Ancestral Lands

Pea Ridge, Trail of Tears
Pea Ridge, Trail of Tears
Pea Ridge, Trail of Tears

I remember being on my mother’s back with the sun shining on my face. She carried me in a papoose as we walked through the forest in search of food, herbs and whatever else we found of use with the other women from the tribe. Her hair was long and black, and the wind would sometimes carry it into my face. I laughed whenever it brushed against my cheek. I’d try to grab onto of it, but my fingers weren’t working all that well yet, so I’d grab onto her shoulders covered in soft deerskin instead. She was warm against my body and I could feel her reassuring heart beating against mine. I would fall asleep with my head leaning on her shoulder.

When we returned to the village, she gently placed me on a blanket next to her as she set to work cooking and sewing. I remember wanting to be that close to her again. I’d reach out my arms to touch her, but she was too far away. I was never as happy as when I was on her back during those untroubled times. It seemed that we were inseparable and nothing bad could ever happen as long as I was on her back.

Nothing of particular import happened that day, but these were the times of peace, before the white man came; before they took our land. In a year’s time, I would be on my mother’s back almost all the time as we were constantly on the move. These were not the soft, gentle gathering times like the one I described; they were the times of panic and fear. I could feel it in my mother’s heartbeat and sense it in the way her shoulders were no longer relaxed as they had once been.

Father died trying to protect us when I was two. He was a tribal elder. When the white men came to our village, they spoke strange words that we didn’t understand and they wore strange clothing. They rode horses like ours, but they had all sorts of unnecessary apparatus on them. Father and the elders went to greet them, giving them our best food and pelts, and they shot father in the heart with their tiny arrows because he tried to approach them with the gifts. After that, it was war and mother was never the same again.

Mother and I traveled with the women of the tribe high up into the mountains. It was lonely up there, but we managed. We had enough stores to survive. The men stayed in the village to protect it. Hardly any of them survived. Our long arrows were no match for their short ones. In the fall, the white men found us in the mountains and made us leave our ancestral land.

The old ones refused to go, so they shot them the way they shot father. The white men were careless with their arrows. We thought that maybe they wanted to use our elders as food since there’s no point in killing a living thing if you’re not going to use every bit of it, but they just let them lie there. They wouldn’t even let us bury them so that their spirits would rest. Their spirits are still wandering out there on those lonely hills today.

The people said that father was lucky since he was allowed a proper burial. After seeing what the white man did to us, I think maybe they were right. It would have killed father to leave our land anyway.

We were forced west on foot in the winter while the white man rode our horses. It was cold and we didn’t have enough food. The white man wouldn’t allow us to stop to hunt or gather, even though there was food all around. We were starving in the middle of plenty. We went through the land of neighboring tribes and they began to walk with us, too.

I was getting too big for mother to carry, but I wasn’t big enough to walk all on my own just yet. The strain on mother was too much and she died after many months. They wouldn’t allow us to bury her and her spirit does not rest in peace. Auntie carried me after that.

Finally, we were made to stop. This wasn’t the lush woodlands of our home. It was dry and there was hardly any vegetation. It was a foreign land; cold and hostile.

Later on, when I became a man, I walked back the way we had come. I went looking for mother so that she could rest. When I found the place where she had lied down for the last time, I couldn’t find her. I did the rites anyway, hoping that she would be at peace, but I fear that mother and father are separated forever now; father in the sky, mother on earth.

After three days with mother, I left her and went all the way back to our ancestral lands. There was nobody there but spirits. The white man took our land and didn’t even use it. I remembered everything. I remembered how the white man had shot father for giving them gifts. I remembered how they shot the elders for not wanting to leave our land. I tried to give them peace as best I could, but by then, it was too late.

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