The Last Beloved Woman, Chapter from the Novel, Secret History of the Cherokees
In a nutshell, what is happening here is that the ancient matrilinear culture is being abandoned for a government led by men, fashioned after that of the Americans, as seen through the eyes of the last great female leader of the Cherokees.
Nanye-hi, or Nancy Ward is fondly remembered today by the Cherokees as the last Beloved Woman, leader of the Cherokee Council of Women. It was not so much the leader who was lost as it was her position, power and authority.
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1817 – The Last Beloved Woman
From her window, Nanye-hi could see the Sacred Mound at Echota. Her aged eyes lingered upon it. Soon, she thought, they will call to me. The first time she had seen the spirits that dwelt in the mound, Nanye-hi had been a young girl. Lost in the woods and alone, she had begun to cry. Then the spirits had appeared beside her as transparent shades of ancient tall beings. Although surprised, Nanye-hi had felt no fear as she followed them out of the woods. From that day, people had stopped calling her Wild Rose. Her new name, Nanye-hi, had come from theword nunnuh-he, those invisible ones who protect the Cherokee people.
At the moment Nanye-hi’s first husband Kingfisher had died, the nunnuh-he had appeared to her again. She had been fighting beside him in the war against the Creek Indians who had sided with the British forces against the colonists. When Kingfisher had collapsed, her own legs had buckled beneath her. But at once the nunnuh-he had surrounded her and she had risen to her feet, filled with strength. She had seized Kingfisher’s sword and rallied the surviving Cherokee warriors, leading them in a furious charge against the enemy. The Creeks who had lived retreated in a panic. She had returned victorious but alone to her children, Catherine and Fivekiller, to find that word of her bravery in the battle at Taliwa had preceded her home. At the age of eighteen, Nanye-hi had received yet another new name – Ghi-ga-u, the Beloved Woman.
A sound near the doorway caused Nanye-hi’s eyes to leave the Sacred Mound. “Martha Washington,” she called out, “you must leave soon, are you ready?”
“Ise ready Miz Nancy.” Martha Washington Ward stepped into the room and Nanye-hi regarded her affectionately. She had purchased the slave woman the same year the Americans had chosen George Washington to be their first president. Nanye-hi had pictured the president’s wife as the mother of all those Americans. When she had seen the graceful demeanor of her new African captive she decided to give her the great lady’s name. Martha Washington had served her for more than forty years now, and Nanye-he held her in complete trust.
“Bring me my walking stick,” Nanye-hi said to the slave. Martha Washington obliged the older woman. The stick, dark with age, had once been the gnarled center stem of a small red cedar tree. Nanye-hi had found it on her thirtieth birthday, and even then it had laid a long time waiting in the woods, dried hard as iron. The stick weighed but little. She held it against her forehead for a moment before she tapped it four times on the floor.
“Lean this upright in my seat at the council,” Nanye-hi said as she passed her walking stick to the servant. “Tell them Nancy Ward is in her place.”
“Yes Miz Nancy.” Martha Washington tucked the walking stick inside her heavy shawl and went to the yard to call for the driver.
Nanye-hi watched through the doorway until she saw the wagon leave, then she sighed and lowered herself into her chair, her eighty years hanging like lead weights on her shoulders. She had dreaded this day and what she would learn from the meeting she could not bring herself to attend. How things have changed, she thought. The council is now filled with young men, some mostly white, who know nothing of our ways, of how we once lived. Her eyes fell upon the weaving loom that stood dusty in the corner of her room and scenes from her distant past descended upon her. Lydia…Lydia Bean…
Lydia Russell Bean, a white settler who had lived at Fort Watauga, near Nanye-hi’s home village, had been wounded but survived as Cherokees had attacked the fort. The year was 1776. The white woman had been taken prisoner and carried back to the Cherokee village. There the women of the village had staked Mrs. Bean to a pole and were ready to light the firebrands at her feet, awaiting only the decision of the Beloved Woman. In those years of war, Nanye-hi had been called upon many times to decide the fates of prisoners, usually condemning them to the fire. But she had been impressed by the proud white woman who stood glaring back at the Cherokees, defiant even in her hour of death. “I will take her as my slave,” Nanye-hi had said. The Beloved Woman had spoken, and so it was done.
