In this piece, Jiahui Zheng, Agnes Scott ’15, shares her experiences attending a Native American dance with last year’s Writers’ Festival guest and lecturer Jay Harjo.
American Eagle’s Anniversary
Hundreds of years ago, there were a group of eagles living on the vast North America land. They were brave, friendly and diligent. They worked very hard to survive. They were peaceful and lived in a paradise life. One day another group of eagles from nowhere attacked them, killed them and abused them. Those outsiders had stronger weapons and greedy hearts. They fought in the sky, on the mountain, and along the river. The blood flowed into the river and dyed it red. One eagle broke through the air and cried, with its mouth bleeding. The sound was so sad that it resounds through the skies.
Suddenly a real eagle enters my sight and wakes me up from my daydream. I look around and realize I am still in the car with two of my friends and Joy Harjo, who is a great poet, musician, dancer, and currently is teaching in our school. We are on the way to Horseshoe Bend National Military Park in Alabama to attend a Native American Festival. It is an anniversary to commemorate Battle of Horseshoe Bend, part of the Creek War in 1814.
The car stops in front of the National Military Park. According to the number of cars in the parking lot, I can tell there must be a lot of people at this event. When I get out of the car, I see many people gathering outside and inside the memorial hall. Most of them are wearing traditional Indian clothes. Harjo walks around and greets to everyone she meets. They are all Indian descendents and come to memorize their ancestors died in war. After a while, Harjo says she needs to go back to her car to take her “cans” before the dance starts. I have no idea what “cans” are. While I’m waiting, I walk into the memorial hall and learn some history information about The Battle of Horseshoe Bend.
Two hundred years ago, a Native American tribe, Red Sticks, lived freely on vast America land. They were like eagles that had freedom, using their hands creating a better life. However, in 1814, Southeast American Indians were under pressure from European-American encroachment. Red Sticks, generally young men from the Upper Creek Towns, wanted to maintain their own culture and religion and opposed American expansion. On March 27, 1814, Andrew Jackson led United States troops and Indian allies and defeated the Red Sticks. Menawa, a Mucogee chief and a military leader, led Red Sticks to fight against Andrew Jackson’s oppression and tried to save his people and tradition. However, American Forces won the battle and started a large scale massacre of Red Sticks.
The Battle of Horseshoe Bend had a big influence on American politics and helped play apart America getting rid of Britain’s control. Andrew Jackson, the leader of American Forces in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, earned fame because of his victory and became the seventh president of the United States in 1828. In this war, 800 Red Sticks were killed and the leader Menawa was severely wounded but he survived by pretending to be a woman and led about 200 of the original 1,000 warriors into a safety tribe in Spanish Florida.
The historical information in the hall reminds me of Harjo’s words on the road. She says: “people think I am a ghost when I give a presentation in a college in Alabama.” Because people think Menawa had been killed and no longer existed, not to mention his descendants. But years and years past, Menawa’s seventh generation, Joy Harjo, who is famous as a poet and a musician, comes back to this land and to remember her ancestors. She keeps her spiritual connection with her ancestor all the time. In her book Soul Talk, Song Language she says: “Your spirit can travel back—or forward, depending—and connect, because it’s there and part of you. I believe that history contracts and expands, depending. I can see Monahwee’s spirit evident in the children, grandchildren—it grows itself. (12)” Her words tell me that history will never fade and Native American’s spirit still lives on this land and tells us the truth of war.
The dance is going to start and I walk through the hall to the vast grassland where visitors sit on wooden benches and the dancers perform in the middle. I see Harjo stands with other female performers near the bench and all of them are wearing very special boots. Now I understand why Harjo calls them “cans” because she puts two tin pots beside her boots and the small stones in her cans will jingle when she walks. The other women are wearing hallowed deer toes which make crisp sound when they walk. I am very curious what these special boots are for and how they make them. I find the answer when the Native Americans start to dance.
The dance starts with an old man striking his stick on the ground and calling dancers to come to dance. He wears a long red robe with a purple patterned waistband on his belly, and a pair of black boots and some white feathers on his head. He holds his stick, which has special carvings and patterns on it, and strikes it to the ground and starts calling, using Native American language, and then men wearing traditional clothes come out. Seven men form a circle with some wood in the middle and start to walk along the circle. The caller starts to call woman to come out and then five women step out and every woman stand in the between of two men. The women’s hollowed deer toes boots and cans jingle to keep the beat to the singing of the men.
After a while, dancers start to call visitors to join them, so I come to the middle and follow the rhythm to step my feet. More and more people join in, along with men’s singing, we walk in a circle and step our feet. Then the caller tells us to hold our hands, so more than thirty people hold their hands and keep going in a circle. Our holding hands are bound connected my soul and other’s. On this special day, we travel back to the history and feel Native American’s rejoice. I see pride on every Native American descendant’s face. They are proud of their culture, their ancestors, and their determined eyes tell me that they are descendants of brave American Eagles.
