Recently, my 90-year old mom crossed over. She and I had been close – very, very close – for all of my life. But that nasty creature, Alzheimer’s… had slowly started stealing her from me, from all of us… seven years ago. That said, the Master of Life was running the show, and this lady so loved His productions – she truly did. She was an incredibly beautiful lady of fine manners and tremendous faith, who never uttered a curse word, and who possessed a solidly independent nature. She walked her own walk – always. She was comfortable, in her home, when she left this Earth Mother to be with Him. We’re all so grateful for the Creator’s grace for this. At the funeral home, they asked if she was Native American, and I said yeah, she sure was, and… she… walked only… where she wanted.
This month of March marks the 182 year anniversary of the “Trail of Tears”. This was the U.S. government’s plan to relocate American Indian nations from southeastern parts of the United States following the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The United States government forcefully marched all the peoples of the Shawnee, Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), Seminole, Chickasaw, Choctaw and other nations. Thousands died from exposure, disease and starvation en route to their destination. Many, many children and elders died along the way; hence the name, “Trail of Tears,” because mothers and fathers cried constantly all along this hard trek. They marched or were shot and killed by the U.S. soldiers.
In 1831 the Choctaw were the first Indians forced to go on this treacherous stumble out to the newly designated “Indian Territory”. This place was later known as Oklahoma, a Choctaw word that basically means: Land of the Redman. Yep and just like Michigan car plates used to have the saying on them: “Water-Winter-Wonderland”, the Oklahoma state license plates said: “Indian Nations” on them. Many of the federally recognized tribes reside there today, originating from the Trail of Tears. But back when this roundup started, many Indians just decided ‘fooey on this’. They left their villages and faded into the deep woods, mountains and swamps, where no sane white man would go, thus missing the little death walk sponsored by Uncle Sam. My dad’s Shawnee grandparents and my mom’s Choctaw grandparents were from that group. They decided to skip the hike and, some 30 years later, her grandparents had re-acclimated back into the society of Alabama.
My dad was Shawnee and his family history was similar. It seems as if the government is always screwing folks, in some form or fashion, and most savvy Indians knew this. The U.S. government promised the tribes that all would be well on this little venture, but… they fibbed. When all this crazy relocation business started, one of my dad’s cousins said that he believed the shamanese (whitemen) were lying about how easy this walk would be. So, if he was gonna walk, then he’d walk where he wanted to go– not to where the shemaganas (soldiers) wanted. He didn’t have a horse, so he left Tennessee on foot and went to Texas where he homesteaded a piece of land. But in 1836, he walked, again of his own volition – into the Alamo, as one of the Gonzales Rangers, and he died fighting there. But, heck, for many Indians, dying while fighting, beats dying while being ‘forced to walk’… any old time.
My mom’s maternal grandfather was half Choctaw. My mom told me stories about him. He hailed from Alabama where he’d fibbed his age at sixteen, and enlisted in the 48 th Regiment, Alabama Infantry of Stone Wall Jackson’s Division in 1862. He wasn’t forced to walk – he volunteered for it, eh. He fought in most of the major campaigns of the Civil War and was camped in the vicinity of the Appomattox Courthouse when his commanding general, Robert E. Lee, surrendered for him and the rest of his Confederate brothers there. He, like all of them, had to walk back home. Being an infantryman, he was used to walking, but the important thing… is that the government wasn’t ‘forcing’ him to stroll… know what I mean? Still, with no army taking care of them anymore, food was scarce on the road. Topping it off, many of the homes that the Confederate soldiers had, before, were now gone – destroyed in the war. He walked from Virginia to Memphis, Tennessee and stopped when he landed a job as a teamster hauling freight brought in on the Mississippi River. That’s where he met and married a Blackfoot girl who’d come down from Montana on a river boat. That’s my mom’s Choctaw and Blackfoot ancestry.
On her dad’s side, she had a little Chickasaw blood, too. In the small town of Obion, Tennessee, were my mom grew up, there were five full-blood Indian families living in the Obion River bottom. Chickasaw were prominent in the area. Reelfoot Lake is a large shallow freshwater sea nearby. It was formed by the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812 when the Mississippi River actually flowed backward for 24 hours to fill the lake. It’s named for a Chickasaw chief named “Reelfoot”. Anyway, small pox came through, and all five of the Indian families died with the exception of one infant boy child. The Obion town marshal took the baby to an older matron lady named Mrs. Ellis who often took care of children for folks. The marshal asked her to look after the boy until the state orphanage could come and get him. She agreed, but shortly thereafter, fell in love with the child, and adopted him herself. That was my mom’s paternal grandfather – her maiden name was Ellis.
Back in the early 1940’s, my mother left her native Tennessee with my dad to come to Michigan, because this is where the jobs were. Granted, she didn’t walk, but the government didn’t force her relocation, either – she came on her own. So, yeah, Mary Lee was Native American, aka: American Indian. But most of all she was my best friend – my mother – and I’ll love her forever. I’ve been missing her for a long time now, and I always will. But just like many of her kinfolk before her, she decided where she would walk – not someone else – and that someplace that she’s strolled to… is straight into heaven. She’s walking with the Creator now.