Tuesday, September 28, 2010

From the Trickster, to Grape Dumplings-Reflections from the Storyteller Conference

The weekend of September 23-24 was an enlightening experience and one that illustrated for several of us, the similarities between two peoples more than the differences

Choctaw-Chickasaw Freedmen Descendants Carlotta Kemp Wheeler, Terry Ligon,
Joyce Shelton Settles, and Reuben Noah, (Choctaw Citizen)

This conference brought storytellers from all of the Five Tribes of Oklahoma, it was also an opportunity to learn and to appreciate the value of culture, of continuing traditions, and to sharing one's history and culture with the community. Although there were some speakers who spoke to the exclusivity of their practice i. e. "I don't tell my stories to outsiders"---it was clear to me, that more than ever, African Americans with ties to Indian Territory, have a rich history to celebrate, share, and invite others to enjoy as well.

But there is one primary difference that I felt:  With the African storyteller, there is no tradition to exclude others, because African people--whether they are from Indian Territory, or the Low Country of the Carolinas, or the Creoles of Louisiana---African Ancestored people have a tradition of welcome, trust and are we people of an hospitable spirit.

Interestingly what was evident as one who sat and enjoyed the presentations, I could not help but smile at the references to the creation stories, and the trickster stories.  Why?  Because the trickster stories from Africa to the Caribbean are alive and have a rich tradition, as well.  I smile when I recall Ananse the spider---who was sometimes the disguised as a rabbit--- and those stories that have charmed children from Western Africa to the West Indies.  Like most tricksters---Anansi (pronounced Ah-NAHN-see)  can take on many forms---sometimes as human, sometimes as another creature and Anansi stories (called "Nancy" stories in the West Indies)  have warmed the hearts of children for hundreds of years. How amazing to listen to the panelists who spoke of the tradition of trickster stories that also prevail within Muscogee Creek communities.

For myself as a Freedman descendant who studies the customs of African people of the Five Tribes, the similarities are evident to those of us who know.  

There are the similarities in our culture from the communities themselves---from language, religion and diet.  An example---the diet of Africans from the Territory is one that is just as rich rich in pashofa, grape dumplings, or possom grapes, as it is in greens, cornbread and barbecue. And all of these are still part of of our own family events to this day.

But----what also became evident to me, this weekend--- was the separation that now exists.  

Where at one time, we were people who once lived near each other, and once knew each other--- we now live apart, and now are strangers when only two generations ago---our ancestors were friends, and in many cases, they were family. But statehood, the Dawes allotment process and decades of enforced segregation made old friends now strangers, and former compatriots are now persons who distrust each other---preventing those similarities from being known to each other.  The "you are not of us" theme was there as some of the panelists spoke, and though not blatant, it was there, to those who know.

It was a delight to see scholar Daniel Littlefield present, hear him speak.  But on Saturday, it was painful to see how when he spoke, others on the same panel either pulled the cap over their faces, or physically backed away from the table, as if his remarks were not of value. The intolerance was evident, blatant and unnecessary. 
Author, and professor, Daniel L. Littlefield

There were the references to those "non-Indian writers" were made, and Dr. Littlefield addressed those references head on, and pointed out the fact that he was one of those non-Indian writers who has written for over 50 years, and has continually been honored by the tribes, and his  scholarship has yet to be criticized by Indian scholars, Indian tribal leaders and the Indian community.  The somewhat hostile treatment of such an esteemed writer and scholar in this way was a disappointment.

But---- the good part about the conference, was to note that that the determination of the storytellers to keep alive was genuine. And I personally reflected and realized that the stories that have been told in our homes that came from our grandparents, &their parents need to be told even more than ever. 

Though many of us are now strangers to each other we don't have to be.  

There were a few who did meet us half way across the bridge, as the plenary speaker suggested. But many never set foot on the metaphoric bridge. We were there in the middle of the metaphoric bridge already---for we had traveled over 1000 miles to be there, and to listen and to learn. Though very few bothered to extend a hand of of friendship--for it is not their way---what a loss of opportunity. 

As much was referenced to "the old ways" it should be remembered:
 No culture, is static. Those cultures that are static, are extinct.  The human experience is dynamic and it does grow and change as contact with others brings about that dynamic change.  And life, is change.
I often find the stories of those now gone, from the many narratives and documents left behind. And there on the landscape of NE Oklahoma one finds the evidence of the blending of people who lived near each other. As Muscogee heritage specialist pointed out, in many communities the African slaves brought their stories with them, and one even now hears the stories of Brer' Rabbit and others in Creek communities.  Indeed, as the Africans brought their traditions and culture with them, many former slaves took the Indian traditions and customs that they had learned back into their families and communities as well.  