People dance in the most traditional way to remember their great ancestors and to spread their culture to the whole world. On the vast grassland, there are many tents holding exhibition of Native American crafts. They are including hollowed deer toes, deerskin, handmade wooden bowls and some jewelry made by animal bones. The one interested me the most is the stone craft. An Indian man sits on a wooden chair with a piece of deerskin put on his thigh, and holds two stones on his hands. He is showing people how to make tools with stones. He says: “by changing the position of your finger and different part you hit these two stones, you can break them in any shape you want.”
I gaze into his fingers and worried he will hit his own hands, but he proficiently hits them and one of the stone falls off a small piece and the other stone remains intact. He picks up the small piece of stone and uses it as a knife to cut a piece of rope and he succeeds. I am amazed by what a stone can do. He then simply makes some changes on the small piece of stone and it turns into a saw! Seeing many surprised faces around him, he says: “you can find everything from nature. Native Americans use all materials from nature and we protect nature.” From his words I can feel the profound love he has toward nature. Hundreds of years ago, Native Americans worked diligently to earn a living and they were smart enough to make tools by stones and clothes by leathers. Even when they were facing intruders’ advanced rifles and cannons, they were not afraid and fought bravely to protect their own culture although they lost their lives. Their determined and brave spirit is like an eagle, flying on the vast land eternally.
After the dance, we drive to the land where the battle really took place. It is a small hill and now the land is covered with grass and white flowers. Spring’s mild sunshine pours upon this land and warms every inch of the earth. Some people are lying on the grass. A doggy sits beside them and seems to be enjoying the sunshine as well. What a peaceful land. However, two hundred years ago, this land was drenched with blood. The grass and flowers were trampled to death by merciless iron boots.
In the middle of this land, there is a row of white thick rods. According to the sign bearing the introduction of this land, the row of white rods is a division of Red Sticks troops and American Forces. Two hundred years ago, in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, most Red Sticks men were killed. The left side of this row only left women and children. American Forces dragged women and children to the right side and killed them. On the left side of these rods was to live, on the right side was to die.
Harjo picks up one stone and holds it in her hand. She stands on the American Forces side and gazes into distance. She is silent, not caring that the wind messes her hair and blows it onto her face. She keeps silent, stands still, for a long time. I wonder what she is thinking. May be she is communicating with her ancestors, telling them she comes back to see them and wishes them rest in peace. I guess she is thinking about that day, when children were killed and women were abused, how miserable her ancestors suffered and how terrible the war was. Silence envelopes this land, only whistling wind slaps our faces. When I suggest taking a picture, she says: “not on this side, this side is where they died. We can go to another side, where they were alive.” I realize how inconsiderate I am and how much she cares about her ancestors.
After we visit the land, we drive to Tallapoosa River, another slaughterhouse of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. I learn some other information about this battle by reading the instruction sign along the Tallapoosa River. When the war happened and Red Stick suffered a defeat, many people tried to escape. Horseshoe Bend was in a shape of fish’s mouth which was surrounded by river in three sides, and the only way to escape was to swim across the river to the island below. However, the sign reads:
“Andrew Jackson sent Gen. John Coffee and 1,300 men to surround Horseshoe Bend on the banks of the Tallapoosa River….Coffee Ordered Lt. Jesse Bean and 40 mounted riflemen to wait on what is now called Bean’s Island. [When Native Americans tried to escape,] Bean’s men aimed their rifles across the river, shooting any Red Stick attempting to swim to safety through the cold waters of the Tallapoosa…. [No] one [was] landed. They were sunk by Bean’s command ere they reached the bank”
Since then, these freely Native American eagles were dying out from the stage of history.
On the way back home, we talk about ghost. Harjo says determinedly: “they do exist. They are around you and I always talk with them. As long as you put them in your heart, they will never leave.” I can feel her loneliness. The one who survive but being called as a ghost, she must miss her ancestors a lot. The war brutally killed one culture, one tribe, one races. Harjo chooses to pray for her ancestors. In her Eagle Poem, she says: “[t]o pray you open your whole self/ To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon/ To one whole voice that is you./ And know there is more/ that you can’t see, can’t hear;/ Can’t know except in moments/ steadily growing, and in languages/ That aren’t always sound but other/ Circles of motion.” She prays by her holly heart and wishes the pure nature can wipe up our sin, clean our body and our soul. She uses her poem and her music to pray, to speak by her soul. From this anniversary I understand more about Native American culture and I pull myself from the reality and enter an ancient world to experience a war. The war killed too many talented people and precious cultures. Reading her Eagle Poem, I imagine an eagle breaks through the air and cries, with blood in her mouth. She is praying and telling the story of war.