The Dam of Tears

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Why did I cry so much about the damn dam while watching Frozen 2? It’s a kid’s movie about a woman who magically creates ice. ummm, ok, Shalay’s tears, whatever.

Y’all, it’s also a movie about a community that hid the evil it employed to establish its wealth, and literally dammed the resources away from the people whose land was stolen.

I cried when I saw the film because I had recently learned the history of the indigenous people who lived in my hometown, and the role that the dam played in the theft of their land. I, like Elsa, did not want to face it.

Like many southerners, I reportedly had a “cherokee great-grandmother.” I like to hope it might be true, but the fact is that even if I do, she was probably Creek, not Cherokee, since my people lived mainly in Georgia and Alabama.

It is however a verified fact that without a certain native woman,  I would not exist. My great grandmother was living in a tent encampment, recovering from influenza, when she went into premature labor.  There was no doctor or hospital, but there was a native woman who was a healer, a midwife, and knew to warm a glass lamp globe to the right temperature over the fire, to serve as an incubator. I picture my tiny, helpless grandmother drawing breath in her womb of glass in the firelight, as the native healer tended my great-grandmother.  My aunt still has the doll-like baby dress they made for her.

So I owe my existence to a native woman, as do Elsa and Anna. Their mother was the Northuldran who nursed their father back to health after he was wounded in the war. So that is one thing that made me cry.

But the damn dam made me cry even more. 

As a child I worked at my father’s bait shop at West Point Lake. We made our living from old men buying worms, and from rich Atlantans who would buy any expensive fishing stuff you told them they needed.  The livelihood of my brothers still depends on the lake. One brother is the best guide fisherman on West Point Lake. The other spends more time at the shop, repairing reels and creating beautiful custom rods when business is slow enough.

 West Point lake is a man-made lake. Nature did not ask it to exist. 

It exists because of a dam built in 1962.

It didn’t occur to me until my 40s to ask what was there before the lake was there. 

I guess I always knew that there were people living there before the Europeans got there. We found arrowheads a lot as kids. I never thought much of it. Cool treasures to find, like quartz crystals or old birdnests.

“Yeah, some arrowheads, left from prehistoric times or something, not connected to the time I lived in.” I thought.

In my 40s I began to research the history of my hometown.

I went to Troup County high school. Who was this Mr. Troup? 

George Troup was a governor of Georgia. “A Fine Upstanding Citizen,” as Georgia History Class taught me. But then I found out the rest of the story. He was a staunch supporter of Indian Removal, Manifest Destiny, and slave ownership.  

He was the first cousin of William McIntosh.

 Who was William  McIntosh? When I was a teenager, “McIntosh” was just our biggest rival in football, the one with so much more money than us, always winning competitions with their superior equipment.  

 McIntosh was the Muscogee chief who sold out his people. 

In 1825 Troup and McIntosh signed the second Treaty of Indian Springs.  This treaty sold off the Muscogee ancestral lands. $200,000 went to the tribe and $200,000 went to McIntosh. 

According to the treaty, the Muscogee were not required to move. But Troup ignored the  treaty and ordered the eviction of the Muscogee from their remaining lands in Georgia without compensation, mobilizing state militia to force them out.

But the forcible removal had begun long before 1825. In my research I found this horrifying old newspaper article about the 1793 raid of the village of Okfuskenena, later known as Burnt Village. “Burnt Village was the great central point of the Muscogee nation, the crossing place… where the untamed savages met… The place where the scalp, with its crimsoned tresses of many a maid and matron, and the flaxen locks of the little blue eyed boy, have been the cause of deep savage exultation..”    It goes on to explain in great adventure-movie detail, how Major Adams “heroically” took Okfuskenena by night and slaughtered the “soulless savages” in their sleep. 

Okfuskenena, the crossing point where the great Wehadkee creek met the Chattahoochee. The exact future location of … you guessed it…

West Point Lake.

Okfuskenena  was excavated in the 1960s, then was completely flooded when West Point Dam was built and West Point Lake was formed.  

When I learned these things about my hometown, I felt the ground slipping out from under me. I never knew that my sleepy little hometown was the site of this vortex of betrayal and bloody violence.  It was all covered up. Nothing left but fancy statues of these guys, and buildings named after them. And these atrocities had happened not that long ago, only a generation or two before my grandmother. What was the story of the Native woman who saved my grandmother? Was she in the tent town after having been evicted from her village? Had her family been killed during the process? I will never know. 

Elsa’s magic gave her access to more hidden details than I can possibly have. Like Elsa, I feel driven to know the truth. Elsa chose to follow the memory-ghost of her grandfather wielding his sword, knowing that she would not like what she saw. I started bawling when she encountered  that black pit. She knew she could choose to ignore the pain of jumping in that pit; she could just turn away, and pretend her people had always been the good guys. Yet, like me, she had to know, so she jumped into that black pit.

That black pit is the dark night of the soul. It is a mythic image for depression.

The black pit it what it felt like when I learned the true history of the land I grew up on. To learn that the people I was taught were “great men in Georgia history” were cheaters, liars, murderers, and greedy thieves. That the very livelihood of my family existed because of that dam, the dam that walled away the truth of what really had happened. 

