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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