Nanye-hi had taken Lydia Bean into her own home, treated her wounds and finally nursed her back to health. Together they had returned to the destruction at Fort Watauga and collected what had remained of Lydia’s husband’s property, including the weaving loom and two dairy cows.
Before much time had passed, Lydia had taught Nanye-hi, whom she called Nancy after the English name, how to work the loom and to make butter and cheese from fresh cow’s milk. Nanye-hi had decided to purchase more cattle from neighboring white settlers and had ordered more looms to be constructed. “This new meat will sustain us when hunting is poor,” she had told the villagers. Cherokee women had taken on a new skill at their looms. Encouraged by the Beloved Woman and wishing to please her, they had enthusiastically worked to produce cloth to the extent of neglecting their gardens.
Although cultivating food crops had long been the work of women, Nanye-hi had suggested that the men should take it up as the women’s new labors kept them ever nearer their cabins. Cattle had been bred and beef had replaced the much prized buffalo meat, and within a few years the villagers had needed bigger farms to accommodate their growing herds and gardens. But bigger farms meant more menial work, and the Cherokee men were not accustomed to that. Nanye-hi had reasoned that if the Cherokees owned adequate numbers of slaves, the farms and the herds would be more productive and the owners would be free to seek more enjoyable pastimes. Therefore she had enabled the purchase of more human laborers. The farming men, thus relieved of their chores, had begun to resemble their southern white neighbors more with each day that passed.
Late that afternoon Nanye-hi woke, still seated in her chair where she had fallen asleep with her thoughts. She rose creakily and walked across the floor and stood before Lydia’s loom. She ran her fingers along its dusty surface and asked herself the question that had tormented her for years – did I lead my people in the wrong direction? Even now, she knew, young mixed-bloods gathered at the council house in Echota. They struggled to design a government after that of the whites, the descendants of those same colonists that had so intrigued her in her youth. Even as her age had increased, Nanye-hi had believed it wise to live in peace with the Americans. Yet she now spoke vehemently against selling Cherokee land to the whites, a crime punishable by death according to Cherokee laws. But the Cherokee laws no longer seemed to matter to those young men who had taken over leadership of the tribe. The elaborate clan system that had sustained the tribe for millennia was coming to an end. Nanye-hi could feel it. She shuddered as she heard the wagon cracking gravel on the drive.
Martha Washington pulled the door open and entered the room. She lowered her eyes and removed Nanye-hi’s walking stick from her cloak, gently placing it in her mistress’s hands. Nanye-hi thanked the woman and said, “Leave me now.” Sitting in her chair, she held the walking stick close to her breast and leaning back, closed her eyes. Thoughts began to form in her mind. The power of the Ghi-ga-u is lost, and with it the power of all women… and now even the power of the Council is divided between our National Council and this new group of men to be called the National Committee…all men…there are thirteen of them. Something happened…General Jackson of the Tennesseans…he found a few Cherokees that he could bribe…a handful of our own people signed away our rights to him…for our sacred land. Now have come these thirteen…these new young men promise to stop such treachery, to protect the people. The thirteen will choose a leader from among themselves …a man…who will stand and speak for them and lead them. A man will be the one who decides, the one who chooses the course for our people…they do not speak of the Ghi-ga-u Nancy Ward…they do not mention her name…
In a few moments, Nanye-hi left her chair to stand before the looking glass. “Ghi-ga-u,” she spoke to her image, “there will never be another Beloved Woman. You are the last one.” Her fingers traced the tattooed rattlesnakes that coiled across her cheekbones, their darkened rattles folded within her wrinkled temples. She turned and slowly sat down in her chair, her eyes trained once again on the Sacred Mound outside the window. In the glow of the setting sun she saw the spirits of the nunnuh-he rising from the ancient earth mound and hovering above it. Help me nunnuh-he, she thought, knowing that they would hear, I fear for the mothers and their children. Now they are alone.
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