As we talk, my eyes drift to a small carved wooden owl sitting in the window. It has been there for many years, but before it sat in my window, it sat in the window of The Medicine Man, an art gallery, bookstore, and so much more on the Cherokee Indian Reservation in Western North Carolina.
“I just know this,” I say, looking at the owl. “Where ever I go, there must be mountains.”
The Medicine Man is my favorite shop on the reservation; there is a history there between it and me. I grew up traveling the lengths of the Great Smoky Mountains (I was 12 the first time I was even taken to a beach). As a teenager and into adulthood, I would consider the Cherokee Reservation my second home, traveling there with my family for powwows and with my friends for spontaneous daytrips as often as I could. The Medicine Man was strategically located beside The Drama Inn, a hotel set on the banks of the Oconaluftee River and conveniently located across the street from the ceremonial grounds. It was the perfect place to stay, and the only place I can ever recall staying.
I fell in love the first time I ever set foot in The Medicine Man. It’s a store far removed from the commercial hype and rubber eagles (Made-In-China souvenir Indian merchandise) that seem to drown the entire length of Hwy. 441. It’s authentic, this shop. The artists and craftspeople are local, and often popped in to drop off new works while I was there. The now-famous Cherokee artist and illustrator, Murv Jacob, was there once with prints of new work. My family struck up a conversation with him about my art ambitions; he encouraged me and gave me two signed prints, which I still have and display in my home.
When I was 16, I bought supplies at The Medicine Man to began a large beadwork image of a hawk swooping down. It was an ambitious project, for beading was a skill I'd taught myself. After a while I put it away. Years later I would buy supplies there once more and complete the piece while sitting outside The Drama Inn, listening to a powwow raging long into the night. The beaded hawk is now part of my son’s dance regalia. It’s fitting, considering he’s named for the bird, and it’s a testament to how little we really know, when we begin something, where it will end up.
It is the same with us; we don't always know where we'll end up either. But love of the mountains is in my blood, the sight of them awakens a part of me that seems to go deeper than memory. The Great Smokey Mountains were home to my ancestors until 'The Removal', more popularly known as “The Trail of Tears”. Of course, to the US Army at the time, it was considered ‘The Relocation,’ which sounds completely wrong to my ears. Relocation implies consent. Relocation is what my friend and I discuss. Relocation is what I did when I left those beloved mountains and spent a few years trying on city life in Detroit. No, what happened to my ancestors was not a relocation, it was a removal, just another of the ‘you’re out and we’re in’ takeovers in the name of progress, so common at that time.
And while the government intended for the Cherokee to stay out, a greater force than man intended for them to be there. And so, in time to come, my ancestors found their way back home. My grandmother was born in the same mountain region of Tennessee as Chota, capital city of the Cherokee Nation back when there was a nation instead of Eastern and Western bands. When I left this area and headed north, bubbling over with excitement about the relocation I was undertaking, I was prepared to miss my friends. I was prepared to miss my family. But I was not prepared for the tremendous feeling of loss that would overtake me as I drove through the Great Smokies and realized I was about to put nearly a thousand miles between myself and these mountians. When I could only see them in my rearview mirror, I knew I was heading in the wrong direction. But I was in my early 20s, too young to realize what life, what the mountains, and what my ancestors were trying to tell me in that moment. I kept driving.
Now I know better.
Putting a thousand miles between myself and the Cherokee reservation ended family trips to powwows and the daytrips to roam the mountains. It was the end of late summer Saturdays afternoons donning bells to ward off bears and foraging for blueberries. It was the end of sitting outside The Drama Inn and sipping coffee as the sun crested Rattlesnake Mountain. It was the end of long visits with friends at their mountain homes, watching thunderstorms and eating bean bread and listening to tales. It was the end of my powwow dancing days, it was the end of skipping in the door of The Medicine Man, pausing momentarily to look at the wooden owl statue in the window, then gazing at the art inside and wondering if I would ever have my own work represented there.
I lasted 4.5 years away. And while I had some fun, truth is, the city life I tried on didn't really fit. Like my ancestors, I came back. I have a million excuses as to why, but there is only one truth: Where ever I go, there must be mountains.
Now it is my son and I who take trips to the reservation for powwows, although there aren’t nearly as many now as there were 20 years ago. We stay at The Drama Inn and play in the Oconaluftee River. As he sleeps, I sit outside and sip coffee as the sun crests Rattlesnake Mountain. This summer, I’ll slip a bell around his neck and take him to pick blueberries on The Shining Rock Trail. The friends I had there on the reservation have grown, married, divorced, moved away...I tell my son the tales now. I’d hoped he’d dance like me, and for two years, he did. But then one day, as I was dressing him in his regalia, he said, “Mama, I don’t want to dance. I just want to watch the pow wow and hear the drums.” So be it. Like our ancestors, his spirit is strong. I won’t fight it. Dancing must come of one’s own free will; it can’t be forced. Perhaps he will go back to it one day. Perhaps I will as well.
The thing about relocating is that while you can always return, you can never really go back. My years growing up with Cherokee as a second home are some of the most precious memories I have of being with my family. But this is a time to be in the now, not in the past. Like the Oconaluftee River, life changes with each breeze, each drop of rain, each rising and setting of the sun. We can return to a place, but never to a time. This is what my ancestors discovered when they snuck back into their homelands; this is what I know now as well.
A few years ago, in a beautiful coming of full circle in my life, I finally had several art pieces placed for sale in The Medicine Man. It was a moment I can hardly describe, knowing my work belonged there, just like the work of Murv Jacob and the other artists I’d spent years admiring. When I exited the shop that day, I looked out across the street at the ceremonial grounds and remembered dancing there so many times, and seeing my son dance there as well. I turned and looked at the store, at the wooden owl staring back at me from the window. Maybe it was the same one that had always been there, or maybe the artist just made a new one when one sold. I do not know. But I went back a few weeks later and bought that owl. It was my sole purpose for the trip that day; I wanted - or maybe I needed - to place him in the window of my home. I wanted to see it every day and be reminded of The Medicine Man; of the Reservation; of the Great Smoky Mountains; of my ancestors who refused to stay away; of my memories of growing up; of the difference between removal and relocation.
In the creek behind my home that evening, I tossed in a pebble. Ripples formed, spread, then faded away. Still they were there, as I was there. I am now here, but my thoughts dance daily with the word relocation. When, where and how remain unseen. I know only this: The owl goes with me, to sit in the window. And where ever we go, there must be mountains.
Visit The Medicine Man Gallery online at http://medicinemancrafts.com/
*** Sadly, I can not credit the artist who made the owl, there is no name on the bottom, only a cryptic symbol. I'm sure the owner of The Medicine Man knows, however, and when I return to the reservation in a few weeks, I'll ask and post it here.