Notes from the field: Reconnecting through research

In Long form essays by Adrienne K.3 Comments

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This post comes from my dissertation journaling in 2013, when I had just returned from my first research trip to Cherokee, NC to visit one of my students in her home community. I came across it today, and as I’m searching for academic jobs and intensely thinking about my research and my own connections to culture and place–I thought I would share it. As I’ve talked about before on the blog, as Indigenous peoples we often are made to feel ashamed of our journeys of reconnection or disconnection to our heritage, and my experience has been no different. What are the ways that we can build and rebuild? And for me, as a scholar in an Ivy League environment that is about as white and western as you can get, how can my research be a tool for my own decolonization?

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I have a distinct memory of one of my early trips to Oklahoma, out on “the lake” with my cousins and parents. My cousin told us that he was going to take the “California cousins” (including me) to swim over Granny’s cornfields. Being so young, I had no concept of what that meant—and as my older cousins leapt from the boat in their brightly colored life jackets, I remember hesitantly easing off the back of the boat and into the water. The others shrieked, splashed, and laughed, swimming over what was once my family’s allotment land. I, instead, remember floating quietly, pulling my knees into my chest, afraid that if I let my toes reach downward I would feel the ghostly tops of granny’s corn stalks, which in my mind lurked below the surface like seaweed, swaying with the subtle currents of the lake. Because to me, that’s what my cousin must have meant when he said we’d be “swimming over granny’s cornfields.”

In my adult life I’ve often thought back to that memory, and how it feels symbolic to my connection to my own culture and identity. Much like my family’s allotment land, my life experiences have been flooded by the effects of colonization, but my cultural connection remains, albeit a ghostly memory below the surface–often feeling just out of reach.

Contrast that first experience to this week, as I stood on top of Kituwah mound, looking out into the hills, still shrouded in early morning mist. I stood in the place where it all began, where my people came from, and where we have been for 11,000 years. I offered tobacco at the site of the original council fire, where all the Cherokee towns would come to gather embers to light the fires in their respective villages. I looked out on the same hills that my ancestors’ ancestors saw, and was able to go to water in the river that they used for the same purpose so many centuries ago.

A few months ago I went to give a talk in Santa Fe, and accompanied my friend back to his pueblo. He has a passion for history, and documenting the history of his community. We drove through the pueblo, and he pointed out the sites of original buildings back to the 1600’s and earlier. He even had historic photographs so we could compare the modern pueblo to the ancient one, and see how things have changed, but also how they have stayed the same. At the time, I was overwhelmed with a sense of almost jealousy, thinking about how he everyday was able to have that connection to his ancestors and his community.

That’s not to say I haven’t had that experience in Oklahoma, the first time I attended stomp dances with a friend from school. No one in my family has danced since my great-great grandparents, though my aunties remember going to dances when they were little. We were at the grounds that my great-great grandpa helped start, back when the Cherokee ceremonies were illegal in Indian Territory. He was a nighthawk, a member of a secret society who were responsible for bringing the ceremonies back to life in the new Cherokee lands. Sitting at the grounds that night, I got chills thinking about them singing in the darkness, dancing around the same fire that I now sat in front of.

My entire trip to Cherokee was powerful and transformative, and I feel so blessed and grateful that I was able to spend time in the beautiful mountains of North Carolina.

Cherokee stories I’d heard suddenly made sense in the environment that they came from, stories of creatures “in the hills” that never fully made sense to me in the context of the environment of (pretty flat) Oklahoma. Even the stories of the now Eastern Band Cherokees hiding in the mountains from the troops to escape the Trail of Tears suddenly seemed possible, when looking up into the densely forested mountains in every direction. If you knew the land, of course you’d be able to elude capture.

My student’s stepdad is a near-fluent speaker, and works for the new kituwa academy, the Cherokee language immersion school on the reservation. I was so grateful for his presence during my visit, as he pointed out landmarks and drove me to many of the historic and important sites in the area, telling me the names in Cherokee, telling me the associated stories, and teasing and testing my Cherokee knowledge. He works closely with a lot of Western Cherokees, and would often point out distinctions as well—“you all would say _______, while we would say ________”. His energy and excitement for the places and stories was infectious, and I often found myself smiling in the backseat as he talked and we wound our way through the green mountain roads.

The trip as made me newly angry thinking about the complete injustice of the removal and the Trail of Tears—or even things like the reminder on the sign at Kituwah—“Town was destroyed in 1776 by the Rutherford expedition.” The year that our “forefathers” were signing the declaration of independence, those same men were sanctioning the destruction of the Cherokee mother-town.

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Living in Boston, I was often told by people from home in California how lucky I was to be living in a place with so much history. But the history of Boston in not my history. The history of Kituwah is my history.

Of course, like any reservation community, Cherokee has challenges, and I could write for days about the ways that “Indian” culture is commodified for tourism throughout the community (though the tribal council is taking and has taken major steps to reduce it and change the way tourists interact with Cherokee culture).

But the feeling I leave with is one of renewal, and connection.

The first time we went to the mound, it was early evening and a group of tribal members were playing stickball before the stomp dances that night at the grounds nearby (well, what OK Cherokees call stickball—but they call “Fish”). Looking out at the game, with the mound in the background, I again felt that twinge of jealousy I’d felt with my friend on his pueblo. Imagine being able to play and laugh at the site with such history.

I have a big year ahead of me, my dissertation draft is due 6 months from next Thursday, and I’m still collecting data. There’s times when the blog gets really tiring, a Sisyphean task if there ever was one, encountering images and tips in my inbox everyday that remind me how far we still have to go in terms of representations. But this trip was a reminder of why I do what I do, why I fight for our rights of self-representation.

The best part of all of this was when I had a moment, looking out from the top of Whiteside Mountain, into the gorgeous valley of land that was once all Cherokee territory, and listening to the stories of a monster on the mountain who would eat your liver, and looking at the bridge of stone she was building to the next township (she ran out of livers in her town, apparently), and I had a moment where I realized—this is my “research”. While I have classmates that are cramped in tiny computer labs running regressions all night (more power to them), I’m standing on the top of a mountain where my people have lived since time immemorial. I hate grad school a lot of the time, and have often questioned my decision to go into a doctoral program, but at that moment, standing with my student and her family—eating wild blueberries that her brother had grabbed from a nearby bush, I realized that this moment wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for grad school. Talk about subverting the system—using Harvard to bring me closer to my own culture and community.

Donadagohvi, Cherokee NC. Wado/S’gi for everything.

  • Erin Winslow (V)


  • Cheryll Holley

    That was one of your best pieces. You have me in tears.

  • I so needed to read this today! I’ve been so indecisive when it comes to pursuing an academic career and PhD and the crux of it has always been whether or not my research would bring me closer to or farther from my family, community and Anishinabe nation. I have this idea that the privilege of a PhD and the physical presence in academia would cause this near complete disconnection, but that has not been my experience. When doing my research for my MA with my grandfather, I remember driving back home on frigid, sunny winter days and he would be taking off his showshoes from a walk in the bush and we’d cozy up by the fire and tell stories about the old ways. I just have to make the decision to take that leap and trust that things will work out, even before I’m “ready” (who is ever ready?).