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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Celtic Blood, Cherokee Blood, and Nature's Earthly Spirits

Helen Terry Dunton c. 1912
When I asked my redheaded Great Aunt Violet, who died many years ago but in whose western saddle I still ride, to tell me what she remembered about my paternal grandmother, she said, "Well, besides being a crack shot with a rifle, Helen was part Irish, and part Cherokee, and that wasn't a very good thing to be back then."   Aunti Vi was from the Dunton clan, my father's clan. "We have Scots blood," was the pronouncement, and I took it to mean that Scots blood was somehow superior to the Irish blood my grandfather had married into.  The Cherokee blood was rarely mentioned, and never with "princess" lineage claims.
Beyond the American Pale

In David M. Emmons book, Beyond the American Pale: The Irish in the West, 1845-1910, he points out interesting contrasts between the "wild" Catholic Irish, and the more respected Scots Irish who had been the Protestant dissenters.  And he draws interesting parallels between England's attempts to rid Ireland of the Irish, and America's attempt to rid America of it's Native Americans.  "Both peoples had 'a wealth of folk tales and a host of legends...and strange beliefs touching every native plant and animal...for the Irish, every cave, rock, inlet, cove, headland, hillock, hill, drumlin, rill, pond, and bog and all who lived in, on, over, and under them had a name."
 
photo from Celtic Lady blog artist unknown
I am drawn to the old clan systems of the Irish and the Scottish, and to their beliefs (not strange at all) that all of nature is inhabited by spirits--not supernatural spirits, but earthly spirits. Perhaps the Little People of the Cherokees have more in common with leprachauns than we know.  Both cultures were also constantly telling and renewing their own oral histories.  And a good thing, Emmons points out, for the written histories of these tribal peoples were being penned by their conquerors.  "The Irish, after all," Emmon writes, "had no money to bribe the historians."  And being "cattle folk as the Indians were buffalo hunters...'they would rather have cow dung than soil' on their hands."
Chief Cherokee John Ross circa 1835

This quote will make you want to read Emmon's chapter "Savage Twins" cautiously.  I question the statements that generalize (such as implying that all Indians were buffalo hunters).  Or this one: "Neither people had well established work habits," he writes.  "Both were materially poor beyond powers of description."  He seems to draw his conclusions from post-contact historians and anthropologists (none of them Native to my knowledge). It's interesting to note that had the Cherokee leaders NOT been prosperous in the early 1800s, both in land and culture, and had the literacy of the entire Cherokee Nation and the Cherokee Supreme Court not been a threat to the encroaching nonliterate immigrants, and had the gold on the Cherokee land not been coveted, the Trail of Tears might never have been forced upon them.

Scottish Highlanders: Indian Peoples
For years, when I thought of Ireland and Scotland, I thought of our family's visits to both countries in 1964, of heather covered hills and stone cottages, of thatched roofs where flowers bloomed, of the Celtic blood in my grandmother's veins.  But it wasn't until I started research on my novel Shifting Stars that I began to understand the intermingling of culture and blood between the Scottish and Native Americans.  And it wasn't until Joe McDonald, president at the time of Salish Kootenai Tribal College in Pablo, Montana, gifted me with a copy of Scottish Highlanders: Indian Peoples, Thirty Generations of a Montana Family that I realized that the Montana McDonald's traced their roots back to the great chiefs of the Nez Perce Indians.  No doubt, there really is an Indian "princess" in their ancestry.  And no doubt, earthly spirits still inhabit the mountains and creeks and rocks and trees of their homelands.

What are the legends of your homelands?  Do you feel the presence of earthly spirits when you walk the familiar trails of your childhood?  Are you drawn to particular historical settings when you're browsing the bookshelves for a new novel to read?  Perhaps your ancestors are whispering in your ear.

NOTES:  Read about the top 30 Celtic blogs at Celtic Lady.  Read more about Shifting Stars.  Search the Native Authors website for books on traditional storytelling, legends, and beliefs.

12 comments:

Laurel Kallenbach said...

Sadly, the roots in my family don't seem to run very deep, and over the generations since my Swiss-German ancestors came to America (in the mid-1800s) the stories have been lost. Odd, considering that they were all farmers until the middle of the 20th century. I think the Christian taboo on "pagan" and "superstitious" beliefs silenced a lot of the old traditions.

