American Sabbatical 100: 4/23/97
End of the Trail
4/23... Oklahoma Mountains.
Spanish voices awoke us in Texarkana. We were crossing boundaries again. The instructions in the motel room were in English, French, and Spanish, and the local cuisine ranged from longhorn burgers to crawfish to Tex-Mex. The kind of place where you might learn about diversity. Hope, Arkansas, is only 30 miles away. Boulder is a thousand and thirty, however, so we didnt go looking for Hope, or take the cure at Hot Springs. We were galloping toward Eastern Oklahoma. The end of the Trail of Tears. Indian Country.
The road ran uphill. Wed crossed into sedimentary uplands, where layered orange outcrops break surface, and three woodland domains overlap. The great Eastern woodlands, the Southern forests, and the Texas brush country. Hickories and maples and the whole tribe from Tennessee mingled with the low country evergreens, pines and live oaks, while the edges were tangled in hackberries, buttonwoods, scrub oaks. Not at all my image of Texarkana.
Logging country, big rigs in your face, and a Georgia-Pacific megamill sulfuring the air.. waters too, no doubt. Id assumed that our homegrown paper plantation was relatively unique. Nowhere else but Maine was the pulp trade so pernicious. Now weve seen that money grows in trees everywhere trees grow. Deep South, Pacific Northwest, and now in Arkansas and Eastern Oklahoma. These wooded hills stink of papermaking just as bad as Plantation Row smells of oil refineries. Whenever Peggy rhapsodizes about the lovely pines, I see monocropping, and get nervous. I remember the spruce budworm in Washington County, and the resulting fastbuck economy of liquidation clearcutting. Which excess will we choke on first, petroleum or paper?
The woods ARE lovely, though. Not all pine plants, either. As we elevate, were rolling the calendar back again, to young pastel leaves and blooming hardwoods, to Spring. An occasional pecan grove, even, to hush my mouth. In Arkansas the pecans are in bloom. Not showy flowers but dense bronze droops, and the groves are carpeted in blue and scarlet flowers.
North of Texarkana we followed a red road until the heavy breathing truckers made us want to hang up. Then we cut west on lesser arteries, and crossed into Oklahoma. Red flashes flicked across our peripheral vision: courting cardinals. Egrets policed the pastures among Red Angus and crimson clover. Every dozen miles or so the shoulder flowers would change, mingle, permute.
Fifty miles north of Broken Bow our ears started to pop. We were climbing into serious mountains. In Oklahoma? Sure enough. The Kiamichi Range of the Ouachita Mountains. You might be in New Hampshire. Leaves just peeking on the northern slopes. Sweeping vistas across crooked lakes at receding rows of peaks. Mr. and Mrs. Hillhungry pulled down a logging road, and let the Owl cool, while they stretched a limb or two. Communed with the orange god. Broke bread. And finished the morning tea. I put on my vest. So long sultry sunlands. Hello hill breezes.
If you squint, the country from Big Cedar to Poteau could be highland Georgia or Alabama, and we kept encountering Choctaw Nation sites. I was quickly modifying my image of woodland Indians being driven out onto treeless prairies. Granted, the Choctaws removed here early enough to get first dibs, but the hardship of leaving rich familiar lands seems less cruel when you see how fine upland Oklahoma is.
Now these lakes and mountains are trying to attract tourists as recreational resort areas, and the sideroads invite us with wave-runner rentals, and bait for sale signs. Maybe its early in the season, but this Native American destination looks a bit seedy and down-at-heel to me. We didnt want to buy a pontoon boat, either.
Wed climbed out of the Red River Valley. Now we descended toward the Arkansas, and another visit to the Mississippian era. The westernmost outpost of that far-flung culture sat on a bend in the Arkansas at Spiro, Oklahoma, circa 1000 AD.
Apr 23 Spiro mounds
Who? Mississippian peoples
What? population center with 9 platform mounds
When? height of development 800-1200AD
Where? flatland by Arkansas River
How? wide system of trade and tribute under a Chiefdom
Topics: prehistory, mound sites, Mississippian culture
Questions: What are the common characteristic of Mississippian peoples? What are the differences between the far flung sites? What happened to the Mississippians and how do they relate to the tribes the English colonists found?
