Never let the truth get in the way of a good story, a tour guide once said. Gayle Ross, on the other hand, doesn’t believe in bending the truth.
It comes as a surprise considering Ross has spent the past 25 years travelling round the world as a storyteller. As the great- great- great-granddaughter of Chief John Ross, who led the Cherokee Indians along the Trail of Tears in the 1830s, she is in big demand.
People want to know more about the man they nicknamed “the Cherokee Moses”, so the Texan is coming to Scotland this week to talk about her Scottish-Cherokee ancestors. But although Ross gets a kick out of mesmerising kids with folk stories from the Appalachian mountains, there are certain tales, she says, that need no embroidery.
“Often the truth is moving enough,” she says, after clearing up some doubt over a story people often tell about her great- great- great-grandmother, Quatie, a full-blooded Cherokee woman who married John Ross, the son of Daniel Ross, an emigrant from Sutherland. Quatie and Chief John Ross travelled with the Cherokees when they were relocated, often by force, from their homes in the American Deep South. Like thousands of other Cherokees, Quatie died on the Trail of Tears, the 900-mile trek to Oklahoma. According to legend, she died of pneumonia after giving her only blanket to a child.
“That’s a story that’s been handed down,” says Ross in a Texan drawl. “There are stories that have her riding through the night in a snowstorm on horseback, and we know those aren’t true because she died on a boat. Her health was bad before she made the journey.”
While others sell commemorative paintings of “Quatie’s blanket” on the internet for hundreds of dollars, Ross is more interested in the facts — that more than 4,000 Cherokees died of starvation, disease, exhaustion and cold while following the Trail of Tears. “What we do know is that Quatie, from all the reports that were written about her, was a traditional Cherokee and generosity was one of her traits. So I guess the story is based on some emotional truth.”
Chief John Ross became the stuff of legend after he used his unique position — the son of a Scottish immigrant trader and a Cherokee woman — to represent the Cherokees as a politician and campaigner. Many Scots had married Cherokee women after emigrating, and the mixed-race marriages of interpreters, fur traders and businessmen with the daughters of high-ranking Cherokees helped forge relations between incoming Europeans and Native Americans.
Ross grew up in Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, and helped straddle the two cultures. Although his Cherokee language was patchy, Ross played a key diplomatic role. Both a skilled orator and a savvy businessman who went on to become one of the wealthiest men in the Cherokee Nation, the Cherokees realised they could use this educated, English-speaking leader to champion their cause. “He was equally comfortable moving in the finest of Washington society, or the humblest Cherokee village,” comments Ross.
After years of political apprenticeship, where Ross regularly visited Washington as a Cherokee delegate, he was elected as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1828, and held the post until his death almost 40 years later. When President Andrew Jackson passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, to relocate tens of thousands of American Indians to the West, Chief Ross was a leading opponent.
“There was a lot of support for the relocation, especially in the South,” says Ross. “The national feeling at the time was infused with a degree of racism that Indian people had not felt since the early colonial wars. That pre-empted the stance the South would take less than 30 years later with another people of colour, the slaves.”
Chief Ross fought to protect the Cherokees’ rights in the US courts, but ultimately could not stop the plans to forcibly remove 15,000 people from their homes. In the early summer of 1838, US army soldiers rounded up families of Cherokees and led them on to what would later be called the Trail of Tears.
“In the old days,” explains Ross, “the Cherokee people called summer ‘the sickly season’ because of the number of diseases people were prone to. The death toll was so high on those first trips, Chief Ross had to petition the government to halt the removal until the winter.”
Later trips ran into severe weather, where thick blizzards made the journey slow and frozen sections of the Mississippi river meant the Cherokee had to take long detours.
“Even though the death toll was smaller in the winter, it was still pretty horrific. The major cause was the unremitting cold. People didn’t have warm enough clothes or proper footwear. They were burying between 10 and 14 people every night when they stopped.”
During this time, Chief Ross used his connections to organise food supplies and wagons for the journey, while other traders attempted to exploit the Cherokees by selling them over-priced, often rotten food.
The first Cherokees to reach the end of the Trail of Tears settled near Tahlequah, Oklahoma, which is now the capital of the Cherokee Nation. This period of upheaval, which many look back on as a programme of ethnic cleansing or genocide, decimated the Indian populations, particularly the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee-Creek, and Seminole tribes. The Cherokee population slowly built up again, and today they are the largest American Indian group in the United States.
“The lesson to be learnt from all of this is not about the suffering,” Ross says. “The point is that we survived. As a people, we will endure.”
In her work as a storyteller, Ross draws on her Native American heritage, where she explores myths and tells children’s stories of the “Trickster”, a mischievous rabbit that inspired the Brer Rabbit stories that Enid Blyton andDisney made famous. Ross also likes the opportunity to bust a few myths about the Cherokees.
“A lot of people still think of Indians wearing buckskin and feathers, living in tipis, running around with tomahawks, having this amazing spiritual connection, you know the type of thing. Basically it’s masses of misinformation moulded around a kernel of truth, until the truth is often completely obscured.”
As for Hollywood’s treatment of American Indian history, Ross hates any “goodies versus baddies”, or “savage versus civilisation” simplification of the story. “All stereotypes are harmful. Whether it’s the stereotype of the Indian as victim, or the savage to be conquered, it prevents true communication.”
Ross imagines that her reactions to a Hollywood movie about Cherokees would probably be equivalent to a Scot turning up at an American Highland Games. “Maybe on some level you’d be happy to see people proud of their heritage, and curious about it, but I’m sure a lot of it would make most people say, ‘Oh my gosh!’
“I deplore the fact that most Americans and most Europeans have a highly romanticised notion of what they imagine Indians to be about. If there’s a theme that runs through my work, it’s to shake loose these over-simplified, over-romanticised ideas of what Indians are.”
Ross wants to convey core Cherokee values — which include balance, generosity, justice, family and community — to her audiences, and uses her stories to stress their importance in Cherokee life. Her series of talks during the storytelling festival will look at Cherokee folklore, Ross’s own Scots-Cherokee ancestors, and some of the parallels between Scottish and Cherokee history.
One event, “Leaving the Land: Migration, Emigration and Clearance”, will use stories and songs from three different storytellers to bring together Cherokee, Maori and Highland Scottish traditions.
“One period of history that always fascinated me was the disastrous campaign at the Battle of Culloden. The story of Bonnie Prince Charlie really moved me. The banning of the clans, and the tartan and the language; the crushing of the Highland culture, the oppression and that idea that these were people who needed to be civilised, that really resonated with me.”
It was precisely those Highland evictions that led to a huge influx of Scots into North America, at the same time as immigrants flooded in from the rest of Europe. The guns, tools and steel utensils they brought with them meant the Cherokees were keen to start trading. In return, the Cherokees sent them back to the UK with ginseng, tobacco, beaver skins and leather.
“Traditionally, the Scots used to trade a lot of pots and pans with the Cherokees. You know, there’s a joke amongst me and my Indian friends. We say that basically all of the colonial wars were just Indians fighting over their right to shop. I think that probably explains a whole lot.”
Gayle Ross will be appearing at the Scottish Seabird Centre on October 23 as part of the 2009 Scottish International Storytelling Festival, and then at various events around Scotland until October 31. The programme is available at www.scottishstorytellingcentre.co.uk