When I was eight years old, my grandparents took my brother and me to see Against a Crooked Sky, a western film typical of the time—predictable, historically inaccurate, full of damaging stereotypes. In the movie, a young, innocent white girl is kidnapped by a band of savage Indians—aka blue-eyed white guys in long, black wigs—who decide her fate must be death. A blanket is tied over her head, and she is ceremoniously ushered to the edge of a cliff.
For several long, horrifying minutes, the girl is calmly poised there as the camera cuts back and forth between shots of her and shots of her brother (also young, also blond) scrambling up the cliff to save her. At the last minute, the man who is supposed to carry out the execution, just can’t bring himself to do it (because that happened all the time), so the chief has to do it, and just as he releases the arrow, the girl’s brother flies in slow motion through the air in an attempt to save her.
In any case, this moment constitutes supreme sacrifice on the part of the brother, which we all should probably have seen coming since much of the dialogue between the two siblings early in the movie had to do with how the Bible commands us to lay down our lives for one another. But it turns out the boy is too late. The arrow soars past him, the girl catapults off the cliff, and the brother crashes to the earth, unscathed.
As if all this weren’t enough excitement for one movie, finally, at the very end, the boy—who has been released by his captors—and his pa and are outside hoeing and such one day when, lo and behold, the girl shows back up. She is not, in fact, actually dead. Rather, she is now married to one of her captors, and she and her new husband have a brand new (white) baby. It turns out that another young woman, a member of the tribe, took her place during the execution, a gesture inspired no doubt by the Bible given her by the boy just before he scaled a cliff the size of the Grand Canyon and threw his exhausted body in front of the lethal arrow—almost.
My brother chose this movie. He was four years older than I was, and in later years, he would come to embody the words politically correct. However, in rural western North Carolina in 1975, we didn’t yet realize what a skewed view of American history we had thus far been taught. My brother thought the movie was loads of fun. He sat riveted, munching popcorn and slurping Coke and just generally acting like we were watching “I Love Lucy” or “The Flintstones” or “Gilligan’s Island” or something else that actually was fun.
I, on the other hand, was crouched in my seat, my legs drawn up under my torso, my grandmother’s jacket thrown snugly but not too tightly over my head. I watched the movie through the buttonholes on her coat. By the time we left the movie theater, my vision was blurry, something was squeezing my chest, and whenever I tried to talk, my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth.
“Jennifer, do want some gum?” my grandmother asked. “I’ve got Fruit Stripe and Juicy Fruit. Which one do you want? Or do you want both?”
Back at my grandparents’ house, after hours of trying to coax me to bed, my grandmother finally agreed to leave every light inside and outside the house on, and then she went to bed. Wrapped in two quilts and sipping a mug of lemon tea, I sat up all night. The next night, when I finally did go to sleep, I dreamed the cliff scene from the movie, and I woke up sweating and unable to catch my breath. I dreamed it again the following night. And the following night. I had that same nightmare for months, for years, even, and in my dream, I was always the girl falling into the abyss.
Which is all to say that I was not a particularly stable child to begin with, and seeing Against A Crooked Sky tilted my mental state precariously toward some metaphorical cliff. In the span of eighty-nine minutes, I had developed an intense fear of all Indians, who would not be referred to as Native Americans by anyone I knew for another twenty years.
All of this might not have been a problem had I lived somewhere like New York or Chicago or even Atlanta, but my grandparents’ home in Canton, North Carolina, was only about thirty miles from the Cherokee Indian Reservation, and given the fact that we visited my grandparents often and the fact that my brother had acted as our family travel agent since he was out of diapers, it became an issue.
Not only did my brother plan trips to the movies, he routinely organized other excursions as well, such as day trips to Ghost Town in the Sky in Maggie Valley. There, you could ride a rickety chair lift to a makeshift western town where fake cowboys and fake Indians had very-real-sounding shootouts in the streets. One day, a crowd of tourists gathered around as Cowboy Coward rounded a bend and pulled his pistol from his holster.
“Stick ‘em up!” he said to a group of Indians passing by.
My brother stood off to the side, one hand resting in the front pocket of his plaid pants, as the fight ensued. I leaned into my grandfather and covered my ears.
“It’s just pretend, Jennifer,” my grandmother screamed over the gunfire.
And I nodded because I even though I couldn’t hear her, it was obvious what she was trying to say: Man up. As soon as the noise died down, I uncovered my ears, wiped my palms on my pants’ leg, and breathed like I did during swim lessons, long and slow, out of my nose.
“Well, that was fun,” I said. “I guess we should be heading home now.”
But it was never enough fun for my brother.
“Maybe we could drive through Cherokee before we go home,” my brother said on our way down the chairlift.
The chair was whipping in the wind like a sheet on my mother’s clothesline. My eyes were shut, one arm gripping the metal rail, the other my grandfather’s shirtsleeve.