That's why I love places like Ireland, where the stories are still alive. I just posted a blog, "An Irish Dolmen and a Magical Dog," on the topic: http://www.laurelkallenbach.com/lkblog/?p=130

Cynthia Becker said...

Intriguing post, Paige. My own Scots Irish ancestors certainly influence my writing, particularly in short stories. Sometimes I wake with part of a story swirling in my head. I go right to the keyboard and start typing. At some point I usually stop to wonder, "Who is telling this story?" I may recognize a voice familiar from my childhood. But there are the other voices, early Kentucky/Tennessee settlers who were in their graves long before I was born. As the resident family genealogist, I do know a few facts about my ancestors but their voices surprise me and take my stories in unexpected directions. So far, these ancestors have been delightful writing partners.

Susan J. Tweit said...

Thank you for this post, Page. It reminded me of what gives me the strength to weather this journey with Richard's brain cancer. I'm Highland (Celtic) Scots-Norwegian (Fjord Country) with a dash of English and Swede thrown in. The tales I heard in childhood were mostly highland and fjord-related, from the Celtic and early Scandinavian traditions. I think having those stories of myth and magic are what keep the science tradition I was born to in my immediate family rooted in the land and its numinous spirits. It's a rich and sturdy combination!

Connecting People with Nature, and Writers with Words said...

Laurel, so many people with your ancestry have lost their stories. Yet often times researching the history of culture will reveal fascinating connections and lead one closer to more personal histories. The taboo on 'pagan' has silenced many cultures!

Connecting People with Nature, and Writers with Words said...

Cynthia, I too have Tennessee/Kentucky settler ancestry, and find it fascinating to map their migration journeys. How great that yours are partnering with you on the stories you're writing!

Page Lambert said...

Susan, I love the link you made for us regarding how, for you, the myths and legends have rooted the science tradition to a deeper and more spirit-filled view of the world. And especially thank you for sharing that this underpinning has been a source of strength for you as you travel this difficult journey with Richard. Love to you, Susan.

Wild_Bill said...

I am a descendant of both Abenaki and Cherokee as well as European cultures primarily French, English, and German. The primary parallel I do see behind the Irish/Native American comparison is that the English and their descendants were persistent and stealing land from other cultures. This was pretty common amongst Europeans. In fact just this St. Patrick's day a friend was complaining that it was just a holiday that gave credit to a religion that eliminated indigenous rituals. I reminded him that it was people of Celtic and Gaelic descent that inhabited Ireland at the time and they were hardly indigenous. The Gaels were from France and the Celts were from Germany. It was the Druids who were displaced and who, likely, originally inhabited the Emerald Island.

Connecting People with Nature, and Writers with Words said...

Great addition to the dialogue, Bill, thank you. Your friend was spot on when he complained about St. Patrick's Day being a holiday celebrating the wrong thing! And great to be reminded that the Druids are probably the indigenous Emerald Isle folks. Thank you.

Eunice Boeve said...

Very good blog, Page. I'm mostly English with a bit of German added. My dad's paternal lineage is the Cornwall brand of English. The Cornish were perhaps more like the Irish than the British. My dad's heart/spirit leaned more toward the Native American than the Europeon American. You mention the Salish Kootenai tribal college. I once lived in Bonners Ferry, Idaho which sits on the Kootenai river and is home to the Kootenai people.

Connecting People with Nature, and Writers with Words said...

Eunice, thanks for visiting and leaving "tracks" - the area up near Flathead Lake, Polson, Montana, is beautiful (that's close to the tribal college). Bet it's beautiful at Bonners Ferry too. I don't know a lot about Cornwell, but yes, understand it's far more rural in nature.

Emily Brisse said...

I've always loved the idea of ancestors. My aunt has traced our family back hundreds of years, but the connections I love the most are to the Czech gypsies and Pocahontas. Both of those can make a girl's imagination run. Thank you so much for this fascinating post.

Connecting People with Nature, and Writers with Words said...

Emily, how great you have an aunt who is tracking your geneology - gypsies and Mattaponi and Pamunkey ancestry. Very cool! I hope you'll delve into your family roots, as well - a great thing for you and your aunt to share.