Spiro Mounds Gorget
Apr 23 Spiro mounds
Weve been to four other Moundbuilder sites before Spiro (spy-row).
Cahokia (in East St. Louis), Ocmulgee and Etowah in Georgia, and
wonderful Chucalissa (the reconstructed village at Memphis, Tennessee).
We were excited at the prospect of seeing Mississippian mound
sites in the West and had targeted Spiro in Oklahoma. Spiro is
located on the flats by the Arkansas River surrounded by fields
and woods. As we drove in by a country road, we saw the clean
lines of the big dirt pyramid beyond the trees and felt at home.
The entrance building is tiny and the museum is one room full
of exhibit cases. The contents are wonderful: incised conch shells
from Florida, incised gorgets (large pendants), elaborate coppers,
effigy figures, pipes, pottery of many shapes, flint and bone
tools, jewelry (beads and gorgets and ear plugs), evidence of
a variety of weaving techniques with cane and textiles. It was
very exciting when I discovered that a stylized raccoon Id sketched
at Ocmulgee in central Georgia has a twin on a piece here at Spiro,
hundreds of miles away! The exhibits pointed out other design
motifs that are shared throughout the Mississippian area (a sun
circle, a cross). Archaeologists prove contact between peoples
by clues like this. There are also trade goods that show the distances
knit together in Mississippian times, conch from Florida, copper
from the Great Lakes, lead, quartz. The quarries for many of the
important rocks and metals have been found by Archaeologists.
Spiro was at its height from 800-1200 a.d. Its rise is explained
by its location: its a gateway to the system of rivers that
flow into the Arkansas and it is rich in natural resources. Flint
is available, the soil is rich (both upland and bottom land),
and there was a lot of game. Spiro held together 15 village centers
in Oklahoma in a Chiefdom. It must have been fairly peaceful as
Spiro was unfortified.
Spiro was at its height from 800-1200 a.d. Its rise is explained by its location: its a gateway to the system of rivers that flow into the Arkansas and it is rich in natural resources. Flint is available, the soil is rich (both upland and bottom land), and there was a lot of game. Spiro held together 15 village centers in Oklahoma in a Chiefdom. It must have been fairly peaceful as Spiro was unfortified.
We watched the slide show and our hearts sank. Apparently the
Spiro Mounds had been mined literally by a COMPANY organized
to uncover and sell artifacts in the 1930s. The pictures showed
the destruction at the site, huge trenches dug through the mounds,
the dirt simply sifted for goodies and dumped. The narrator stressed
the loss to science from bad techniques. No one knows how many
artifacts were found or where. The remaining ones seem special
enough to make us sigh.
Turtle in Lifejacket
My grad school advisor Dwight Heath did a study of grave robbers
in Costa Rica that estimated their share of the GNP at 10%. The
grave robbers later used his statistics from an anthropological
journal article to lobby the national assembly for recognition
as a union!!
The slides also showed the archaeological digs stripping down
the mounds. Hmm. We got a battered guide booklet and set off across
the field. There are paths to the two mound groups with observation
spots. Unlike the other three Mississippian sites weve visited,
there are no stairways up to the top of the mounds. Its look-at-from-a-distance
at Spiro The numbers on the tour points are almost unreadable
and the information boards warped and leaning. The whole place
had an air of neglect that was very sad. The photos made it obvious
that the present mounds had had to be partially reconstructed.
There seems to be uneven lines to most of the mounds from all
the disturbances. The biggest one is the size of the small ones
at Etowah and Ocmulgee. Near the woods there is the unfinished
skeleton of what obviously was to be a reconstructed dwelling,
an interrupted project . For whatever reason, Spiro has not been
maintained as a vital tourist attraction and its the only archaeological
site noted on my Native America guide in Oklahoma.
Peggys memo doesnt do Spiro justice. It looked like the Memphis of the Mississippian. Gravediggers have looted the pyramids, and the city fathers have torn down all the old buildings. Collapsing signs in flat fields described mounds that HAD been there. What lumps were left were deeply gnawed and eroded. The one staffer guarding the entrance for the State of Oklahoma was busy watching a gameshow on his portable TV, and couldnt answer a single question about the collection or the site.
