White Man Crows
The day Cat Smiling asked Catbird about the name of Ayonega Crow, she never thought that two mornings later she would find herself leaving home again to see this white man. And she still didn’t know how a white man earned such a name. Slow and obstinate she trudged behind her grandmother.
Unlike the untamed forest of the mountains, the cedars and pines cut back by white settlers along the river left a clear path between fewer trunks and branches. Some of those trees had built the Mission School of the Baptist Church of Tinsawattee near the Etowah River; headed by the Reverend Duncan O’Bryant—a white man learning to balance his many names.
Cat Smiling’s slow steps didn’t prevent Catbird’s arrival at her determined destination. The wooden door squeaked on wrought-iron hinges, complaining for Cat Smiling as they entered the white-washed pine-slat building.
Standing silent and patient as ever, Catbird nodded the man permission.
“What’s your name?” he spoke. This white man was The Baptist,
so called by her people at Hickory Log, one of the remaining Cherokee villages
in the land yonegs like him called
“Tell The Baptist your name,” Catbird softly commanded.
Cat Smiling turned from the window. She had been looking outside, watching the branch of a Red Cedar rub the whitewash off one of the many ceded pine slats. An elongated branch rocked back and forth as the wind pushed past the snow painted obstruction. The pointed tip carved out the color of the wood, exposing a thin line of fawn brown underneath. She preferred the wood to the white.
The white man’s name echoing from her grandmother’s tongue made her look at Catbird in disbelief. She thought this man had always been Ayonega Crow, but now the old woman called him The Baptist and waited for her granddaughter to answer him.
Cat Smiling eyed The Baptist cradling his Bible under one arm instead of reading from it as she was used to seeing in the village. He must think that for uncivilized Indians salvation would pour from that worn book; perhaps the same way the Etowah River brought waters of life to the corn, cattle, and hogs at Hickory Log.
Cat Smiling had returned a summer ago to Hickory Log and the Red Tail Hawk Clan. Now seventeen, feeling too young to be widow to a Wolf Clan warrior who was shot in the back by an enemy that wouldn’t face him. Young Wolf’s last words ordered her to follow the others who were already disappearing deep into the mountains thick with foliage that once sustained their way of life but soon would only hide it. Now after another forced walk she raised her face to look at The Baptist, Ayonega Crow, and never averted her eyes. She said her name was we-sa u-tse-tsi to-i.
“In English, please,” he spoke.
She looked toward Catbird hoping for permission to protest, but Catbird only nodded her command.
“Cat Smiling Still.”
“You’ll be called Cate—Cate with a C,” he said, looking down to break her scrutiny. Focusing on the paper in another book, he dipped the quill, tapped it in the inkwell, brushed off the excess, and resumed writing.
“What’s a Cate?” still in English, hoping the Ayonega heard a flat tone of practiced unconcern. Names, she was taught, should indicate what things are believed to be. Cat Smiling Still meant something to anyone who spoke her people’s language. He to her was only Ayonega, a white man, nothing more. Cate meant something she didn’t know and wasn’t ready for, a feeling from the whites she had learned to dread, to abhor. She was already given the names she was meant to have: Cat Smiling from her parents, which became Cat Smiling Still after Young Wolf fell. She would not take a meaningless white name.
She stood before Ayonega Crow, her raven eyes defying his willful ease in writing that name as her own. No longer in the wraparound skirt or buckskin dress she wore among her husband’s people in Black Bird Town, she knew her long swaddling cotton skirt and plain white blouse made her look more like a Cate. After the last attack Young Wolf’s clan went west. The Chief decided the mountains could no longer protect them. Cat Smiling returned a widow to the clan of her birth at Hickory Log. Cat Smiling Still refused to go west: the Darkening Place. She obeyed Young Wolf and stayed in the mountains.
Cat Smiling Still would always resist the white ways, but Catbird said their journey was their only way.
“Have you heard the clap of a thundercloud? Felt the wind blow? Then it’s dark overhead? Anger always stirs and gathers before it can and must explode. Cat Smiling, the burst will strike only you. Nothing, no one else will suffer. The days of blood are at an end. You will not forget the trespasses and lost lives. But balance is no longer as simple as vengeance.”
Nothing seemed simple now. The valley, still enchanted in the distances and mists of morning, changed every day. She wasn’t concerned with the storm brewing inside her but with the tempest of blood that yonegs would raise. They built more and more. The sight of a white man at Hickory Log was frequent.
Two mornings before, watching her and Young Wolf’s son wobbling as he walked, she asked Catbird why she called The Baptist also by the name of Crow, a bird their clan respected for intelligence. The white man had often visited the village, his bible balanced in his hands as he read, always followed by a young Cherokee who dressed like him. The Baptist open-mouthed and shrilling as the boy’s lips barely parted translating into Cherokee. Catbird always taunted in broken English as they paraded past, I won’t listen to Ayonega crow!
“Why would you honor a white man with such a name as Ayonega Crow?” Cat Smiling now asked as Little Fourkiller bounced from toes to heels until he found his balance and ran to Catbird, wrapping his arms around her neck and tumbling into her lap.
“What do you mean?” Catbird frowned to hide a smile and questioned with her eyebrows. She embraced Little Fourkiller, then practiced him—taking his arms, turning him round, and softly starting him back to his mother. “Have you not chased the crows from the corn crops? Watched them flock together with their cawing nonsense? They want to steal what is not theirs, then brag of their reaping only so their brothers will join them and take more. I am not honoring him, I am naming his actions. Names are only names.”
“But what about the stories of the Crow? The beliefs of our people?” Cat Smiling protested as she lifted Little Fourkiller and stuck out a hip to balance his weight.
“And the beliefs of sv-ga-ta, too?” Catbird responded with a grin.
“Apples? What are you talking about? Beliefs of the apples?”
Still grinning, “Apples are Indians. The Cherokee living at the Mission School with Ayonega Crow. Cherokee like Chief John Ross who wants us west. Red on the outside, white on the inside,” she laughed, her thick body bouncing in rhythm with her chuckling. Then in a sudden grave tone, “Things are not one way like the old stories told. I have heard both Cherokee stories and yoneg stories.”
Catbird pushed herself to her feet with still vigorous arms, walked to the leather flap and flung it open, bending forward under the door to leave. Cat Smiling carried Little Fourkiller out of the small rectangular cabin, interlaced logs supported by tree trunks, insulated and held strong by red clay. Perplexed as to why she and Little Fourkiller were left behind, she watched Catbird’s heavy-hipped figure pass into the lines of corn, a single wind pressing her back and bending the stalks in consent. Cat Smiling did not know it at the time, but Catbird judged it time to ask Ayonega Crow about teaching her granddaughter how to tell the yoneg stories, even if it had to be in shrilling yoneg ways.
Two mornings after speaking of the white man’s name, she was called and written Cate. She found she knew but half the story, and no words that would start it. There are crows, and all who crow are not the same, even with the same name. A crow and a man named Crow may share different gifts. She thought she understood English. Her grandmother taught her nearly all she knew. But Cat Smiling didn’t understand what only Cate could know.