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MAMA MINNIE'S SECRET - As a boy, he felt the sting of a switch for asking about his family's 'Indian blood.' As a man, he feels the ache of not understanding his grandmother's shame.
By David House
Source: The Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Credit: Star-Telegram Staff Writer
Sunday,November 21, 2004
Edition: FINAL, Section: Sunday Life, Page 1G
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Other Articles Written by David House
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Forgive me, Grandmother. I'm going to tell our secret. You'd be furious, Mama Minnie -- plump little 5-foot frame held rigid and still, piercing dark eyes narrowed and burrowing into me from beneath the brim of your bonnet. Even though I'm 60 years old now, not your daughter's little boy anymore from back in the 1940s, you'd still take a switch to me for writing this.

Here in 2004, some people know very little about how "Indian blood" was hidden and why. Many others will see their story in this one. We're among the generations who were denied a link to our heritage because of the fears of our ancestors. The very real fears of prejudice and persecution that were ingrained in many families of American Indian descent, especially some from Jackson County, Ala. -- Sand Mountain, to be exact, where Mama Minnie was born and reared in the late 19th century.

But that's part of the American Indian heritage -- a complex, often invisible legacy, just as Grandmother preferred. In her view, any hint of Indian blood would have stained her family.

Mama Minnie was a country woman. Born in 1887, she knew only farm life for most of her 70 years. She was wise in the ways of nature, raising families and surviving tough times, from the Great Depression to life as a widowed mother once too poor to feed her children anything except a skillet of gravy with one egg stirred in.

Even into the 1950s, she preferred to cook on a wood-burning stove and was content with light from kerosene lamps, raw milk and well water. By the time I was born in 1944, Mama Minnie's girlish figure had matured into a portly build. Until late in life, she kept her waist-length gray hair braided and wrapped tightly in a bun on the back of her head.

"A woman's hair is her glory," she told me, quoting from her memory of Scripture. A "hard-shell Baptist," Mama Minnie had one vice: snuff. But there was a practical side to that. Empty snuff jars became glasses for water and sweet tea.

My earliest memories are of her and life at her small, prairie-style frame house in Texarkana, Texas, with a front yard of dirt and little flower beds. The back yard had a vegetable garden and chicken coop. When I was 3, Mama Minnie kept me and my baby brother, Ricky, while my parents worked long hours.

How powerful she seemed. What a glorious source of love and wonder. She hugged me, laughed with me, fed me, taught me passages from hymns and the Bible, made me a part of her daily life from gardening to quilting.

I couldn't ask a question that she couldn't answer. I was always asking questions, especially after one of my seven aunts and uncles had visited. One day, one of them had said something during a visit that puzzled me. But I knew that all I had to do was ask Mama Minnie for clarification.

I said something like: "Mama Minnie, what's 'our Indian blood'? "

'We are black Dutch'

We were in her front yard on a warm, sunny day when I asked my question. I'd been watching Mama Minnie weed around the hydrangea at the corner of her porch. She wore her work clothes -- a bonnet she had made, a long-sleeved, ankle-length dress she had made, an apron she had made and laced leather shoes.

The hydrangea's giant balls of little blue flowers fascinated me. I was admiring them when I asked about our Indian blood, but suddenly, all I could see was Mama Minnie's face pressed as close to my face as the brim of her bonnet would allow. And her face looked different -- very dark, eyes squinting. Then she grabbed me, shook me and spoke sharply in a stern, deep voice I'd never heard:

"Don't you ever ask about that. Don't you ever ask about that. Get out to that peach tree and get me a switch."

Confused, I went to the tree, picked up a limb that had been pruned and took it to Mama Minnie. She spun me around and thrashed me, telling me repeatedly to never ask about "that."

I don't recall any pain, but I remember that finally she spun me around and pulled me close to her face and said in a menacing voice: "We are black Dutch." As though rehearsing me, she repeated: "We -- are -- black -- Dutch."

Then she hugged me and returned to her weeding.

I was afraid to ask or say anything. I had no idea what "Indian" or "Indian blood" meant, nor did I know what "black Dutch" meant. Most of all, I didn't know what I'd done to Mama Minnie.

It wasn't the last time I asked the question, nor was it the last time she thrashed me for asking. Eventually, I learned to quit asking her. But I found out that my mother and my aunts and uncles would talk about it -- as long as Mama Minnie was out of earshot.

ON SAND MOUNTAIN

Our family was Cherokee. Mama Minnie was probably half, my aunts said. There were full-bloods and mixed-bloods from as far back as they knew, and they came from several parts of ancestral Cherokee country -- North Carolina, Georgia and northeast Alabama.

Some of my aunts had known Mama Minnie's mother, Mary Shiver-Treece, and heard from her and other relatives about the family on Sand Mountain. As many children tend to view such talk, they were bored by it and paid little attention.

But I couldn't help but wonder what there was about our heritage that boiled Mama Minnie's soul. The need to know has burdened me ever since.

Not quite 50 years before Mama Minnie was born, about 17,000 Cherokees had been rounded up like cattle and herded into stockades at Fort Payne near Sand Mountain and elsewhere.

A death march, the Trail of Tears, lay before them as they were forced from their homes to lands west of the Mississippi in one of the early assaults on indigenous people that would ultimately sweep across the United States.

The Cherokees felt the force of the federal Indian Removal Act of 1830, a fancy name for ethnic cleansing.

