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Sometimes it’s difficult to find out where things on the web originate. I came across this photograph this evening on Facebook.
I think Margaret is a native Australian Aboriginal woman. Her photograph and dream touched me very deeply. I never met either of my grandmothers. I have Muscogee blood on my father’s side of the family, but don’t have any connection with any of my Muscogee kin or culture. This saddens me.
I wrote the following Fairy Tale about three years ago when I was a member of an online community called Way of the Monk, Path of the Artist. This post has been sitting in my ‘Drafts’ box for two years. Maybe waiting for this moment. So here it is:
Las dos Melindas
Once upon a time, a baby girl was born. Her parents named her after her great grandmother, Melindy Crabtree, a woman no longer alive. These were some of the stories they told about her:
She and her mother and her mother’s mother came from a fertile land thickly wooded and criss-crossed with free flowing rivers. She could speak the language of the forest and knew where to find medicine plants. At the full moon, she would go to a well and talk to a wolf, there in the silver moonlight. . . . . But now, her language was forgotten and the places of these happenings were long gone. Her eyes which had lovingly witnessed the forest and rivers and all of the inhabitants there – two-legged, four-legged, winged and scaled, and held them in her care, had closed long ago.
But this newborn babe has her great grandmother’s eyes and sees the beauty of the world in the morning sun slanting through the bedroom window. She has her grandmother’s ears and hears the language of the forest in the windy trees. The breeze and leaves whisper to her,
‘We have given you her name.
You are the child who hears the call to home.
The one who can speak the ancient language,
The one who remembers.’
Then, a few years older, up and out at dawn. A backyard explorer. The little one who finds red salamanders beneath the stones, collected from a desert river . . . . .
and lily of the valley growing secretly behind the garage. Rising early and into the sleepy garden to listen to spiders spinning stories and to pick the dew-dropped roses.
The girl who halts the games of tag and hide-and-seek to watch the sunset and climbs onto the roof at dawn to see a comet. She has not forgotten.
When she was twelve, only once ever and never before that day and never after that day, a vee of geese flew honking far above the suburbs, flying south.
‘Don’t forget’, they say, ‘soon you’ll stop hearing and seeing the beauty all around, but deep in your soul you won’t forget. We won’t let you forget.’
In the hard years that followed, she did stop seeing and hearing, in the struggle to survive being a girl in a time and place that was not friendly or safe. But, now and again, a beautiful sunset or pelicans following the shoreline after a day at the beach or, once, an hour spent playing with a dog in a mountain stream – these things would remind her of who she is. A Creek Indian princess with royal blood flowing through her veins and the fluent tongue of the river flowing from her lips.
Still, an iron band grew around her heart and stilled her tongue and silenced her hands.
This band kept her from remembering who she is and from speaking the truth about her people and the destruction of their lands and the winged and four-legged and scaled brothers and sisters who were and are in peril. About the ancestor’s story and how it affects us today. About how the land and the birds and animals and fish have fallen into despair over the loss of the people who could speak the language of the forest.
This girl grew into a woman, still silent, still half remembering, half forgetting. Yet, deep in her soul remained the memory, the flame, the truth, and every now and then, she would recognize a piece of music or artwork or a writing which had this same flame of truth, of what was true for someone who took the risk to say or write or paint or dance it. And this was good.
These encounters kept her flame burning, not so forgotten, but still hidden. The iron band made sure to keep it hidden, for if the wrong people saw the flame, it could be very dangerous for her and her people. It was still dangerous to tell their story, to tell the truth.
After a number of years had passed, the woman found her way to a doorway. It felt different from the many doorways she had encountered and gone through in her life. This one felt right, welcoming and safe, but like an adventure was on the other side. A thick sturdy oak door with beautiful iron hinges and a handle which just fit into her hand, like it was made for her.
A warm glow came through the keyhole. Looking down, she noticed that she was holding a key in her hand. An iron key which matched the hinges on the door. The key to this door!
She put the key in the lock, turned it and pushed the door open. The room was beautiful, rounded and lined with wood. Thick soft rugs carpeted the floor. Windows and skylights looked outside, but it was twilight now. The candles lit in the room reflected on the glass, reflected the room back to her. Here, a table laid with her favourite food, just exactly what she craved right now. There, a soft, inviting bed welcomed her to rest after she had eaten.
By and by, she awoke to sunlight and the murmur of soft voices. She opened another door and stepped into a flower filled courtyard. There were kind, compassionate, loving people standing in a circle, which opened at her doorway.
‘Welcome. We’ve been waiting for you to arrive’.
When she opened her mouth and spoke the language of the forest, everyone understood just what she was saying. The woman looked into her hand and found that she held a delicate golden key. As she took her place in the circle, the iron bands around her heart and hands dissolved and fell away.
Happily ever after?
We don’t know, as the story is still unfolding. Now the woman has remembered the fluent river language. From her days and nights and years of wandering in the desert, she can witness and speak of the endless beauty of the world and of the unbearable pain and agony of exile from it. She has vowed to the ancestors to unflinchingly tell the truth, to tell their story. Using her words, no longer silent, and her hands, no longer still.
