The Calico Nation and Trading Moons
Back when my kids were young, I let others draw circles around me. The circles became so constrictive, I could not respire past the breaths I lent my daughters or husband or needy friends, cats or dogs or guinea pigs—once a pair of finches, even, swallowed by our yellow cat. I was living a slow death of spirit and could not get out of the spiral. Growing up at the hands of alcoholic parents did little to prepare me for championing myself. I had no family who understood—no hero stories of great-great-grandpa or survival tales of auntie so-and-so. I didn’t know how to tie a knot at the end of my rope. Odd that I was made the hub of my young family, the spokes and the axle too. I had nothing to draw on and certainly no sense of belonging. I was lost, and I absolutely knew it.
Times can be tough when you’re an artist raising kids. You either move or be moved, so at the outset of this depression, I bolted into action—branched out to new things—even took my young dearies out for a day of local culture at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds, where the North Carolina Indian Commission was holding its (then) annual Native American Intertribal Powwow. I guess I expected we’d buy baskets or trinkets or some little doodad for the children—I can’t even imagine now. Back then, I had no sense of belonging to any culture other than chaos really. Baskets or trinkets would have fit just fine in my disposable world. I was lost and I knew it. I just didn’t know how bad.
In Dorton Arena, the intertribal drum had space for about fifteen men. The crowd hushed as they gathered around it, sprinkled a dry leaf substance on top, and then said a quiet prayer. Their wool-tipped sticks were padded nicely on the end, and I wondered why: their synchronized strikes, sharp and loud, convinced me they’d break the skin, stretched taut over the drum. How’d they get such a huge skin, anyway? Where’d they get those pretty shirts with all the ribbons? What words were they were singing? And then, it happened: the pounding, the great reverberating heartbeat—the heartbeat, the heartbeat, the heartbeat.
The bass vibrations pushed against my chest with force. Within seconds, I had to sit. Within minutes I was tearing up, and so signaled my girlfriend to watch the kids. I tracked my way up to the rafter seats in the nosebleed area, where I began weeping uncontrollably, without a hint of why. Silly me, I thought. Not a tissue in my purse. No mascara left. What will people think?
They drummed for an eternity. I eventually gave in to the fact that I couldn’t stop listening to the drum or the keen wailing of the men’s high voices. Later I learned they were performing a traditional Calling Song.
During intermission, the then chief of the Coharie Nation (Sampson County, NC), the beloved Tom Carter, God rest his soul, shook my hand and welcomed me home. I met Chief Bass from the Eno-Ocaneechi and John Blackfeather from the Ocaneechi; Chief Yellow Feather from a branch of Tuscarora outside of Williamston; the beloved elder Spotted Turtle from Pembroke; my spiritual mentor, Earl Carter, firekeeper of the Lumbee People; and the beloved Ray Grant and his wife, Jeannie, the givers of my private Cherokee name. I became overwhelmed with the welcome. Everything was coming too fast. I fell back and had to regroup. What was this all about? I thought I was losing my mind. So did my proper engineer husband. So did my little dearies.
The little lady in charge of genealogy at the State Archives in downtown Raleigh took a long look at my blue-green eyes.
“You’ll never be able to find your colored roots,” she said.
Her voice lay flat on my heart, bad-stacked kindling at the base of a fire. Her disorderly grouping of sentiment pissed me off.
I said, “Wait. Look past the color of these eyes. What do you see?”
Her sigh unfolded. She dared touching my chin with her index finger. “Let me see this profile then.” Right side, left side, front. “Well, maybe . . . I don’t know,” she said—horse trader in disguise. “Try Cherokee by Blood. Then check Slaves, in fiche.”
And so my chase began. Weeks grew into months as I gathered the names of my elusive coloreds, among them Elluck, my third great-grandfather, an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee (1850–52), and Lizzie and Hack, my second great-grandparents, listed on the slave records as young mulattos on the Lewis plantation in Wayne County. Some are buried with their feet opposite all others in the graveyard—their colored soles to the west, facing the place where ancestors go.
It didn’t take too long to discover that mine is the blood of many nations. I am a triracial native North Carolinian. My people are on many records besides the federal censuses: the Johnston County Colored Marriage Register (1870), Wayne County Slave Indexes and Co-Habitation Records, the Cherokee Rolls (1850 and ’52). People in my family have lived from Paint Town in Haywood County to Little Washington in Beaufort County.
I walk carefully among all people because they may be related to me. As a matter of fact, Kathryn Cooper, a Cherokee Italian friend of mine, with whom I had the great pleasure of working on the NC Native American Women’s Prison Project, during which we held the first-ever in-prison powwow in the United States, told me once, “We are all related.” I believe her with my whole heart.
