The boy stood determinedly next to the heavy boat, once a tall tree which the people had felled and slowly hollowed by means of kindling a series of small fires along the top center of the mighty trunk. Burn and scrape, burn and scrape. A slow, methodical process that eventually turned this gift of Yowa into a means of transportation, trade, and self-defense against neighboring Shawnee and Muskogee.
He knew about patience but he was young, and felt himself growing into a strong warrior. Like the canoe, he was becoming.
His mother, one of the Natchez, had lost her home to the warring tribes who claimed the Overhill Towns along the Little Tennessee River. Here with the others who had been displaced he had waited, becoming, until he finally transformed from a boy into a warrior who would fight so that the people would never again be separated from their land. Their place. Their true selves.
When he was younger the smallpox had almost claimed him. He would always carry the scars, but through careful doctoring he had lived and slowly reclaimed his strength. So slowly. Burn and scrape, burn and scrape. Now he felt he was ready, a true warrior son of the great Attakullakulla, Little Carpenter, the great Cherokee Chief. And a warrior could carry his own canoe—not the large wooden oak tree, hollowed out through fire, but the smaller canoes with hides stretched taut over wooden frames.
In sight of some of the warriors and elders, the boy drew air into his bare chest and pulled at the great frame of the canoe, pulling with the might of all his determination for the future. Some around him stopped and smiled. Others merely went back about their business. He tried again and again, stubbornly refusing to give up, but unable to fully carry its weight.
That day they called him Tsi’yu-gunsini. Dragging Canoe.
I don’t know if this story is true, but of all the myths of Cherokee’s most famous and formidable warrior, this is perhaps my favorite . A determined boy, born amid hardship, who would grow up to unite tribes and defend his homelands with undying resolve—in spite of cultural differences, that’s a story I understand.
The fact that it was my forebears against whom he struggled—Colonists fighting for autonomy from the British Crown—doesn’t dampen my admiration at all.
This Saturday, March 24, I’ll be taking my kids to our local public library, less than an hour from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, to hear two renowned Cherokee scholars, WCU Sequoyah Professor Robert J. Conley, and Tribal Elder and Cherokee Linguist Tom Belt, share stories of the grown Dragging Canoe, and how his efforts still resonate through native communities in these mountains that have come to be a part of my true self. The talk begins at 2:30 this Saturday. Perhaps we’ll see you there.