Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Point of My Compass

Painting of Eric in his dance regalia...he was 4.
I am itching to be in the mountains, the Western North Carolina Mountains, my second home for as long as I can remember. There, on the banks of the Oconaluftee, is where I feel I really grew up. I did not cry 15 years ago when I left South Carolina and moved to Michigan until I drove through the Great Smokies of North Carolina and fully comprehended, perhaps for the first time, the distance I was about to put between myself and that sacred place. Leaving my friends and family behind did not affect me so much as leaving behind those mountains. And something about the arrival of spring always sends me spiraling towards them, like a bird migrating back north to its true home. So it was with great enthusiasm that I went online yesterday to make reservations for the Memorial Day Powwow in Cherokee.

Oh geez,” I thought to myself, seeing nothing about the Powwow on the website. “They must not have updated the website.” So I called the Welcome Center, just to be sure of dates. For as long as I can remember, I’ve stayed at the Drama Inn, just across the street from the Ceremonial Grounds, right on the shores of the Oconaluftee River. With such a prime location, the rooms fill quickly, and while I may not be sentimental, I am a creature of habit. To have to stay somewhere else would throw the entire trip ‘off’ in my mind. The friendly receptionist at the Welcome Center busted my bubble pretty quickly, however, explaining that the website was right. There was no Memorial Day Powwow this year. Nor was there a July 4th Powwow or any of the other smaller powwows that used to fill the spaces before, between, and after. In my teens, I was on the reservation nearly every other weekend for an event. “There is only one powwow this year,” she said, giving me the dates. “It’s the 38th Annual Powwow, June 14, 15, and 16.

The second shock was that it isn’t even being held on the Ceremonial Grounds, but at the old high school on Acqouni Road. I have never been to a Powwow in Cherokee that was not on the Ceremonial Grounds…that is the purpose of the Ceremonial Grounds. I was, and still am, baffled by the change….but I also did not return to the reservation last year. I went east instead, to the sunny shores of Wrightsville Beach, to the mountains of North Georgia, to the Isle of Palms. My inner compass having gotten spun to hell and back early 2011, I was still trying to find my center a year later. I was still looking for myself, my place, my peace. I thought perhaps it was in change that I would find a way to put the pieces of my life back together. Now I know better. Perhaps had I returned to those mountains, and continued to read the Cherokee paper, and stayed in touch with friends there, I would have known why this change of venue and events had happened. But I didn’t. I sought something new. No harm in that. Running into the ocean on my birthday was a thrill I’d always wanted. Watching my son surf the waves made my heart swell with pride. Eating breakfast in a small German bakery was like a mini-trip to Europe without spending a grand. All those trips were wonderful…

At the Isle of Palms on my birthday, creating his childhood memories...
But it is this place, and these mountains, and this river where my compass originates. It is from here that I spin outward into all those other different directions.

And it’s changing.

Talking with a friend later in the evening, I expressed to him my dismay at the dwindling number of powwows hosted by the reservation. We speculated as to every cause, from the economy (it actually takes considerable funds to host a powwow) to the arrival of Harrah’s Casino. All were viable explanations…but none eased my feeling that something, somehow, has been lost. Yes, I’d wanted my son to experience some of the things I had, and he’d been dancing in powwows since he was 2, calling them ‘Big Song’ and making the circuit with me a few times. I’m not so vain to try to recreate for him the exact same experiences, however. He will have his own, different, childhood, with his own experiences.

This was and is for me. This is something I need.

Do our ancestors live in our own souls? Maybe. Perhaps that explains why certain members of a family are called to explore certain aspects of their heritage while others could care less. Standing in the Museum of the Cherokee Indian with my son years ago, looking at a mural depicting the Trail of Tears, I remembered  the moment I saw the family names of my ancestors on the Western Roll. They were part of The Removal, but could not stay away from the mountains they loved. I don’t hold on to the past, I don’t feel anything is to be gained from holding on to hurts and wrongs of other times. But when my son, 4 at the time, asked, “Are these my people?” I was moved to tears. Don’t look back, be in the moment, forget the past…I reached out to trace the face of one of the female figures, and thought about a grandfather who would not set foot in his daughter’s house because her husband was white. He was my grandfather, as was his white son-in-law, and all the grandmothers and grandfathers who came before them. “Yes,” I responded, “These are all your people. And there are so many, many more.”

My son’s father comes from the west, and at some point, I will need to take him there. He needs to see the deserts of his own origins, to breathe the arid air, to see the plateaus and wind-whittled earth sculptures that lit the soul-fires of home for his own ancestors, also removed in the name of progress. They, too, returned, a century later, and for different reasons. But nevertheless, they came home. Perhaps the desert will call to his spirit one day as the mountains always have to mine. If so, I hope he’ll honor it. We blaze forth in life, forgetting the connections that created us, that hold us to something more sacred than a man-made home or stretch of field someone purchased a century before. We are a part of something that existed before land could be owned and homes had to have walls. A decade ago, I stood at the window of an apartment I loved in a suburb of Detroit and stared at the vast expanse of buildings and flat lands before me. I loved my life and friends there...but in that moment, I knew I’d spent enough time in a world without mountains. Like so many others before me, I came back to the place I began, the point of origin for my inner compass.

Me, Patrick, Angela and Phylicia, circa sometime in the 1990s, at the Ceremonial Grounds, post powwow...
Last night, an old powwow buddy who disappeared from my life in the 1990s sent me a friend request on Facebook. Delighted, as I’d just been speaking about him that day to another friend, we spent the evening chatting and catching up on one another’s lives. When he sent me the picture above, I knew I could not wait until June to be back in the mountains. Powwow or not, it was time to head north.

We can’t go back, no, but we can go forward, create new experiences, new memories, and new connections.

And we can remember that one powwow a year is certainly better than none.

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