The Great American Road Trip
Book: Mountain Windsong: A Novel of the Trail of Tears (1992) by Robert J. Conley
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word, Oklahoma?
A fabulous Broadway musical and the movie that was adapted from it, right? But the musical and the movie leave out an enormous part of Oklahoma–the American Indians. Specifically the Cherokee for whom Oklahoma was the end of the Trail of Tears.
Who better to tell about the Cherokee experience than a reknowed Oklahoma Cherokee writer,Robert J. Conley, who is currently president of Western Writers of America. His book, Mountain Windsong: A Novel of the Trail of Tears, departs from the usual western adventure-style novels that he writes. He does manage to get in some rock ‘em sock ‘em fights, which are more characteristic of his fiction.
In a unique presentation, Conley alternates between the present with a Grandfather talking to his young grandson whom he calls chooj, and the lives of two fictional characters, Oconeechee and Waguli (Whipporwill), who represent the hardships of the removal of Cherokee people from Alabama to Oklahoma.
Conley also includes pieces of treaties and histories that give the unvarnished facts about what became known as The Trail of Tears. One historian estimates that as many as 4000 Cherokee ( presumably some of their slaves) died either on the trail or from eating unfamiliar foods while being held in army camps. The piece of the book that caught me by surprise was a letter to President Martin Van Buren in 1836. The writer says that people have read in the newspapers that 18,000 members of the Cherokee nation are to be “dragged” over mountains and rivers to a far away land despite the fact that over 15,000 of them object.
Such a dereliction of all faith and virtue, such a denial of justice, and such deafness to screams for mercy were never heard of in times of peace and in the dealing of a nation with its own allies and wards, since the earth was made. Sir, does this government think that the people of the United States are become savage and mad?…The soul of man, the justice, the mercy that is the heart’s heart in all men, from Maine to Georgia, does abhor this business.
This letter to the President of the United States is signed by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who along with Davy Crockett and Sam Houston spoke up for the Cherokee, but all were ignored.
Conley says that the idea for this love story set against the Trail of Tears came from a song by Cherokee singer, Dan Grooms, and the lyrics are sprinkled throughout the book. The story is one of deep love, persistence, continuity, and acceptance. But it is a story that we do not often hear told in this detail, drawing on both fact and emotion.
After this book, Conley wrote The Cherokee Nation: A History, an award-winning non fiction account of history and a Cherokee Encyclopedia.
For more music for Oklahoma, check out Music Road, who joins us on the Great American Road Trip. You can follow the Trail of Tears. Take a look at this National Historic Trail. I am visiting Tulsa Oklahoma next week as a guest of the Cherokee nation, and am looking forward to learning more about their history and their culture. While I’m gone you will get to hear from guest writers about a Vienna mystery, an Irish animated film, and a Texas writer’s favorite Texas author.
Have you read about The Trail of Tears? How was that incident handled in your history classes (or your children’s)?