Times can be tough when you’re an artist raising kids. I know this firsthand. Imagination can go wild. You begin thinking in calico colors. You make tear dresses and elk-skin dresses and ribbon shirts for the men. You tie the ends of fringe for your shawl and say a prayer with each tiny knot. You learn to dance the Women’s Traditional and maybe the Crow Hop if you’re feeling spry. You learn to fix fry bread for your elders. If you’re lucky, you go close in to the sacred fire. You learn some of the language and use it when you can. You get involved with interring remains. You meet the chief of the United Band of Keetoowah Indians from way out in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. He teaches you how to go to water. One of his seven council members helps you with the correct pronunciation of your name. You help put old bones back into the earth. You are never the same, never the same, because now, you belong.
Here is what I know: I belong to a Calico Nation. It is a band within the tribe of us. You, out there, are all my relations—and these words? They are my heartfelt give-away gift to you.
Excerpted from the novel Trading Moons by Jan Parker
~ AUTUMN (A-ye-li), 1870 ~
Me and Emeline tow our six children with us on the way to get married at the Shortfield courthouse. We could not have picked ourselves a better September day. The morning breeze is slick and cool, the way they sometimes are in autumn, yet we are warmed by the slanting sun. It glows upon Emeline’s face, and I swear I have never seen her a bit prettier. She says she ain’t ever seen me more handsome, and I am not ashamed. No, I even strut like a proud peacock then, for Emeline is heavy with our seventh child. We will name him Jimmy if it is another boy, Janie if it is a girl.
I will have to report that the old Magistrate, the one filling out our papers and writing down our names, does not look like a happy soul. It seems he don’t like the dirt under our nails, which we could not budge, no matter that we tried. We are farmers, and we tend the land. Nor does he like our raggedy clothes. Shoo, he should be glad we’ve got some on, and when I tell this to Emeline, she giggles at the thoughts of us, buck-naked in this public place. I laugh with her. She is my girl.
“You are my girl,” I say to her in the entrance hall of the courthouse. The twins are happy, too. They go to hollering and chasing their echoes in circles. This makes the Magistrate mad, and he flitters his papers in the air, like they should be making the only sound.
Emeline smiles up at me nonetheless. She don’t care. She rubs that big old belly of hers and grins. We love one another well, and we love our children, too. We’ve made it through a lot, so why get mad at this one little white man with sausage fingers and a tongue that wanders when he writes? He’s only trying to do a perfect job, and I ain’t getting riled up over it, no sir, not today. Things could be a whole lot worse.
For instance, my picture could be up on the Fugitives’ list posted out front, for committing murder on Tudor Coats, way back in the mouth of that shallow cave. It’s a wonder it ain’t posted, too, seeing as how after the war, we moved to the same county where his daddy has a farm. Old Josiah Coats, now don’t get me started on him and his sad story. I have my own festering blues: inside, I cannot seem to climb out from under the mantle of killing a man. I could not bear the added weight of old Josiah’s sadness too. I mean, look at the way he lost his wife to a broken heart and all. Today is our wedding day. I will be happy, like Emeline. I’m too old to waste such a wonderful day and too young to be so sad.
Thank the Lord we’re out of that stuffy courthouse and are sitting by the banks of the Neuse River. I watch my lanky brother’s upper body fall across his bent-up knees. He looks like an old rag doll, letting out one long sigh after another. I am tired of it.
“You don’t fool me a bit, Sandy Johnson. I know what’s up with you. Thirteen year-old fellas do a lot of that heavy blowing.” He looks at me sideways, his long neck craning. I turn to the left and yell, “Hey! You twins best get away from that muddy water. I mean it!”
Sandy makes an ugly face at the back of my hair and juts out his chin. Without turning back to him, I say, “I see you, Sandy Johnson. Don’t forget I got eyes in the back of my head.”
He hates that I got eyes in the back of my head. He don’t like nobody knowing his business. Well, too bad—I already do. I seen him staring over at the Big House a while back, pining for Eliza Lewis to come out. I believe he’s in love with her.
“You got it bad for that gal, ain’t you little brother?”
He sounds out another sigh. The big old baby. Well, I shake my head and holler to the twins again, because I know Mama and Daddy ain’t watching them or none of us. They’re too busy swapping moon-eyes, after the wedding. All this love stuff’s about to make me sick. Folks just ought to cut to the chase, if you ask me.
“Why don’t you go call on her? I’m sure it’d be all right with her mama. Lord knows, she’s seen a lot worse than you, knocking at her door.”
“Bettie, don’t go talking ugly about Eliza or her mother.”
Sandy picks up some sticks and chunks them in the river. I’m sure he’s the dumbest boy on the face of the earth. He can see no more down the road than a rotten rabbit. Why, everybody knows Eliza’s mother owns and operates the only Big House in Shortfield. What’s wrong with saying so? Nothing.
