Sarah Vowell on Her Cherokee Heritage

Author and social observer Sarah Vowell has been hailed by the Los Angeles Times as “a Madonna of Americana.” While the singer Madonna has Italian blood coursing through her vocal cords, this writer Madonna has a little red ink in her pen.

Vowell makes it clear that she identifies herself as simply American–not American Indian–but she is deeply proud of her family’s Cherokee history. In fact, she took a step that most Americans do not by walking (driving) into history and retracing her ancestors’ horrific trek of displacement along the actual Trail of Tears. She then brought this past to the present by recounting her observations to the listeners of one of public radio’s most popular programs, This American Life, and in her books Take the Cannoli: Stories from the New World and The Partly Cloudy Patriot.

As an avid history buff, Vowell realizes that the errors of the past can help change the future. She recently visited a Reston, Virginia venue to deliver her unique brand of comedic commentary in her quirky-toned voice. While few Indians were present in that suburban audience, Vowell spoke with me after the show. She provided her spin on politics, colonialism and what American Indian history means to her.

Robert Capriccioso: You were raised knowing that your family descended from the Cherokees. Yet, unlike many people who have that proverbial “Cherokee grandparent” in the family tree, you have taken the opportunity to explore your roots. What have you discovered?

Sarah Vowell: For starters, there is the value of asking one’s older relatives questions about family history before they become history themselves. One of the people I talked to when I was writing about the Trail of Tears was my Uncle John A. He’s my mother’s brother but was old enough to be my grandfather. It turned out to be the last conversation I ever had with him. I was grateful for that, just for personal reasons. But there were two very specific things I learned from him that would have been lost to the ages. The first was that our great-great-whatever grandfather who was on the trail became a stonemason upon arrival in Oklahoma. He helped build the Cherokee Female Seminary, which I think was the first school for girls west of the Mississippi. My great-grandmother on my father’s side attended school there. The seminary burned down long before I was born. But the present-day Cherokee cultural center, Tsa-La-Gi is built on that site. And the only things that were left of the building were these columns. My sister and I used to play on them when we were kids. And I had had this old photo from the ’50s of those columns taped to my refrigerator for years. They were just this totem for me. And I had no idea that my ancestor helped build that building.

RC: Wow–the power of the past.

SV: The second thing John A. said has haunted me ever since. I write about it in (a story from Cannoli), how I ask him some mundane question about whether the state of Oklahoma does a good job teaching American Indian history and he said that he wished he could have gone to school more, that he only finished third grade, that he had to work the farm–the farm that was what was left of the family’s original Indian allotment. I realized at that moment that I was free of history in this way that he was not. I got to go to school for twenty years. I have had so much freedom in deciding where I want to be and what I want to do. And I realize how all my freedom is built on top of the sacrifices of those who came before me. And consequently I really try my darndest not to take my liberty and education and opportunities for granted.

RC: How has your family encouraged your exploration?

SV: It’s only because of them that I’m interested in such things in the first place. My parents took us to the Cherokee cultural center every summer. My dad loves chatting about my various historical researches.

RC: You did a documentary on the Trail of Tears for your radio program. How did you research it? What did the development of this piece help you learn about yourself?

SV: Well, for one thing, I don’t particularly think of myself as Cherokee. I really think of myself as an American. And as such I’m incredibly reverent about the founding ideals of freedom and equality. In the Trail of Tears story, I really came to identify with chief John Ross. Like me, he was far from full-blooded. He was sort of caught in the middle between the Cherokee and white worlds. And he held Jefferson’s ideals to such a high esteem that he put them in the Cherokee Constitution. And when the U.S. government just betrayed him, it was so monumentally unfair. And fairness is such an American ideal. How heartbroken he must have been.

RC: In you, the Trail of Tears elicits confusion and sadness. What about anger?

SV: Of course. I heard someone on the radio yesterday talking about the perennial appeal of fairness. And fairness has this power over us. And any time we encounter unfairness, there’s this very childlike exclamation that wells up inside of us yelling, "That’s not fair!"

