard, October 6, 1965; Siebert papers, APS; Jon Marcus (Associated Press), "Did Language Die with `Last Catawba'; Death Leaves Questions No Tongue Can Answer," Seattle Times, March 31, 1996, p. A8; An Account of the Remarkable Occurrences in the Life and Travels of Col. James Smith (2nd. ed., Cincinnati, 1870), p. 22.

4 Red Thunder Cloud to W.C. Sturtevant, October 25, 1958; Edmund S. Carpenter, p.c.

5 "Surviving Folktales and Herbal Lore Among the Shinnecock Indians of Long Island," Journal of American Folklore 58, 1945; "A Study of the Long Island Indian Problem," Bulletin of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society 5(2):17-19, 1944; "An Ethnological Introduction to the Long Island Indians," BMAS 6(3):39-42, 1945; "A Selection of Montaukett Indian Photographs: Red Thunder Cloud Collection," The History and Archaeology of the Montauk Indians, Suffolk County Archaeological Association (Lexington, Mass., 1979), pp. 203-218. 

6 "What's Good for Tummyache, Heap Big Chief?" Philadelphia Bulletin, December 27, 1943; Pennsylvania Gazette 42(5):10, 1944; G. Hubert Matthews and Red Thunder Cloud, "Catawba Texts," IJAL 33(1):7-24, 1967; Red Thunder Cloud's vita prepared for History Department, Long Island University, Southampton, N.Y. 

7 Edmund S. Carpenter and Royal B. Hassrick, "Some Notes on Arrow Poisoning Among the Tribes of the Eastern Woodlands," Proceedings of the Delaware County Institute of Science, 10(2):45-52, 1947, esp. pp. 49-50.

8 Letter, Red Thunder Cloud to F.G. Speck, March 7, 1944, APS; letter, G.H. Matthews to C.F. Voegelin, April 12, 1966; David Perlmutt, "Catawba Language Lives Despite Thunder Cloud's Death," Charlotte Observer, January 17, 1996, p. 1C; Chief Gilbert Blue, p.c.; BMAS 7(3):62, April 1946. 

9 W.C. Sturtevant fieldnotes, interviews with Sam Blue and Lillian Blue, July 30 and 31, 1957.

10 Letter, Red Thunder Cloud to W.C. Sturtevant, October 25, 1958.

11 "Indian Aids Linguist in Catawba Studies," New York Times, February 28, 1965; Matthews and Red Thunder Cloud, p. 7; letter, G.H. Matthews to C.F. Voegelin, April 12, 1966; "Field Chief Red Thunder Cloud," The East Hampton Star, March 25, 1971; Moses Goddard, slides taken October, 1981, Providence, R.I.

12 Bob Wacker, "Indian Wants Town to Pay for Slain Dogs," Newsday, September 28, 1979; Phyllis Funke, "Indian Culture at L.I. Outpost," New York Times, August 26, 1973; M. Goddard, slides; Barbara Graymont, p.c.

13 Worcester County, Mass., Probate Court; Worcester Vital Records Office; Faculty records, University of Maryland at Baltimore; Southampton High School student records; letter, John Strong to W.C. Sturtevant, November 23, 1993.

14 Division of Vital Records, Rhode Island Department of Health; Newport Directory, 1899-1901, 1917-1937; Twelfth Census of the U.S., 1900; Fourteenth Census of the U.S., 1920. (When contacted, Red Thunder Cloud's sister declined to be interviewed about herself or brother, and none of the information in this note was obtained from her.) 

15 Leonor Peña, p.c.

16 Who's Who of the Colored Race 1:132-33, 1915; "Ashbie Hawkins, Attorney for 50 Years, Dies at 78," Baltimore Afro-American, April 12, 1941; "Rites Set For McMechen, First Graduate of Morgan," Baltimore Sun, February 25, 1961; "George McMechen dies, rites held last Sunday," Baltimore Afro-American, March 4, 1961; Tenth Census of the U.S., 1880; Roger W. Tuttle, ed., Biographies of Graduates of the Yale Law School, 1824-1899 (New Haven, 1911); "The Road from Frederick to Thurgood," on-line research project of the Maryland State Archives.

17 Matthews and Red Thunder Cloud, pp. 7-8; Newport Directory, 1933-1934; n.16.

18 E.g., U.S. Census 2000, questions 7 and 8.