No culture is static--that which is static is extinct.

All in all, the conference was an enlightening one.  The resounding theme for me----we must tell our own stories.  For it is from those stories that we have the evidence of our past, of our presence and ultimately of our future.

Special thanks go to the staff of the  Five Tribes Museum for hosting the reception and co-hosting the conference.  They are people whom we admire and appreciate and look forward to seeing again in the future. Their graciousness and their gesture of friendship and acceptance took courage and was appreciated by those of us who traveled to be there.  Their inclusion of our exhibit reflecting the history of the Freedmen is indeed a step in telling more of the dynamic and complex story of Indian Territory.

I am grateful also to those who did meet us half way across the bridge and whom we look forward to meeting in the future:

Dorothy Alexander, Poet & Publisher

Reuben Noah, (Choctaw)
Five Tribes Museum Staff

Mary Robinson, Executive Director
Five Civilized Tribes Museum

It should also be mentioned that we had the chance to meet artist and illustrator Jeanne Rorex. She is the author who illustrated the book by Tim Tingle, Crossing Bok Chitto and is known for her artwork the Sisters Series reflecting African-Native American families.

Angela Walton-Raji & artist Jeanne Rorex

Image from The Sisters Series

No culture is static. That which is static is extinct. 

The lessons learned have been profound. Now is the time to tell our stories!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Identity, Tradition and Preservation Discussed at Storytellers Conference

Bacone College Chapel was the site of the first  Five Tribes Story Conference which began yesterday in Muskogee Oklahoma. This event brought together an interesting combination of professors, storytellers and researchers. The opening Plenary was by Tim Tingle, (Choctaw) author of the book Crossing Bok Chitto.

Those attending the conference were literally from all over the country, from Maryland to California, Wisconsin, Texas, and many places in Arkansas and Oklahoma.

Tim Tingle, author delivers plenary address. 

Author Tim Tingle, in the opening session, shared the origin of his storytelling experience, and how he came to develop the story of Crossing Bok Chitto, a story of African & Native friendship and freedom.

A number of panels were presented with interesting discussions about how each person found methods of depicting stories and acquiring stories to tell.
Panelists: Choogie Kingfisher (Cherokee)
Lorie Robbins (Chickasaw)  Peter Coser (Muscogee)  Phillip Harjo (Seminole)

Several discussions came from the panelists discussing a variety of issues of identity, and tradition, and most interestingly a discussion of how became professional storytellers in their adult years, particularly.  Some remarks reflected a tradition of native creation stories, and there were a number of references relationships with elders as story sources and resources.

History was often discussed, though not much discussion about the African presence in the tribe, many participants in private conversations were very much aware of this part of the Five Tribes history as well as culture.  An interesting point that I noticed was a frequent reference to historical research, which was critical to many as a resources for them as storytellers.

A greater need occurred to me, is the need for more stories to be told about those of African Ancestry---to tell our stories and to share our own perspective of what has happened to our own people, who played a strong influence on the history of the tribes---as participants in the history, the culture and in cases of Creek and Seminole histories---the politics of some of the tribes.

Our own stories of Cow Tom & Sugar George (Creeks) Abraham (Seminole), Dick Brashears (Choctaw) and Henry Kemp (Chickasaw) are among the many stories of Africans of Indian Territory that also need to be told.  Their names need to be heard again on the land where they lived and died.  The presence of Africans on the Trial of Tears deserves to be told---because we were there.  Hopefully we will have more than mere images of their headstones---but will come to appreciate them more as men and women who contributed to the places and communities where they lived.

Gravestone of Cow Tom, Creek Freedman

The best element of the conference was the chance to interact with old friends, meet new friends, and a new sense of devotion to telling our own historical stories.

Terry Ligon & Daniel Littlefield engage in
Thought provoking discussion at lunch

Members of Choctaw-Chickasaw Freedmen Association
& History Daniel Littlefield

I most appreciated the chance to meet others and personally feel renewed, to return to the work that must be done.
Muscogee Creek Freedmen Ron Graham 
met Choctaw-Chickasaw Freedmen
Angela Walton-Raji, Joyce Shelton Settles, Terry Ligon

Author Sarah Elizabeth 

Yesterday's lectures reflected the need for all people to take their own history and culture seriously, to embrace their own history, and to tell their own stories.

