My great great grandmother was Arizona Webb Walker. She was a Cherokee whose grandmother was one of the group who escaped the Trail of Tears and hid out to later create the Eastern Band of Cherokee in North Carolina. Arizona’s father was of Caucasian and Cherokee decent and from what we know of him very cruel to his wife and children. Their family traveled between Indian Territory in Oklahoma to New Echota, Georgia and Walden’s Ridge in Dayton, Tennessee several times. Arizona’s mother disappeared leaving her older children with their father. Arizona eventually escaped her father and walked the mountain ridge lines with a badly healed broken leg from New Echota, GA to be with her family in Tennessee. She was a young girl – alone. She married in Tennessee and she and her husband moved to Hazard, Kentucky for mining work in the early 1900s.
It is no small thing that I know this story. I grew up thinking that everyone had met most of their great grandparents. I thought it was common for people to know which country their European ancestors immigrated from. I thought it usual that most people’s family members hung onto things like copies of their ancestors’ names on documents like the Mullay or Dawes Rolls. Until I talked with friends who had no idea where they came from, I didn’t know exactly how fortunate I was to know so well my own heritage. I owe this all to my paternal grandmother Ida Lee Stacy Hansel, who with friends and cousins has spent years researching and documenting our family history. She spent hours with her grandchildren in the evenings and throughout the day telling us the stories as many times as we wanted to hear them. I was so proud of my heritage that I would walk with my head up no matter how I was tormented in my school days. I knew from where I came. I knew the strength, wisdom, and faith of my people.
The more I learn about Arizona, the more I have wanted to tell her story to the world. Her picture hangs in my living room and I stop and look at it several times a day. She leans on a garden hoe to support her bad leg, but is tall and lovely. There is so much raw strength and assurance in her eyes. Her hair loosely braided and hanging down her back. I see her in me.
I have decided to write her story as a work of fiction. I received a grant from the Kentucky Arts Council to do some preliminary research for the historical background of the novel. They have worked with me as a mother and provided a way for my family to go with me as well. Starting at the end of the week, we will be taking a trip to New Echota, Georgia and Dayton, Tennesee to retrace my great great grandmother’s steps in her journey to Kentucky. I will be researching the time in which she lived and the area’s visual appeal in order to create accurate settings. I’m very excited about this journey.
This journey has come about at the perfect time in my life. I fully believe in God’s timing for things, though I’m not the most patient person in waiting for it. I’m not spoiled, but I remind myself of Veruca Salt in the “I want it NOW!” sense. Our life is coming together in a beautiful way. As a mother, I feel like I could do so much better in my relationship with my girls. I do feel like our move back to the mountains was the best thing we could do for them, but I know I need to connect more with female members of my family. I need to learn from them the critical pieces of womanhood that I have tended to miss in my upbringing. I need to learn so I can pass them on. My grandmothers were irreplaceable in giving me any confidence that I had in my appearance and my intellect. I have a beautiful Aunt Sharon who taught me that common sense should be listened to, and a strong will can work both for and against you. I have a strong female presence in my life, but it is imperative for me to learn how to foster a strong and healthy mother/daughter bond. Because I didn’t feel comfortable in my ability to raise a girl properly, I didn’t think God would make me raise one. I should have known better. He’s given me two. 🙂
Also, I’m at a point in my life where I need to find who I want to be and what to bring forth from myself in the next ten years. I’m 30 1/2 years old. I’m not a kid anymore, but I have so much more to learn. It is my firm belief that we must know and understand our past in order to bring about a better future. I have so much to learn from Arizona’s life. I think fictionalizing the missing pieces will help me bond with her beyond stories being told. I will have to become a part of her in order to do her justice in my writing. I am looking forward to that eventhough I know that some of those places will be dark. The light that pours from her eyes is so much more.
This isn’t simply a vacation or a research project. It is a chance for my little family to reconnect. We haven’t been anywhere aside from work related things since before the girls were born. This is our chance to be fully present for each other. My grandfather has never seen Ivy. He will get to see her for the first time when we stop by their house on our way to Georgia. I will get to show the girls where they started. Teach them that they come from a people to whom this country rightfully belongs. A strong people who lived with the earth and used it as the Creator asked us to do – as stewards. A people who perservered through hardships, created a way to keep records when others were trying to destroy their heritage, and to this day is not afraid to break new ground. This is a quest for re-creation. From the past will be brought forth a new life.