The site stands deep in last years hay, glinting bronze and iridescent
white, except for a few mowed paths, and some cut acres that are
coming back in green grass. The mounds are covered with a whole
botanical of flora, half of it in bloom. The three biggest mounds
are being encroached on by a grove of trees, and the black locusts
among them are covered in clusters of blossoms, white pea-shaped
blooms perfuming the ancient grounds. A mild wind is shaking the
straw and the locusts, and a dozen different wildflowers are shaking
among the grasses. The quiet beauty of this place makes us smile.
The hokieness of the presentation makes us laugh.
The site stands deep in last years hay, glinting bronze and iridescent white, except for a few mowed paths, and some cut acres that are coming back in green grass. The mounds are covered with a whole botanical of flora, half of it in bloom. The three biggest mounds are being encroached on by a grove of trees, and the black locusts among them are covered in clusters of blossoms, white pea-shaped blooms perfuming the ancient grounds. A mild wind is shaking the straw and the locusts, and a dozen different wildflowers are shaking among the grasses. The quiet beauty of this place makes us smile. The hokieness of the presentation makes us laugh.
And another thought rises up in the meadow. If, as is now believed,
the civilized tribes are the descendants of the Mississippian
people, their resettlement from the southeastern quadrant of their
ancient culture area to this, the western part of that empire,
has a certain symmetry.. if little justice.
Mounds of Flowers
We have time for one more visitation today. Sequoyahs House,
just across the Arkansas in Sallisaw. You may remember that we
flew through here last December, hurtling home for Christmas,
and I promised Peggy wed come back to Sequoyahs. (You dont?
There WILL be a final exam on all this.) Now weve finally crossed
our back trail. First time in 25,000 miles (not counting the home
turf). And Peggy has pin-pointed these Cherokee sites as some
kind of culmination. The end of the Trail of Tears is her last
BIG ONE.. ending our Southern Journey.
If Kate Chopins House was a Mom Museum, Sequoyah's is a Pop Shop. The caretaker took Peggy around the sacred ground. But Ill let her tell the tale.
Apr 23 Sequoyah Home
Who? Cherokee man who invented alphabet
What? house where he lived in Oklahoma
Where? eastern Oklahoma
How? moved from East
Topics: literacy, alphabets, Cherokee history
Questions: How did Sequoyah develop an alphabet? What inspired him?
Cabin in a box
It is an astounding story. Sequoyah was an illiterate Cherokee
who learned about reading and writing from missionaries and decided
his people needed to have them. He clearly saw the connection
between literacy and empowerment. So he invented an alphabet (some
call it a syllabary - more on that below). It took him twelve
years. Sequoyah is said to be he only INDIVIDUAL in history known
to invent an alphabet.
Although his alphabet is shown at every site associated with Cherokees in Georgia and Oklahoma, the only site Ive seen associated with Sequoyah himself is his home in Oklahoma. We had been unable to stop on our fast trip east in December and I have been looking forward to a promised return ever since. The Cherokee sites in Georgia were so exciting (see Memo #85) that Oklahoma seemed an ideal end to our second trip.
Sequoyahs life shows the complexity of Cherokee history. His
mother was Cherokee and his father was white. He was born in Tennessee
about 1775 and known in English as George Guess. He fought in
the War of 1812. He was one of the Cherokee who moved west before
the Removal, to Alabama in 1800, then to Arkansas in 1822 (having
visited first). He apparently had a salt making business in Arkansas.
He signed the Treaty of 1816 and was a representative of the Arkansas
Cherokee (known as Old Settlers) who went to Washington in 1828.
The Cherokee immigrants were forced out of Arkansas (another removal!)
and Sequoyah came to Sallisaw, Oklahoma around 1828. Sequoyah
exchanged his Arkansas salt works for one near Sallisaw Oklahoma
that he operated until his death. The Dwight Mission was located
near Sallisaw and Sequoyah apparently used its press. He died
in Mexico (!) where it is said he had gone to locate a lost band
We drove out the roads from Sallisaw. The small lane to the homestead is marked with a sign in English and Cherokee. The site has stone walkways and a romantic bronze status of Sequoyah. The D.A.R. has a stone fountain by a walkway.There is a separate office in a log cabin, the spring that Sequoyah dug still bubbles at the bottom of the hill and a small Sequoyah tree is fenced in nearby. The California trees were named in his honor - Im not sure why a tree.