Friday, September 24, 2010

African Ancestors Represented at Five Tribes Story Conference Reception

Terry Ligon & Angela Walton-Raji in front of
Special Freedmen Exhibit at Five Tribes Museum

I am currently attending the very first Five Tribes Story conference sponsored by the Five Civilized Tribes Museum, the Oklahoma Humanities Council, and Bacon College.  The conference has several hundred people in attendance, and members of the Choctaw-Chickasaw Freedmen Association, and the new historical association, ITOFHA (Indian Territory and Oklahoma Freedmen Historical Association) are attending as well.

The Five Civilized Tribes museum contacted some of us to contribute to an exhibition for this historic event. Members of the association worked to share photos that told a greater story of Oklahoma Freedmen, and to see that their stories and their presence as part of Indian Territory history was included. A collection of 8 images including a montage of Freedmen from all Five Tribes was assembled and is now on display at the conference.

The display was also on hand the evening of the kick off reception for the conference held at the Museum on Thursday evening.  The images submitted were featured in one of the glass cases at the museum, and it was received very well by those who viewed the collection.  This is one of the first Freedmen History exhibits featured at an Oklahoma museum.

Part of the goals of the members of the Choctaw Freedmen Association and TOFHA is to research and publish the stories of the African-Native people.  So, not surpsingly, the first stop that I made, along with colleague Terry Ligon was to start documenting our events this weekend, as well. Terry, noted graphic artist and photographer immediately began capturing images of the weekend, including the history of the building of the museum, for it was at one time a Creek Freedmen school and orphanage.

Terry Ligon captures some of the history of
the museum site, which was at one time
a Creek Freedmen School

Five Civilized Tribes Museum, Muskogee Oklahoma
Once a Creek Freedman School & Orphanage

In addition to the special Freedmen exhibit were a series of paintings reflecting African-Native history in the museum gallery.  Choctaw storyteller Tom Tingle told a story of life and contact between Choctaw and those who were enslaved in their communities.  A book entitled  "Crossing Bok-Chito" was authored by Tom Tingle, and a rare story of African-Native contact is told.  Surprisingly the beautiful illustrations from the book were on display at the Museum in the gallery.  This story of slavery, of friendship and of freedom is a featured part of the weekend's conference.

I am preparing to go to the conference lectures this morning and look forward to hearing the presenters.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Coming to the Table - A Choctaw Reunion


Angela Walton-Raji and new friend and family contact,Colin Kelley
Angela descends from Choctaw Freedmen once owned by the Perry family. 
Colin is an enrolled Choctaw and descends from the Perry-Sexton family.

* * * * * * * * * *

It was a mild winter day in western Arkansas. Snow was melting from a surprise snowstorm that had come in two days earlier.  I was there preparing for a conference at the University of Arkansas in Ft. Smith and I was staying at the home of a good friend.  On that mild day---I was awaiting the arrival of a man from Oklahoma. He and a cousin were driving to meet me.  They were the descendants of the family that had once held my ancestors as slaves. My great grandmother Sallie Walton was born in 1863 in the Choctaw Nation, into the Perry family.
Sallie Walton, Choctaw Freedwoman
My gr. grandmother

Now this is not the first time that a descendant of a slave has met the descendant of a slave owner.  But this is probably one of the first times that this has taken place between a Native American slave owner descendant, and a descendant of Native American held slaves. And--what also made this story special is that they contacted me.

One day last summer, I got an email.  A gentleman living near Tulsa Oklahoma wrote to me.  He had seen my name mentioned briefly in the article in the Chronicle of Oklahoma. The man in Oklahoma decided to write to me, reaching out and he hoped, as he had said that I would reply.

Copy of email received in August 2009

He was a descendant of Nail Perry. Wow!!  Nail Perry was the son of Hardy Perry---and the Perry's were connected to my gr. grandmother Sallie, her mother Amanda,  and her grandmother Kitty.  I had several family documents on the family and the name Nail Perry was familiar to me---for he had been a spokesperson on several occasions for my family.

Over and over again---the name appeared--and it was Nail Perry. Nail Perry was a prominent man in his Choctaw community in and around Skullyville, and his word greatly influenced my family's enrollment and receipt of land allotments in what is now LeFlore County Oklahoma. Most importantly--Nail Perry also confirmed the tie that my family had to his family and that they were indeed slaves from the family.

Portion of Dawes Interview
Source: Choctaw Freedmen Application Jacket M1301
National Archives

* * * * * *

Slave Census of 1860 showing some of the Nail Perry's and some of the family, each one owning 1 slave
Source: National Archives  1860 U.S. Federal Census - Slave Schedules

And now, here was Nail Perry's descendant writing to me directly. Wow!

