Sagwu (One): Alenihv (Beginnings)

The following is an excerpt from Christopher B. Teuton’s Cherokee Stories of the Turtle Island Liars’ Club. Cherokee Stories of the Turtle Island Liars’ Club paints a vivid, fascinating portrait of a community deeply grounded in tradition and dynamically engaged in the present. A collection of forty interwoven stories, conversations, and teachings about Western Cherokee life, beliefs, and the art of storytelling, the book orchestrates a multilayered conversation between a group of honored Cherokee elders, storytellers, and knowledge-keepers and the communities their stories touch. Collaborating with Hastings Shade, Sammy Still, Sequoyah Guess, and Woody Hansen, Cherokee scholar Christopher B. Teuton has assembled the first collection of traditional and contemporary Western Cherokee stories published in over forty years.

Teuton’s Cherokee Stories of the Turtle Island Liars’ Club was featured recently on our Native American Heritage Month reading list.

Book cover of Christopher B. Teuton's  Cherokee Stories of the Turtle Island Liars' Club

I’m sitting in my rental car with Hastings Shade outside of the chapel at the Cherokee Heritage Center in Park Hill, Oklahoma. It’s early December, and late autumn seems to place us both in a contemplative mood. Autumn is my favorite time of year, and especially autumn in northeastern Oklahoma. The deep heart-heat of the Oklahoma summer slowly gives way to brisk fall winds that shake the leaves from the trees. The copperheads seek their burrows; the blue of the sky lightens; and the air on the Ozark Plateau loses some of its moisture. The Cherokee New Year arrives with the first new moon in October, when the Earth, moon, and sun align so that the moon is directly between the Earth and sun. Cherokee life realigns in autumn. Crops are harvested and families ready themselves for the coming winter. At this time when nature turns inward it is fitting we reflect on Cherokee life by telling stories.

Cox Mound gorget

This Sunday morning is cold, gray, and quiet on the Heritage Center’s acres of level, forested grounds. For three years I’ve been working with Hastings and three other Cherokee elders and traditionalists to gather the stories of the Turtle Island Liars’ Club. Today will be our last recording session. This afternoon I’ll head back home to begin writing a book, partly mine and partly theirs, that will weave together the stories, teachings, experiences, and memories they shared with me. As we wait for Sequoyah Guess and Woody Hansen to meet us after services at Tiyo Baptist Church, Hastings talks me through a collection of teachings and writings he has given me to incorporate into the book.

Hastings Shade expresses a gentle strength beyond his physical presence. In his late sixties, he is of medium height and build, with straight black hair parted on the side, a moustache and goatee. There is an urgency in Hastings’s manner today. His dark eyes flash under his amber-colored glasses as he reflects upon the meaning of one particular Cherokee symbol, the looped square. I’ve seen this symbol in books and read what archaeologists and anthropologists think it means. They say it symbolizes the four cords that suspend the earth from Galvladi—the Sky World—the Cherokee name for the world above the sky. The symbol is a square with corners that loop, never coming to ninety-degree angles, flowing from one side to the next.

“See, they never fully come together,” Hastings says as he points to the corners.

“That’s a symbol of Elohi?” I say, using the Cherokee word for Earth.

“Mmhm, yeah.”

“And that’s the cords?” I say, pointing to the corners.

“That’s the cords, yeah.”

“But it also symbolizes a kind of movement? Towards maturity?”

“Yeah, well, it symbolizes your life cycle,” Hastings says. “You’re born. You mature. You age. And then you die.”

“And where does it start?”

“There’s no starting and there’s no beginning,” Hastings says quickly, emphatically. “Just like conception. You know, there’s no set time for conception. It’s just when it happens. There’s no set time for death. Just when it happens.”

“The Cherokee conception of death,” I think out loud. “You just keep on going.”

“Yeah. Yeah,” Hastings agrees. “There’s no . . . it don’t end, you know? It just one more step in who we are. It just like, an old man gave me a good example one time. He said, ‘In your life, your daily life, you should walk, you should take each step just like the next step you take you’re going to be standing in front of the Creator.’ Just like my next step, I’m going to be standing in front of him. Our life should be to a point where we shouldn’t dread that next step. If our life is pure or good as we can live it, then the next step is just another step in life.”

“Is there an end?”

“There’s no end. This is the journey that the Cherokees followed as a tribe and as individuals,” he said pointing to the looped square. “As a tribe, north, tsuyvtlv, from their ancestral homeland. East, dikalvgv, to a land that was only temporary. South, tsuganawv, to warmth that lasted fourteen generations, about 700 years, until contact with Europeans. Then west, wudeligv, to suffering and death.”

Christopher B. Teuton (Cherokee Nation) is professor and chair of the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington and author of Deep Waters: The Textual Continuum in American Indian Literature