Several routes made up the Trail of Tears. One route cut through Jackson County, following the Tennessee River, below Sand Mountain. Some Cherokees escaped from their military escorts, hiding in mountain caves that had sheltered Indians for millennia. Others were among the 4,000 who died along the way.

Federal authorities didn't wipe out the Cherokee presence. During the years that followed, Cherokee fugitives and their descendants simply merged into society.

On Sand Mountain, with its sizable population of Scots, Mama Minnie's family claimed to be the dark-skinned, dark-haired black Dutch, neither Indian nor black people. As such, they earned the only other label on the census and in the community -- "white." An already hard life was much simpler that way -- more acceptance, more credibility.

Apart from that, however, Mama Minnie was deeply ashamed of being Indian, my aunts told me. They didn't know why, but they could recall two fragments of anecdotal insight.

When Mama Minnie was a girl in Alabama, her uncles and some of their friends -- all Indians -- were on the front porch of her family's farmhouse. The men were terribly drunk and unruly. As Mama Minnie watched from the yard, the men relieved themselves in front of her, laughing. She was mortified. There's no telling what else Mama Minnie witnessed, my aunts said.

Their only other anecdote involved an incident in Texas. For reasons they didn't know, Mama Minnie's family left Sand Mountain around the turn of the century. They moved in a mule-drawn covered wagon to northeast Texas, where they farmed. A full-blood Cherokee named Eli Cooper accompanied them. When Mama Minnie's father died, her mother married Eli.

He was cruel, my oldest aunt told me, explaining that Eli had once made Mama Minnie carry huge sacks of fertilizer on her back while he spread it by hand. The story was that by day's end, her back, exposed so closely to the fertilizer, was blistered from neck to waist. She never forgave Eli for that.

Everyone would agree that there had to be far more than two painful experiences to cause Mama Minnie's hatred of her heritage. No one cared to speculate, though. No one seemed to care, period. There were more pressing matters to attend to. Let the dead past bury its dead.

But I cared. And over the years, the question I asked Mama Minnie in her front yard swung in and out of mind like a slashed rope dangling near, then falling away into clouds of other priorities. When the question returned awhile back, I grabbed it and started pulling myself along its length. It was time to find out where it led.

THE SEARCHERS

Erasing heritage is an awful sin. Future generations can be left feeling abandoned and angry. Somehow incomplete. I'm sure that Mama Minnie was trying to protect everyone in her family from a legacy that to her was ugly and useless. "Get shed of it," she'd say. But I want my children and descendants to know about their roots.

Even when Mama Minnie died in 1957, there was no peace between her and her past. She never saw American Indians or their heritage as anything uniquely noble, spiritual, mystical or brave. Nor do I. Indians are human beings who have always needed love and beauty as much as anyone. Indians have suffered terribly, but what ethnic group hasn't?

Yet, as much alike as all people are, there are dominant qualities among groups that tug and beckon their own. So it is for me. I am drawn more to the Tsa-La-Gi than the Scots or English from whom I am also descended and whose tongues could only pronounce "Cherokee."

Searching for answers to my question has led me to people and ways that form a far different heritage than the one Mama Minnie hated.

For instance, Cherokee philosophy teaches that harmony is essential to life. Killing creates disharmony, even when living creatures are killed for food, so hunters and anglers should apologize to their quarry in order to restore harmony.

The old Cherokee culture was matrilineal. One traced one's family according to the mother's line. Women were respected and equal. Upon marrying, the husband would join the wife's clan. Out of that comes the thought that to destroy a nation, corrupt its mothers.

I have learned that Mama Minnie's relatives still live on Sand Mountain. A few nights ago, I randomly selected a Treece from telephone listings on the Internet. When I called, a man named Larry Treece answered. I explained who I was. "You're Aunt Minnie's grandson?" he said. "You need to talk to my mama."

Minutes later, I was talking with Rosalee Treece. She's in her 80s now, but she remembered the joyous time in 1955, when my family drove Mama Minnie to Sand Mountain to visit her brother Will's family for the first time since she'd left for Texas.

"I wish my husband was still living," she said. "He could tell you all about the family." Earnest Lee "Dugen" Treece, one of Mama Minnie's nephews, had died Nov. 27, 2000, at age 85.

"Dugen had his 'cards,' " Rosalee Treece said, referring to the federal Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood card. It is issued only to those who can document their ancestry by proving relationship to relatives who were certified as Indians on various 19th-century federal censuses.

American Indians are the only ethnic group in the United States who are held to such federal restrictions. The problem is that many Indians either avoided censuses or lied to census takers about ethnicity, essentially disqualifying their descendants for anything except family oral tradition.

Because Dugen held a CDIB card, he obtained tribal affiliation, Treece said, but she couldn't remember whether it was with the Eastern Band of Cherokees in North Carolina or Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Okla. Other Treeces had their cards, she said. "There's lots of Indian blood in this family. If I could find Dugen's wallet, I could find his cards and give you his [registration] numbers."

I sensed a broken circle mending itself.

I wish I could say the same about my House relatives. The paternal side of my family is filled with unknowns. I know as little about my American Indian grandfather, Roy D. House, as my dad, who never knew his father. Roy is buried in El Paso. He claimed to be dark-skinned French-Canadian, not black Dutch, the Portuguese label used by some Indians to claim "white" status. I'm researching Roy.

But that's another story, another secret, more hidden heritage.

Somewhere, there are answers.
 
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David House is of Cherokee/Scots-Irish descent. He is senior editor/reader advocate for the Star-Telegram and he is a member of the Native American Journalists Association. Email: dhouse@star-telegram.com
 

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