After recovering quickly from my shock, I responded to this man--Mr. Colin Kelley and his own interest in history of both the family and the local area was just as  as strong as mine. I should mention that my close friends and I have documented a number of cemeteries in the LeFlore County Oklahoma area and my colleague Tonia Holleman and I have researched a number of the Freedmen families from the same community. And now here was a man who had lived in the very same community and who not only shared an interest in the local history---he was connected to my family--historically.

Over the next several weeks our exchanges were friendly, and he too expressed curiosity about our families and their relationship. If something occurred to him he would share it with me, and if an idea occurred to me, I would pass it to him. I told him about our cemetery projects and he said he would enjoy trying to locate some of the older ones for me. His kindness was genuine and it was appreciated.

When I made plans last fall, to attend a conference in western Arkansas in January,---close to the eastern Oklahoma where he lived and where my ancestors lived---I told him that I was coming, and that it would be nice if we had a chance to meet.  He agreed.

An unexpected snowfall hit the area that week, but by Thursday of that week---it had melted. So, Colin Kelley and his cousin Dick Perry, ventured into Van Buren Arkansas to meet me a descendant of one of the slaves once owned by their ancestor, Nail Perry.

When their car pulled up---a light rain was falling washing away the remaining snow---and Colin the gentleman who contacted me, came up the walk, materials in hand---some documents, and some of his own family photos. Behind him came a mild mannered soft spoken man--his cousin Dick Perry.

They entered the home of my friend Tonia's whose home I was staying in that week, and initial handshakes were made.  Realizing this moment was significant---I did remember to take a photo right away.

L-R  Angela Walton-Raji, Dick Perry, Tonia Holleman, Colin Kelly
(both Dick and Colin Kelly are enrolled Choctaws)

We retreated into Tonia's library, and began to chat.  I had to thank them both for traveling in the unpredictable Arkansas/Oklahoma weather, and then we got down to exchanging data.

He pulled out records, and so did I.  I had proceedings from the trial of ancestor Jackson Crow, and also records pertaining to other relatives. He had photos of his own family---clearly a blended family of Choctaws and he shared those wonderful images with me.

Ancestors of Colin Kelly

I admired his family photos I noted how some of his relatives resembled some of my own family.  I also shared a photo of my Uncle Joe, and both of them noted how Uncle Joe resembled a member of their family as well.
Mr. Gr.Uncle Joe Perry 

We talked about my ancestor who was put on trial at Judge Parker's Court, and we also discussed our thoughts on what may have happened in that case. In the court proceedings the same name appeared again---Nail Perry.  In that file, Nail Perry mentioned that the man on trial--Jackson Crow-- was also indirectly connected to him.  Crow's mother was Kitty, sometimes called "Old Kit".  Well Kitty was my Sallie's grandmother!  Kitty was the mother of Amanda (Sallie's mother.)

I had so many questions that day---and one being---where might Amanda, and Kitty be buried?  But that, they did not know.

Since that time though, we have occasionally spoken by phone, and we have emailed often, and as recently as this week, "Cousin Colin" has made calls on my behalf, inquiring about long forgotten black cemeteries in the area, and he might have gotten a lead to follow.

We now share the search to identify where Kitty, Amanda and gr. grandpa Samuel, might be buried.  I hope to visit the area again soon, and to have the privilege of his showing me the community where two abandoned African American cemeteries might be.

Simply said----that first meeting earlier this year was one in which we met as strangers, and departed as friends.

Angela & "Cousin Dick" Perry

I realized now, months later that sometimes when people meet, they learn that they have so much more in common than not. Colin and I still talk, and exchange email, and still weigh the possibilities of where other African American burial grounds might be in the old Choctaw community, near Howe, Heavener, & Hontubby. We discuss the community around the old Conser Road and Conser Home, and ponder the times as they were.

I read often about the need for healing, especially between slave owner descendants and descendants of the enslaved.  I am inspired by the efforts from the Coming to the Table program. But then---I pause and I realize-----how fortunate I am.

Out of the blue, I was contacted and brought to the table by a man who has since become my friend. I realize that our histories, our lives and our families intersected in the small Choctaw community in eastern Oklahoma.  For that I am grateful.

Perhaps we were blessed by the ancestors----Kitty (Old Kit) ---Nail Perry, Amanda, Jackson Crow , and my Sallie and so many more, whose names are not known.

I think that somehow they too now have come to the table, not as master-slave, but as friends and as family.

We came to the table, and we now walk along the same road.