So, I ask Sandy if he is chicken or what, and he says, “No, I ain’t no chicken, Bettie. I—I just don’t know where to begin.”
I shake my head. “Everybody knows that, Sandy. All you do is slick back your hair and go see her. You knock on the door, and they let you in. You kiss her, you marry her, she has your babies. She makes the oldest of the children take care of all the littler ones, while you and her make more. Pretty soon you die, and that’s the end of that. What’s the big hold-up? It ain’t like you’re building a damn barn.”
He winces at my cussing, which pleases me greatly. I do it again. “Damn,” I say teasing him. Sandy draws in his long neck, stands up and walks away.
I swear, lately it seems like my brother ain’t got any fight left in him. Everybody needs fight. Helps level the odds.
Bettie don’t understand it all. Oh, she thinks she does, but she don’t. Sometimes, I have to sit on my hands to keep from choking that big fat neck of hers, she riles me so bad. Good thing for her I promised the Lord never to use these hands of mine for evil again. No, Bettie don’t know the half of it, not according to me anyway, not according to the next oldest child, me.
Here’s another fact for you too: more than anything, I would love to call on Eliza. To me, she is the prettiest thing between heaven and earth, with them yellow-brown curls, cinching up close to her head and them blue-green-gray eyes, the kind that haunt you for days after you have fell into the light of them, and her buttery brown skin that sometimes appears to be goldish if you want to know the truth. This makes me think she ain’t of one pure blood, but perhaps many.
Folks call her mother high yella. I heard it means half-dark, half-white. So, do I care? No. I ain’t no federal census-taker. Her daughter’s beautiful to me, no matter. I love Eliza and want to marry her. I want her to have my children, too—oh, but Lord, what am I talking about? I am just thirteen! Why would I want to settle down this early in life? Besides, who in the world would want to have somebody like me as their man? I am the skinniest thing you ever seen, and my neck sticks out like a board, which makes my head look like I’m always bout to ask a question or throw up, one. My nose takes after Daddy’s with its bold hook, and the onliest kind and wayful thing about my features is like Mama says: I got a smile that lights up Heaven.
Me and my future wife’ll probably have to raise our family in the swamp like wild folks, since I don’t know how to build a house or even a little shack. Shoot, I ain’t got the money to buy no house-making boards or nails or shingles, no way. My Daddy ain’t showed me nothing about that kind of thing. He’s too busy hiring folks to work in Mr. Wilbow’s fields, including me, because I am handy with shovels. I am so handy with shovels, Daddy even gave me my own. I keep it shiny and clean and tote it with me nearly everywhere I go, though it is the heaviest thing I have ever put upon my shoulders.
Daddy says we’re lucky Mr. Wilbow don’t mind taking on Indian folks. He took Daddy on, as if he was a white man, and I’m glad of it too, for we was way less well-off than I like to remember. Shoot, we had no decent clothes, nor supplies of food, but now, my daddy works so hard, he has become Mr. Wilbow’s right hand man. He is foreman of the whole three-hundred-acre farm, and he farms it like he knows what’s what. I stay sorely amazed at my father’s ways.
Daddy tells me the best thing I could do is apprentice myself out to the highest bidder, save up my little money till there’s a big pile of it, and then go calling on who ever in the world I want to. Well, of course, that’s Eliza. But wait, I think. What if somebody starts calling on her while I’m gone? What if she starts up with another man? That would be a dread event to me, a blow to my open, loving, kind, Eliza-adoring heart.
All these weighty ideas hit upon me like hundred-pound feed sacks, so I sit back down on the banks of the Neuse and rest. The noise Bettie and the younger ones make, them splashing at the edge of the river and laughing, seems like the distant noise of a county fair, like as you come up on it from afar. Everybody’s having great fun. All except me, gripes my aching heart.
I lay back against the trunk of a great old willow, one that’s seen its better days. It gives off the smell of river snails and is held together by a single, thick, hairy vine, growing up from the bottom and way up into its limbs, exactly like I would do with Eliza, if I could. Oh, how I’d dearly love to be winding through her life, like a vine.
But here I am instead, heating my brains to the boiling point by thinking on Eliza. I tell myself to cool down, rest against this old tree for a while. I tear my eyes away from the gentle roll of the Neuse and glance back over to the picnic blanket, where my Mama and Daddy lay, all squished together on the blanket like bread and butter. They are kissing in love, and I cannot tear my sights off them.
Before I know it, my own tongue has slid outside my mouth and is making waves in the air, practicing for the day I too, might kiss a woman. My head is turning from side to side, like Daddy’s and if this in itself won’t bad enough, all of a sudden, my Little Man gets a mind of his own. I look down and see the problem of his standing tall. I fold up my legs together tight and hope no one has noticed, especially Bettie. I hate she has eyes in the back of her head, and I hate the way she laughs at me.