RC: I recently received an email with a picture portraying four historical Indians, holding guns. Above the Indians are the words “Homeland Security.” Beneath them is the slogan, “Fighting Terrorism Since 1492.” What are your thoughts on American colonialism?

SV: Wow, that is some picture. I was writing a story for This American Life about the Spanish-American War of 1898. I wrote some line about that being our first occupation of another country that didn’t attack us first, and I have all my producers so brainwashed in my whole hey-don’t-forget-the-Indians worldview that he was like, "Yeah, unless you count the Sioux, the Seminole," the your-tribe-here, etc. Let’s just say I have misgivings in general about what happens when the United States government gets involved abroad, and I have specific misgivings about this particular administration more than most. Just the simple fact that this president had hardly ever been abroad–like this is a rich guy who I don’t think ever saw the Eiffel Tower. He has so little curiosity about the rest of the world and now he’s going to run it?

RC: Can non-Indians really understand American Indian history–do they?

SV: Well, being Cherokee is certainly one part of me. And it’s important to me. But I’m of Swedish descent as well. I think for me personally, the thing that I’ve always known is that I could pin down the circumstances of my birth–Muskogee, Oklahoma–because of the policy of a presidential administration. Because Andrew Jackson refused to honor the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Cherokee were a sovereign nation who owned their own land. And then Jackson’s successor enforced that policy into what became the Trail of Tears. So even as a little, little kid, at the same time I was totally buying into all the great Americana stuff–and in 1976, when I was a child, all the Bicentennial hoopla was just really influential–I was always aware of the cost of America. I knew that my family lived in that place because they had to march there at gunpoint.

RC: Do Americans understand the concept of tribal sovereignty?

SV: No. But that’s a very specific historical issue, which is asking a lot of a people, quite a number of whom think Alaska is in Canada.

RC: In your book Take the Cannoli, you make a strong statement with the section titled “Obituaries” over a cartoon picture of Indian chiefs. Why do many Americans think the Indian race is dead?

SV: For one thing, most tribes in the West live in places where hardly anyone lives. When my family moved to Montana when I was a kid, my Okie grandfather thought we were going to be living in some cabin on the side of a mountain. But I remember once I was speaking to this English class in Weimar, in Germany, and I told them I was part Cherokee and they didn’t believe me because the Indians were supposed to all be dead.

RC: There is an exhibit in the Smithsonian’s Natural History museum, which largely represents Indians as a part of the past. Yet, in the American History museum, an exhibit currently displays Indians as contemporary Americans citizens. How can modern Indians deal with this paradox?

SV: I don’t know. Didn’t the Bush administration rescind the Clinton administration’s federal recognition of the Duwamish tribe by telling them, literally, "You are extinct." Not just that they weren’t going to recognize the tribe, which is a legal mire, but that they no longer exist. I often wonder what that must have felt like, being told that. Whatever the pros and cons of this movement of casinos on reservations, I think it might have put a lot of tribes back on the map. Because nothing gets more attention in this country than people who have figured out how to make a lot of money.

RC: How can American Indians have a voice in our society when they often seem relegated to being a part of American history rather than a part of its future?

SV: I’m not sure. I think this new chair in Indian law at Harvard is a good start. I don’t know a lot about what’s going on in Indian country but my guess is the more lawyers on their side, the better. The media also has a huge amount of power in this country. The more American Indian kids who are encouraged and trained to become reporters and broadcasters and others of the yakking classes, the more they will influence what is being said in the papers and on the air.

RC: Have you read any books by contemporary Indian authors? How about historical pieces, such as Sarah Winnemucca’s Life Among the Pauites?

SV: I like Sherman Alexie‘s story about the guy who heard Jimi Hendrix play the national anthem at Woodstock, but otherwise, not really. As for movies though, I have a huge crush on Graham Greene in Thunderheart. The hair!

RC: Will you be writing more about your Indian heritage? What are your next projects?

SV: Right now I’m working on a story for the radio show telling the story behind "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and how it grew out of "John Brown’s Body," the song about abolitionist John Brown. After that, who knows?

RC: Many thanks, Sarah.

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