The ancestors say,
‘We have given you her name.
You are gifted with the vision to see deeply into the heart of things –
to see the beauty and the pain.
You have the language to tell our story.’
Who will listen and will they be able to hear?
Who will look and be able to see?
The ending of the story depends on everyone.
Some changes are afoot in my little patch of cyberspace. You may have noticed that I customised my blog header today. I photographed a painted and machine stitched panel I made in 2008 depicting the stretch of river I used to live nearby.
I cropped it and used my logo with the font and text from my newly designed website banner that I designed earlier!
Actually, just last night I designed a new home page for my website that I feel pretty happy about.
I’ve been planning to update my website for quite awhile and want to gently tie it together with Inspiraculum. My blog will still be the place where the new ideas are born. For Inspiraculum, I’ve used the image of trees drinking deeply at the river’s edge, because it is the River that brings my memories and inspirations. At the same time, the River flows ever onward and carries my ideas and artwork out into the world.
So I’m working with a web designer based in Exeter and will let you all know when my website is completely updated and relaunched! Exciting stuff which has been in the works for a very long time. It’s great when the ideas start to become grounded and made into something real.
In the meantime, I’ve started to put some of my art quilts up on a new page on my blog.
Samhain. All Hallows Eve. Hallowe’en. All Soul’s Day. At this time, both the Christian and the Celtic traditions honour the importance of our ancestors and recognize that this is a thin time when their Presence is especially near.
For the past few years in my artwork, I have been on the riverjourney. This is a journey that traces the story of my Muscogee (Creek) ancestors. Never a linear journey, but one that meanders back and forth; sometimes quickly rushing, sometimes slowing to a trickle, freezing solid, damming up at times, but always in motion. A journey with deep roots in the past that continues to branch into the future.
At certain times in my life, when I’ve come through a hard time, I’ve thanked my Muscogee ancestors. The ones who survived the Removal from their ancestral lands and the long walk along the Trail of Tears to make their life in a place not of their choosing. That wiry toughness and sheer stubborness has served and continues to serve me well at times.
This year, I honour my lost and forgotten ancestors. The ones who disappeared from the family tree. The ones who just didn’t make the journey. The ones who got lost in a maze of substance abuse, destructive behaviour and violence towards Self and others. If forgotten, or even worse, ignored and written out of the family tree, these lost souls can continue to wreak havoc in the lives and relationships of their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. I honour the ones from the dark side of my family tree and in doing so, hope to give them some shelter and to mend some of the broken places and disconnection within myself.
Journeys and journeying. This is the subject of one of the recent threads of my online community SOMA and one which leads to a vein of rich ore to be mined.
Now that I am finally settled into Home, first and foremost in my Self, and into the Home that my beloved Steve and I are creating together, I am also journeying. It seems a paradox, but the type of journeying that I am doing requires a firm and solid base, deep reaching roots.
When I packed ‘Winter Trees Wept’ into it’s box to drop off at the NEC for the Festival of Quilts in Birmingham, I felt a pang of sadness. I put much of my soul into that quilt and it’s destiny is to go out into the world and tell a story. I think I felt the way a parent might feel when their child makes a milestone step. For our deep works of art may be like our children, conceived deep inside and birthed into the world. Dar la luz (to give light) is a beautiful Spanish phrase for ‘to give birth”.
I certainly went on a journey when I made Winter Trees Wept. I wrote these words a couple of weeks ago while I was doing the handquilting:
“I got up very early this morning to do some more handquilting. I chose a dark grey metallic thread to border each side of my blood red silk river stitching. The grey thread pierced the fabric like needles of sleet.
As I made each stitch, I remembered that 1836 was the year that my great, great grandfather Tecumseh Phillips was born. 1836, the final year of the Muscogee Removal – wintertime, snow, many of the men in shackles, the remaining Muscogee leaving their ancestral homeland for the final time, the ones who held out and tried to remain. I don’t know if he was born en route or if his parents were in an earlier phase of Removal and he was born in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma)
I felt such an unbearable grief. For a moment, it felt like I carried all of our grief, which has been passed down for nearly 200 years. I wondered how they possibly bore it, then remembered that it is grief which has been forbidden to feel. Grief which has been buried and masked with alcohol abuse, violence, under-achieving.
In making this piece of work, I’m breaking the vow of silence. I don’t know why I’ve chosen this, or why it’s chosen me, but it feels like a very powerful healing. Powerful medicine.”
and now it makes it’s first journey out into the world.
I’ve just finished hand quilting Winter Trees Wept, one of the quilts I’m entering into the Festival of Quilts in August.
This quilt has taken a really long time to complete. This is a very personal quilt which tells a fragment of the story of the Removal of my ancestors, the Muscogee, from our ancestral homelands in what are now the states of Georgia and Alabama to what is now the state of Oklahoma.
