Author Mines Family And Tribal History For Novel 'Cherokee America'

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"Cherokee America," by Margaret Verble. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"Cherokee America," by Margaret Verble. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Author Margaret Verble taps into her Cherokee heritage for her books, starting with her Pulitzer Prize finalist novel, “Maud’s Line.” Her follow up, "Cherokee America," takes place in Indian Territory just after the Civil War.

The Cherokee and other tribes were removed from their land, which was mostly southeastern states, and relocated to land now known as Oklahoma in forced marches that became known as the Trail of Tears. Thousands died along the way.

Cherokee America Singer, the lead character in Verble’s new book, is the matriarch of a prosperous farm family in Indian Territory, Verble tells Here & Now's Eric Westervelt (@Ericnpr). She is inspired by a real-life woman named Cherokee America Rogers that Verble’s grandmother told her about.

“The reason grandma felt so fondly of her is because when her father, who is my great-grandfather, and his brother came as orphans of the Civil War into Indian Territory trying to find work and place to live, Mrs. Rogers took them in, and she essentially made their lives,” Verble says. “They became farmers there in eastern Oklahoma, and they married into Cherokee Indians, and they had a good life.”  

In the book, Cherokee America Singer has her hands full taking care of her dying husband and five sons. And that’s before one of her hired hands goes missing and a murder is committed that could threaten Cherokee sovereignty.

Historically, the Cherokee Nation and other tribes in Indian Territory had a problem with white criminals coming in to escape the police, Verble says.

“All they had to do was go across the boundary into one of these Indian nations and then the law couldn't pursue them,” she says. “And basically what the Cherokees were trying to do was that they were trying to keep their law and their courts viable. And that was a crucial part of being able to keep their sovereignty.”

Interview Highlights

On how Cherokee America Singer balances both worlds by marrying a white man

“I think in general the Cherokees adopted a strategy early on of marrying into white people on the theory that whites would be less likely to kill their own children in the future. And you see that pattern again and again through Cherokee history of alliances with white people through marriage, and the whites, interestingly enough, often become enmeshed in the tribe rather than taking the Indian out and having that Indian person live as white person.”

On how women had more rights living as Cherokee than as white

“Historically, the Cherokee Nation was matriarchal and matrilineal. The women owned everything in the house, the fields, the children, and the men sort of came and went. And the reason for that was because they were all hunting, but it gave Cherokee women a sense of empowerment that I think that white women did not have at the time.”

On how the book illustrates the precarious position of Native Americans in Indian Territory

“The Cherokee Nation had a terrible time because with illegal immigration and of course, those were white people coming in to the Cherokee Nation, and it was a constant struggle, and they had had that struggle back east and had been promised that if they would go out there to the West, they wouldn't have that struggle anymore. And of course, immediately they started having to combat white illegal immigration into their nation.”

On the history of African-Americans settling in Indian Territory

“Well, the Cherokees had been slave-holding Indians, and so had, I think, all of the southern tribes that were removed out there. So what you had was a class of people who were called ‘freedmen’ and then you had — for two of my African-American characters, they had always been free people. And so there were African-Americans in Indian Territory, there were Indians and there white people, and everybody mixed up with each other. And I sort of like that. I like everybody mixed up with each other and getting along and making alliances and understanding each other.”

On how her fiction is an attempt to recapture the Cherokee Nation

“Well, when I first started writing this book or thinking about it and reading Cherokee history, I had no idea that the Cherokee Nation would be as strong and vibrant as it is today. When I was growing up, I thought this was a lost way of life that after my grandparents’ generation, that really there would be no more Cherokee Indians. And I found this heartbreaking to tell you the truth. So I began being interested in this history long before I thought that the Cherokee Nation would have the resources it does today.”

Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this story for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web. 

Editor's Note: The excerpt below contains some explicit language.

Book Excerpt: 'Cherokee America'

by Margaret Verble

Check staggered, overwhelmed with sunshine. It was still early in the planting season. The front of the store faced south and west, where the weather came from. She looked at the planks to get her bearings. Her ribcage was penned to a funnel by her corset; she feared for a moment she wouldn’t be able to breathe. She gulped, and reminded herself to take deeper breaths. That winter was over, and bodies need fresh air like houses and rugs. Jim slipped past her and was putting her last purchases into her wagon when she heard steps on the planks behind her. Words came in a shout before she turned. “You through, Mama?” Clifford was on her.

Check stepped back. “Yes, get the reins.”

