Our conversation about racism in America continues.
Like many of you, I was terribly disappointed to learn recently that Sherman Alexie, a prominent Native American author, has been identified as harassing/exploiting women in exactly the same ways that have recently been exposed across the broader population. In my opinion, this should not diminish his contribution to the civil rights movement any more than Martin Luther King’s alleged womanizing should detract from his broader contributions, though I do prefer my saints to be more saintly. I’ll include in the comments links to a story “What you pawn, I will redeem.”
Karen Worstell, I believe, addresses the insidious degradation of our nation’s original inhabitants, as if it is a baton passed down from one generation to the next, a baton that sears the flesh. Here is her story:
My Great Grandmother
by Karen F Worstell
I stared at the computer screen in disbelief. I had found my great grandmother using online genealogy tools and it came with stunning information.
As a grown woman, I finally began searching for my mother’s family. I never met my maternal grandparents or extended family outside of one aunt and her family. Never knew I had a grandmother. I asked my mother one day why. “Because I want you to have friends to play with.”
She was less guarded and secretive, as I cared for her during her decline with Alzheimer’s disease. I learned I had a great grandfather who was half American Indian and that he drove cattle from New Mexico to Kansas. I heard allusions to connections to Trail of Tears. She spoke fondly of her favorite grandmother who came from the Southeast and of grinding poverty. But memories of my mother’s volatile reactions to mentions of her family, and to my paternal grandfather’s calling me “little squaw” kept me from asking questions.
So my search was postponed until after her death. I had a few clues to start and a very large collection of old photographs with no labels and no one to whom I could direct my questions. Slowly I began using online tools to search names and began piecing pictures and names together. My mother’s family began to emerge in earnest from their veiled past and more questions arose.
My great grandmother finally appeared. Oddly, I had planned to be celebrating the holidays in Colorado that day, but was compelled to cancel my plans for no logical reason the same day. I knew I had to stay home with no idea why. With holiday plans cancelled, and nothing I had to do, I seized the opportunity to spend a day doing research. Almost instantly her records appeared.
My mother’s favorite grandmother was from Alabama. From Washington County. And she was classified as “Mulatto.”
I was face to face with racism but I didn’t understand it yet. So many pieces fell together in rapid order that day, as if it were a divine appointment. And I began to understand my mother in a new way.
In the 19th century, 92 million acres of Choctaw land in Alabama was seized by the US Government over a period of years by various maneuvers under the authority of President Andrew Jackson. Tribes who signed treaties were given land grants and “relocated” to the Indian Territories (now Oklahoma and surroundings) under migrations that came to be known as the “Trail of Tears” and “Trail of Death.” When the Washington County Choctaw tribe refused to sign the treaty, the government seized the land, and also reclassified their race on the official US census. A “mulatto” could not legally own land. They were landless and homeless.
I found my great grandmother’s family legacy recorded in the book “They Say the Wind is Red.”
I wish Mom could have seen herself as a true American.
The veil of shame is heavy and hard to lift.
9 thoughts on “Karen Worstell’s Trail of Tears is entry #29”
For further reading: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2003/04/21/what-you-pawn-i-will-redeem
I also suggest “Coyote Warrior: One man, three tribes, and the trial that forged a Nation” by Paul Vandevelder
Did you think Alexie’s story was good writing? It sure revealed plenty, but not necessarily what he may have wanted us to see. That offhand attitude towards wives and children–that’s always supposed to be ruefully–something.
But the trite othering of the Maori via dialogue with that classic avoidance of contractions (OK–he threw in a couple, but not hardly near enough)–now that’s ironic.
Heroes rarely go on book tours. That should be a clear giveaway…
…and what does it say about people of European descent who regard themselves as liberals/progressives and who claim to believe we are all one equal human family, and yet who iconize other people of not-especially-remarkable talent merely (even if unconsciously) because they come from marginalized or minority backgrounds?
That’s saying “you are different from and more special than we because of your ethnicity.”
A moving and powerful recollection.
And there’s an unresolvable ache to photographs we can’t attach names to–lives forever out of our grasp. I’m glad you’ve been able to start unlocking your own personal history.
This search was triggered in part by several boxes of unmarked photographs from my mother’s belongings. I had the luxury of immersing myself for the better part of a month in piecing together the puzzle that those pictures represented. That is where I found the pictures of my great grandmother without (at first) knowing that it was her. One clue at a time – and she came “alive” to me.
Appreciate your entry Karen. This is a remarkable story of your search and enlightens us all. So glad you entered the contest. Hope to see you in Israel soon!
I imagine the understanding of one’s self is affected greatly upon discovering one’s heritage. Thank you for sharing such an interesting discovery.
Yes, I enjoyed your story. I found it very interesting. I have had some similarities as you, in the past.
Powerful story, thank you for sharing. Reminds me how the government can really treat people…
Sad but true.
I am excited at your adventure roots search.
you even have photos.