Elsa had bought the lie that Arendelle’s wealth and comfort had been ethically earned,  and the black-and-white lie that the Northhuldrans were cruel enemies, and the Arendellians were the totally  good guys who made peace. I too had bought the lie that the prominent men of my hometown had been the good guys. 

The Muscogee, like the Northuldrans,  were just humans who had lived on the same land for generations,  trying to defend their homeland from violent, rich, powerful invaders. 

Unlike the Northuldrans, the Muscogee were not 100%  “the good guys.” They were not all sunshine and innocent butterflies. There were wars. The Red Stick war erupted ithe early 1800s and thousands of natives killed each other, due to unrest created by the destruction of their social systems.  I am not saying that native people are perfect. I am saying that anyone can be the good guy or the bad guy. No one who is killing someone to take their land is a “good guy.” There is no “good guy with a gun”. As soon as you shoot a gun, you are a “bad guy” to somebody; blood is on your hands, even if the person you killed had done wrong. Any person can be described as a “good guy” or a “bad guy,” depending on circumstance, and, especially, on who is telling the story and what details they choose to include or leave out.

Retribution isn’t the answer.  McIntosh was executed by the Creek nation for the treason of selling his people out for $200,000. The execution did no good, however, since their land was gone and their way of life was gone,  So any joy anyone felt about his execution was short-lived and empty.

 Facing the ambiguity and complexity of the past is the only hope for healing. Believing fairy tales of good cowboys killing bad indians, or fairy tales of 100% innocent Indians , is not helpful. The only thing that can cause healing is the truth. The dam that hides the truth must break, and white americans must face the fact that white americans are not “the good guys”. We are not the bad guys either, as some believe.  Brown americans are also not the good guys or the bad guys. Any human of any color or socioeconomic group is capable of good or evil. Growing up is about facing the complexity of truth, and your personal responsibility to act as ethically as you can in each situation. This is much more painful, difficult, and complex than sticking to simple comforting stories about your group being the good guys no matter what.

The healing. How does the healing happen? In Frozen 2, a bit too quickly and easily to seem real, since Elsa was able to save Arendelle from devastating flood. In real life it happens more slowly and individually. In real life you have to stay in the pit awhile.

Here is the bizarre story of one of the steps in my own healing. 

A few summers ago, when I was grappling with all this stuff for the first time, I was like Elsa in the dark pit, truly facing the evil for the first time and feeling it freeze my heart. I felt that I simply could not deal with the evil that was the truth; I felt like an old, sick dog that wanted nothing more than to go off alone so it could die somewhere without troubling anyone. Depression is no joke, as many of you know since you have experienced it too. You feel that you can never imagine feeling happy again, and that to pretend to be happy for everyone, as society demands, is the greatest effort of all. 

I was visiting my family in Georgia, and my brother offered to take us out on the boat. It was a beautiful day, unseasonably nice for July, and we went jug fishing, and my son Wolf was having so much fun, and I actually felt happy. 

Offhand, I said to Keith “hey, I’ve been reading about Burnt Village. Do you know where it is?”

Of course he knew where it was. He knows every inch of that lake. He has gone over all of it  with a depthfinder, so he knows where it is deep and where it is shallow, where all the underwater structure is, how the fish move at certain temperatures, and where they go at certain times of year. It is beautiful how my brother and that lake are part of each other. The lake has become natural, no longer just a forced, man-made creation.

Change is inevitable and often beautiful, but the true contours of the past must be acknowledged, in order for us to feel the depths of gratitude, instead the shallows of taking-for-granted that we are stuck in when we don’t face what lies beneath how we got where we are.

“Oh, yeah, it’s right over there.”  My brother turned on the outboard motor, and after 5 minutes of the scent of my childhood, 2 cycle engine oil,  we were staring at a spot of water that looked to me indistinguishable from all the other water. 

“It’s pretty far under there, but it’s right here in this cove.” 

I breathed. How many people in LaGrange knew the exact location of Burnt Village?

“Alright, do y’all wanna swim? There is a good swimming hole nearby here.”  He motored us over to a nearby bank, in a sheltered cove, where we could splash in the shallow water. 

My son Wolf is a water creature, a natural swimmer. So I took great joy in watching him enjoy the water. I couldn’t remember feeling so happy. 

The late afternoon light shone through the water, and I was struck by how golden it was. And then I noticed that it was not just the normal shining of light through water.  This particular water was filled with tiny golden flecks. It was like swimming in liquid gold. A miracle.It felt like a gift from those who had lived and died at Burnt Village, a thank-you for acknowledging their truth. A goldrush of mica.

Mica, like pyrite it is “fools gold”. But its beauty is only foolish to the fools who believe that money is the only source of joy.

Sometimes the mythic gets a bit more literal, y’all. Water has memory. 

Water. Has. Memory.

If you want to know the truth of  the land you grew up on, look up the history of the water sources in your hometown. People have always fought over water sources,wars that made bad guys out of good guys and good guys out of bad guys.

Water has complicated memory in which the lines between “good guys” and “bad guys” is always changing.

We have to break the dam to release tears of grief, so that we may also release tears of gratitude.

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