Sequoyahs cabin is in a shrine, a stone building that totally encloses it and was built as a CCC project in the 1930s. Far from sitting in a bucolic clearing or field, Sequoyahs cabin is in a temperature controlled stone container like a second skin that only allows you to stand about fifteen feet back from it (so you cant take a full picture). It was weird especially since the building is way out on a country road in Oklahoma ranch country. It is definitely a museum with an exhibit rather than a site. After the buildings at New Echota dispersed along dirt roads in woods and fields, it was very disconcerting to tour a cabin by artificial light inside a building. There are a number of exhibit cases. The most interesting held a Cherokee typewriter with his characters. There are a few objects he made, including a plow and a spinning wheel. The cabin is simply but completely furnished with period items - table and chairs, bedstead, frontier items like a gun and churn. You see it from the doorstep. There was a chart showing alphabets of the world.
Sequoyahs 1821 system has about 85 characters, some are from English, some look Greek, some are unique. There are ones that are identical in form to the English letters D,R,T, L,G,V (although they stand for other sounds in Cherokee). Usually Sequoyahs invention is called an syllabary because each written symbol stands for several sounds. For example, the curly E symbol stands for que (three English letters make up the syllable). I find the argument (alphabet or syllabary) silly. It is an example of categories which divide and perhaps devalue. WE have an alphabet, the Cherokee have a syllabary (they also had 95% literacy long before we did). Some call it an alphabet as I will.
Whatever you call it, Sequoyah created a written system for a language that was simple and effective. The manager said it was basically Hooked on phonics.The system was adopted by the tribal council in 1821. His people became literate in ten years and started publishing a newspaper (still published today), books and pamphlets, Bibles and laws in their own language developed by one of their own people. The Cherokee taught his system in 18 schools and two seminaries (colleges) by 1851! The Creek have adapted his system for their language. The Cherokee use his system today and you see Cherokee writing everywhere in eastern Oklahoma..
It is an achievement unique in history.
Peggy came back to the Owl biting her lip. She began giggling uncontrollably as we pulled away from Sequoyahs shrine. All the anticipation for an historical climax, and whatdaya get? Another roadside attraction. What should lawn ornament connoisseurs expect?
We might have suspected. Wed started seeing yardart this morning, and it got thicker all the way up Eastern Oklahoma. Whirligigs and outlandish metalwork. Even the houses were outspoken. The older ones are faced with large flags of the local orange sedimentaries, and wed OOed and AHed over hill and dale.
On the way back into Sallisaw Peggy began reading from a state brochure of attractions in Oklahoma shed picked up at Sequoyahs. The Central High School Museum, with the Class Ring Collection, yearbooks and photos; The Timberlake Rose Rock Museum, a house build of thousands of stones from historic places.. dedicated to Oklahomas official State Rock (the barite rose); Showmans Rest/Mt. Olivet Cemetery, unusual monuments of circus performers.. burial place of champion bull riders Freckles Brown and Lane Forest; the National Lighter Museum, firestarters of all kinds; the Higher Education Hall of Fame; the Lee Way Motor Freight Museum, Inc.. memorabilia from a trucking corp... featuring tire irons; the USS Batfish, a WWII submarine; the Oklahoma Prisons Historical Museum; the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame; the Laverne Museum, with Miss America Jane Jayroe items, and a 1000-plus shoe collection.. Peggy was laughing uncontrollably.
We decided to simply stay in Oklahoma, and report on all these sites for you. Theres really too much to see here, so whats the point of rushing on to see America? THIS IS IT. Special events coming up are the Rattlesnake Roundup, and the Annual Outhouse Race. We think Bowdoinham should institute the Annual Smelt Shack Race, and invite Oklahoman outhouse race winners to come as a special attraction. Oklahoma obviously has a lot to teach Maine about tourist attractions. Who says the Indians stopped raiding the wagontrains?
Our Trail of Tears ended here. We laughed so hard we cried. To cap it off we recrossed the Arkansas in Sallisaw to chow down at another restaurant recommended by the roadfood guide. The Wild Horse Barbecue. Pork ribs (we hoped) and hot sauce with beans, served on styrofoam at picnic tables. MMmm. Weve really found the heart of America.