Assistant Editor Molly Reid: America is no stranger to appropriation. It is, some might say, part of our country’s DNA. Whether it’s the latest in sports mascots or our president’s decision to reduce national monuments and open pipelines on native land, it’s clear that we have a long way to go in terms of treating Native peoples with respect. In William Woolfitt’s piece, he reminds us of their continued abuse as well as our own cycle of ignorance and culpability. This is not a gentle reminder. With sharp evocative images—as smoke from the copper smelters “shrivels cabbage leaves” and Mr. Valentine “take[s] glass beads and human bones from mounds at Nununyi and Birdtown”—Woolfitt (whose PhD dissertation examined a range of African American, Native American, and Appalachian writers) forces us to really feel this ongoing national tragedy. This is a complicated and skilled maneuver—without trying to speak for Native peoples, Woolfitt engages in an act of imaginative empathy that urges us to look and listen, so that maybe, some day, the voices represented in this piece won’t have to say, “I don’t want to repeat again what I have told.”
They Are Still Here
by William Woolfitt
It shall and may be lawful for the President to cause such aid and assistance to be furnished to the emigrants as may be necessary and proper and enable them to remove to, and settle in, the country for which they may have exchanged.
—Indian Removal Act (1830)
The ancestors of the present-day Eastern Cherokees fled to the Smoky Mountains in 1838 to escape removal. Considered outlaws, they were hunted by the United States Army.
—Duane H. King
At Ducktown, some realize they are farming too close to the copper smelters when smoke rusts their tools, browns their corn, shrivels cabbage leaves—
Some start again at Bearmeat’s farm—
Some move high up Little Frog Mountain and live near Johnson Cat, near Granny Bird, and scour the woods for ginseng, pinkroot—
Some chop down oak, white pine, tulip poplar with Betsy and Chees-qua-neet, and burn the logs into charcoal to feed the smelters, and cut cordwood for the ore-roasting heaps—
Some find the mountain isn’t far enough: White raiders shoot at Johnson’s cabin, and his family runs that night, a lone owl crying, the moon fogged over, the sky a sack tied shut—
Some watch Mr. Valentine take glass beads and human bones from mounds at Nununyi and Birdtown. Some join the Thomas’s Legion during the Civil War and see the everlasting smoke rising from a hole in Kituwah Mound, site of the mother town. Some see the college bulldoze the mound at Cullowhee, make fill dirt, stamp out flat ground for Killian Hall. Some protest when city workers spray herbicide and denude Nikwasi Mound to save on mowing. Some watch Kituwah shrink each year, become a cow pasture, then a hayfield, then an airstrip—trampled and rutted and overrun until the tribe buys it back. Some plant a community garden at Kituwah and, with their children, bring bags of dirt that they turn upside down, and empty, and spread so the mound itself will grow, gain what it has lost.
Some remember they had to drive their trucks sixty miles to Hayesville, glean the scarce river cane for basket splits they would dye with walnut and bloodroot, then double-weave.
Some work at Santa’s Land, the bingo hall. Some clean the trout ponds at the hatchery.
Some put on buckskin to play Tsali and Wilani pleading with soldiers on the outdoor stage.
Some give the tape recorder their stories about pickled hogs’ feet, about walking over the mountain to sell dolls and blowguns, about medicine from cedar trees, about white teachers trying to scrub out the mother tongue.
Some say, I don’t want to repeat again what I have told.
William Woolfitt is the author of three poetry collections: Beauty Strip (Texas Review Press, 2014), Charles of the Desert (Paraclete Press, 2016), and Spring Up Everlasting (Paraclete Press, forthcoming). His fiction chapbook The Boy with Fire in His Mouth (2014) won the Epiphany Editions contest judged by Darin Strauss. He edits Speaking of Marvels, a blog that features interviews with authors of chapbooks, novellas, and books of assorted lengths.