Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Sister Snake

Here's something I did on my summer vacation—not that working three science fiction conventions in four weeks, in parts of the country experiencing a triple-digit heat wave, constitutes a vacation in the normal sense of the word. Anyway, in late July I drove from Houston up to Tulsa, Oklahoma for Conestoga. Soon after crossing the Oklahoma state line, I started being struck by place names eerily familiar from growing up in Columbus, Georgia. Not familiar as in Smithvilles, Fairviews and towns named Columbus; familiar as in Muscogee (the local county and school district when I was a kid), Okmulgee (river in Georgia), Eufaula (town in Alabama) and Tuskegee (ditto.) These place names were very familiar to me growing up, and very strange to see in Oklahoma.

They turn out to be Muscogee (Creek) Indian names, echoes of people who lived in the Deep South, including along the Chattahoochee River between present-day Georgia and Alabama, before the U.S. government forced them to move to Oklahoma in the 1800's.

The forced removal was called the Trail of Tears. It was a wretched historical episode. American ethnic cleansing. To make it, if possible, even worse, Indian spirituality is generally connected to land in a way that Western spirituality isn't. Exile from ancestral land meant being cut off at the religious, cultural and even medicinal roots. This was explained to me once by a Lutheran theologian who belongs to the Osage Nation. He said that after being forced from Missouri to Oklahoma, Osage medicine people practiced less of their traditional medicine, and part of the reason was unfamiliar plant life. They didn't know the healing properties of plants in Oklahoma.

I recall precious little awareness of Indian peoples in Columbus when I was young. Most Georgians and Alabamians had no idea what Indian language so many place names came from. There was a "Yuchi Reservation" over in Alabama. But it was a golf course. I do remember a personable Yuchi Indian lady leading a program about her people at the Columbus Museum. A little present-day research on the Yuchi Indians proves very interesting. Their language is an isolate. Like Basque, it has no known closely related languages. Some of the Yuchi people lived in the Lower Chattahoochee Valley before being removed to Oklahoma with the Creeks in 1836. This came after several different bands of Yuchis had migrated or fled from place to place within the South starting in the 1700's.

There were a lot of migrations and upheavals of Indian peoples in the centuries after 1492. Topping it all off with removal and genocide, the end game was a colossal land grab by Europeans in North America. Now we live on stolen land, as the Lutheran Osage theologian emphatically pointed out to me. He added that the morality of living on stolen land can get sticky even for Indian people. He was then living in Oakland. Originally that was Ohlone Indian land.

For a lot of mostly irreparable reasons, most Americans dwell on the land of ancestors other than our own. Sometimes the original people are gone. The Conestoga Valley in Pennsylvania was named for an Iroquoian tribe that no longer exists. Wagons of a type devised in the Conestoga Valley carried waves of settlers and commerce westward as the United States expanded across Indian lands, including land that treaties had reserved for Indian tribes. It was a trail of broken treaties.

Conestoga in an SFFnal sense, namely Oklahoma's largest literary science fiction and fantasy convention, is a good con with a flair for originality. This year the con's charity was Safari's Sanctuary. The Safari's Sanctuary people rescue wild and exotic animals from the pet trade and from overpopulated zoos. They do educational outreach too, bringing some of the animals: wolves and lemurs and oh my—Carmella, the Burmese Python. A Safari's Sanctuary volunteer draped her on interested shoulders at Conestoga. A big (well fed, mellow) snake is all languid muscle from tip to tail. When you're wearing one, you feel the muscles flex as the snake shifts position. Not a suitable pet, but an amazing creature.

Carmella may be a kindred soul of mine. Oklahoma isn't Burma; she shouldn't be here, just like my own genes, or most of them, put me in Northern Europe rather than North America. But we are here and we make the best of it. She, dining on rats and educating the public about big snakes. I, living and writing without ever taking home and nature, place or past for granted.


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