Sure, my grandparents said in unison. Of course. Absolutely. Anything you want to do.
“No!” I screamed. “No! Please!”
“What is wrong with you?” my brother said. “It’s fine.”
The streets in Cherokee were lined with long-haired men in native costumes dancing, chanting, beating on drums, and just next to the main road, dank-smelling black bears paced and growled in a cages and concrete pits scarcely large enough for dogs. Bob Barker would later call attention to the plight of the caged bears and join forces with PETA to plea for their release, but back then, tourists flocked to see the bears up close. As we rolled past Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum, past fudge shops and souvenir shops, I crouched in fetal position on the car floor and covered my head.
“Is it over?” I asked my grandparents. “Tell me when it’s over!”
“Aw, they’re not gonna hurt you,” my grandfather said.
We were in my grandparents’ brown Nova, and my grandfather had one tan arm resting in the open car window. As he slowed beside a dancer, the beating of the drum filled the car. I lifted my head as my grandfather threw up his hand in greeting. My brother scooted to the edge of the seat and hung his head out the car window.
“Roll up the windows!” I screamed. “Roll them up!”
“Shut up!” my brother said.
“It’s okay,” my grandmother said.
The traffic was bumper to bumper. We eased along, a block at a time. I was still scared, but the chanting was now a mere humming in the distance. I crawled into my seat. Ahead, a shop advertised beaded jewelry, dolls, and arrowheads.
“Can we stop here?” my brother asked.
“No!” I screamed.
“Stop it!” my brother said. “Stop screaming!”
My grandfather eased to a stop, and my grandmother waited with me while my grandfather and brother got out. Just outside the store entrance, a Cherokee man in face paint and a massive headdress stood silently next to a totem pole.
“Hellop,” my grandfather said as he passed him.
“How,” the man said.
“See,” my grandmother said, turning to me. “That fella’s real nice.”
After what seemed like hours, my brother emerged with a bags of arrowheads and a string of rock candy and a real miniature bow and arrow. He handed me a pack of candy cigarettes. A concession prize.
“Thanks,” I said.
I pulled out a cigarette and rested it between my front teeth while my grandfather backed into the street. We passed roadside stands selling Indian corn and handmade blowguns, and then we headed up Soco Gap, a steep road full of deep bends and treacherous overhangs. As we climbed the mountain, a thick fog covered the car. I was terrified of fog, but I wasn’t going to mention it.
My grandfather turned on the windshield wipers and slowed to a crawl. As I stared out the window and tried not to vomit candy cigarettes, my brother ran his brown fingers over the arrowheads in his lap and stared, unconcerned, over the fog-draped mountain.
Years later, I would discover that my grandmother was part Cherokee. And my grandfather. And my brother. And me. Perhaps my brother’s red-brown skin, my mother’s jet black hair should have clued me in, but I was not the sharpest kid on the block back then. Or even in the car, as it turned out.
“Mamaw, is there any Cherokee in our family?” I asked my grandmother once when she was very old.
“Not that I know of,” she said.
By then, her eyes, once the color of hazelnuts, were such a cloudy blue that it was hard to tell whether she actually knew or didn’t know. And then one day, I was flipping through a family history book a cousin had made, and there they were—black-haired, etched-faced relatives, their expressions solemn, their eyes a muted gray in the worn photographs. There were uncles and aunts, great-grandparents and cousins with names like “Walkingstick” and “Hawk” and “Redbird.” I texted my brother.
“We are part Cherokee!” I told him. “At least an eighth.”
“I know,” he texted back.
“How did you know?” I asked.
“How did you not know?” he asked.
As we crossed over the mountain and headed down Soco Gap that day, the fog began to lift. We emerged into a sort of green wonderland, like Oz. The sun was low in the sky, and everything—the trees, the grassy fields, the yards, even the smoke rising from the chimneys—was a brilliant green. My brother ran his thumb up and down an arrowhead in his palm.
“Can I hold one of those?” I asked him.
“Don’t drop it,” he said, passing me an arrowhead.
I held it between my forefingers and traced the lines on my other palm with the tip. It was cool and sharp, and as I pressed it deeper into my skin, I thought once again of that delicate blanketed figure careening off the cliff into nothingness. Only tonight and tomorrow night and maybe again the next night, as soon as I closed my eyes, that figure would be me, the rough cloth pressing against my face, my legs wobbly from fear, my hands gripping the sides of my skirt, the sound of drum beats pulsing through the wind.
About the author:
A native of western North Carolina, Jennifer lives with her husband, five dogs, twenty-three chickens, and one high-maintenance cat in a tin-roofed cabin bordering the Pisgah National Forest. Jennifer’s creative nonfiction work has appeared in dozens of literary journals, and she has written extensively about Appalachian culture and the back-to-the-land movement sweeping her native region. In her free time, Jennifer enjoys hiking, running, mountain biking, sampling local beers, and playing with dogs.