The boy pulled himself to full height. He hopped towards the hitching bar. Helping his mother was a treat.

Check glanced at Cliff. His hair needed a wash. Children get dirty. She reminded herself that’s their nature. “Clifford, where’s Puny?” she asked.

“Visiting in niggertown.” Talk about Puny wasn’t what Clifford wanted. He wanted to show off for his mama. He unwrapped the reins.

Check thanked Jim as he went back into the store. She said to Cliff, “Don’t say ‘nigger.’ Your father and I don’t like that.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Cliff looked at his shoes.

“Yes, ma’am, what?”

“Yes, ma’am. Negro.”

“That’s good, Clifford.” Check smiled with only her lips. She grabbed the side of the wagon. “We’ll ride down and get him. He’s been quiet lately. Maybe visiting will’ve cheered him up.”

After they settled on the bench, Check tapped her boot against a quilt hiding a rifle on the floor. She flapped the reins and made a clucking noise behind her teeth. The wagon needed turning to the right to get to the Negro part of Fort Gibson, but mules don’t like right, so Check turned them left and circled wide in the middle of the street.

The wagon rode better loaded than empty, and Check, who normally used a buggy and who was tired deep in her bones, gave silent thanks for the difference. She engaged Cliff in conversation above the clop of the mules. Talk was a good way to find out what he’d been up to, and had the added advantage of occupying her line of vision, reducing the likelihood of anyone calling to her.

Clifford was full of things to tell. He could recall minute physical details of any animal, wild or kept. He was focused on roosters that morning, and that was fine with Check. She listened to a description of green tail feathers sprouting from a Leghorn and steered the mules towards a distant group of dark children who were silent and still. They all wore feed sack shirts, but only the tallest wore pants. The garb wasn’t unusual. But that Negro children should be quiet at a distance didn’t seem natural to Check. As she grew nearer, she cocked her head as though that would help her hear words that weren’t being said.

When the wagon got to within fifty feet of the clump of children, they scattered like buckeyes spilled from a sack. It occurred to Check they’d used a wiser strategy than the one used by quail, which fly up in the same direction before spreading. She reined in the mules before a row of shacks and looked at each one. There was no perceptible difference; all were unpainted wood with tar tops and a single door in the middle. Puny was inside one, but she couldn’t tell which. They were all still, empty-looking, and cave-like.

While she was trying to decide whether to order Clifford to go inspect, Puny emerged from a shack to the left of the mules. He was tall, muscular, and broad-shouldered. Darker than a fullblood, but not completely black. Check’s parents had owned slaves. She’d known Negroes all of her life. But she’d been taught they were people, not chattel; and she understood why her cook chose Puny over other suitors. A small child crept up and hid behind Puny’s leg. He didn’t seem to notice. But Check was already suspicious. She felt the slump in Puny’s shoulders match the slump in her own. “We’ll be leaving now,” she said.

The child ran, and Puny turned his head towards the door he’d come from. Then he looked back towards the wagon.

“Puny, please come here. I don’t like shouting.”

Puny walked slowly towards the mules. He stopped at the head of the left one. His gaze fell on a fly on that mule’s flank. The mule whipped its tail.

Trouble breeds trouble, Check thought. “What’s the matter, Puny?” she asked.

“Don’t know, Miz Singer. The child’s bad sick.”

“What child?”

“The one inside.”

“Is that all you’re going say? Am I going to have to come down off this wagon?”

“Yes, ma’am. I believe so.”

Check let out an audible sigh. “Puny, this child better be sick if I get off this wagon. I’m not out here on a Sunday go-to-visiting ride.”

“Yes’um. I know. She’s awful sick.” Puny looked squarely at Check’s face. Tears tracked down his cheeks.

Check stiffened, surprised. “Hold these reins.” She added, “Clifford, you stay where you are.” She lifted her skirt and climbed out.

Inside the shack, Check couldn’t at first see anything past the shaft of light framing her shadow on dirt. She did feel movement in the room at two or three different spots, but stench gave her eyes direction. There was blood in the room, dried and foul-smelling. Underneath that, the sweeter odor of unwashed Negroes. Check turned towards the blood. A small bundle on a mat of straw and rags came into focus. She sniffed deeply, hoping to smell movement there, if not actually see it. Her eyes let in more light. She saw the gray face of a baby in a bundle of rags.

Excerpted from "Cherokee America" by Margaret Verble. Copyright © 2019 by Margaret Verble. Republished with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

This segment aired on February 26, 2019.


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