When I worked for the Eastern Band of Cherokees as a grants writer, I became addicted to the “lost or hidden” history of the Cherokees. As a consequence, I spent a great deal of time in the archives of the Cherokee Indian Museum.
It is surprising how many theories exist concerning the tribe’s origin. One of the first books I encountered was James Adair’s “History of the American Indians” (1775). Adair spent 40 years as a trader and lived with a number of tribes, including the Chickasaw, the Cherokee and the Choctaw. Adair found words, beliefs and rituals which resembled Hebrew tradition, which prompted him to conclude that the Cherokees and other southeastern tribes were descended of one of the “lost tribes of Israel.” It is interesting to note that the Cherokee leader, Elias Boudinot, also wrote a book titled “Star of the East” (l816) in which he traced evidence of similar Hebrew rites and customs through tribes occupying America and Mexico.
In recent years, the floodgates have opened. There are now archaeology studies that claim to have found bits and pieces of a half-dozen ancient cultures in Native American mythology: fragments of ancient Greek comedies in Pueblo traditions; traces of Egyptian mythology in the tribal tales of the Hopi; Zuni creation myths that include tales of two brothers (Cain and Abel) and a Zuni version of the Tower of Babel.
Now, comes the clincher.
A new novel, released this month and titled, “The Secret History of the Cherokees,” attempts to take all of these fragmented pieces and weave them together into a dazzling fabric. As Sequoyah journeys to Mexico to find an ancient village of Cherokees, Tom Starr, a notorious Cherokee outlaw, joins forces with Stand Watie, a Cherokee leader who has sworn to avenge the murder of Major Ridge and his son (he claims the murder was ordered by John Ross, the devious and corrupt Chief of the Cherokees), the world erupts into both violence and beauty. Here is a magnificent cast of historic figures that are extraordinary, but are often corrupt and evil. There is “rich Joe Vann,” who owns hundreds of slaves that he murders and tortures at will. Joe lives a decadent life of whiskey, gluttony and women as he gambles away fortunes on his riverboat.
Here is a dark deed called “The Slave Rebellion” that has been buried for centuries. Here is Nancy Ward, the Beloved Woman who governed with a swan’s wing and communicates with the nunnihi (where did she get that wing?)
Here are dozens of characters who may be imaginary, but then, perhaps not. They are inhabitants of another world that the Cherokees occupied before the white man came, and the authors of this novel have painstakingly woven it into existence. There are renegade Seminoles who steal horses and wear silver ornaments in their hair. Prophets utter secret talismans and incantations that actually work, omens that predict joy and sorrow and women who live (and die) in harmony with the natural world. The “blood oath” brings certain death to those who have violated sacred pledges, and there are still warriors who feed their enemies to the uktenas at the river’s edge.
I don’t know who the authors are, but they have my attention: Deborah Duvall, Murv Jacob and James Murray. I suspect that they are western Cherokees and known in Tahlequah, Okla. I do think I know who shaped the intricate plotting of the stories ... a fellow named Donald N. Yates, a maverick historian and researcher who is using DNA to create a history of the Cherokees that includes migrations that crossed the Pacific thousands of years ago.
Reading Yates is occasionally like reading ErichVon Danikin’s “Chariot of the Gods,” but he also frequently sounds like an explorer who has found a secret passage to paradise. All of this is set forth in Yates’ book, “Old Souls in the New World.
It is available on Amazon along with the novel, “The Secret History of the Cherokees.” I have already ordered a copy.