I started it 2008 by piecing the front and constructing it with a pillowcase binding. I had stopped the process in August two years ago. My next step was going to be collaging some text onto the back of the quilt. But I needed to work more on my collaging technique, continue my search for the right paper and frankly, give myself the time to become ready to commit the story to cloth. I’m the first one in my family line to break the silence about our Muscogee history.
Flashback to January of this year.
Steve and I had gone to London for a few days and I bought some rice paper which was perfect for printing onto and acheiving translucency. I had already typewritten some text on the Muscogee Removal from a textbook onto tissue paper, but wanted to add a personal recollection. I found a website containing family stories from the Trail of Tears, including the following story:
Stephens, J. W., March 22, 1938
D. W. Wilson -Journalist
Interview with Mr. J. W. Stephens; Tallahassee, Oklahoma
J. W. Stephens is of Negro and Creek Indian blood and was born near the present town of Eufaula, Oklahoma, on the Canadian River, about the year 1858. His father and mother, John and Theba Stephens, were born in the Creek Nation of old Indian Territory, but their parents, his grandparents, came from Georgia at the time of the removal of the Creeks, out of the states of Georgia and Alabama, about the year 1833.
Migration of the Creeks
Of course I do not know personally but my grandparents have told me of their removal to the Indian Territory, and I can only tell you as it has been handed down to me.
This removal was nothing more than greed and injustice on the part of the Whites and suffering and hardship for the Creeks.
The Creek Indians held large tracts of land located partly in Georgia, partly in Alabama and partly in Mississippi. They at one time had owned considerable land but by treaties with the United States, at and before their removal, they had left only what they considered enough for their own needs.
The whites continued to encroach on the Creeks and insisted they move west, but they stood with a firm determination not to give up their lands. The entire tribe held council and at that meeting it was decided that they would not give up a single acre of their land or leave the home of their fathers they loved so well.
After this council meeting, a fellow named Colonel William McIntosh called another meeting for he favored removal. Only a few attended this meeting. McIntosh signed a treaty with the United States, saying at the council meeting they had decided to trade their land in the east, acre for acre, for land in the Indian Territory. Another council was held by the majority protesting, saying it was made by the minority and not the majority and they would die first.
The Creeks then began to shout Colonel McIntosh had sold out, accused him of treason and at last burned his home and shot him. The men of the McIntosh following were also killed.
The white people called the Creeks savages on account of this and all manner of ill things were said of them, but, in reality the ones killed were slain according to tribal laws.
A few years later the Government made a treaty with the majority to remove them west, giving them land in the Indian Territory along and between the Arkansas and Canadian Rivers. They were to move them and furnish them with food during the first year, allowing them to clear land and establish themselves.
Some of the Creeks left on this occasion: many, however, still refused to move and my grandparents were among those who were driven out like cattle and came to the Indian country by wagon trains and on foot. They suffered many hardships, were footsore and weary, tattered and torn. Sickness was among them and many died along the route.
My grandfather told me, he made the trip barefoot and often left bloody footprints in the snow. He carried a little bundle of clothing and an old flintlock rifle.
I printed the last sentences onto rice paper and was very happy with the result.
I chose a ‘handwritten’ schoolroom font for the words. It hearkened back to the boarding school legacy that many Native American children were forced to endure. I coloured lines onto the paper reminiscent of school paper.
Besides having the right paper and technique, I got a lot of support from SOMA, my online spiritual/artistic community. I made this temporary altar a couple of weeks before I did the printing and collaging which mapped out my journey.
I still have a tiny bit more to do on the front of the quilt with some black feathers and some beads. Steve and I are away on Tuesday to celebrate our birthday week and drop the quilts off in Birmingham. I’ll try to post a couple of final photos when I’ve finished.
I will also write about the quilting process. This is my first large (ish) hand quilted piece and I was taken by surprise at how engaged I became.
Water is my favourite element, or at least the one with which I identify the most. I love the flowing, mutable, adaptable qualities of water. It can take so many different forms – ice, snow, liquid, mist, steam, fog, rain, frost . . . . I love desert rivers and rivers in woods. My First Nation ancestors, the Muscogee, were called the Creeks by European settlers because for thousands of years they had lived along the waterways in what is now the Southeastern United States, before being ‘re-located’ to Indian Territory (Oklahoma).
I moved to Devon about five years ago to live in a property bordered by a beautiful, flowing river. I got to know this river very well and crossed it on foot nearly every day on my way to and from work. Two and a half years ago, I hit a metaphoric wall when I returned to the UK after an aborted move back to America. All of my things were in storage, I didn’t have a job and I felt very lightly perched in Devon. So I did two things. I bought a square of felt, some embroidery floss and a needle and I stitched a labyrinth. And I walked the river everyday and found and unblocked a tremendous jam of tree branches, logs, twigs, mud and leaves. It was very hard and very satisfying work. When the water was flowing free again, I felt that something inside of me began to flow free. Around that time, I decided to stop looking outside for home and the answers. I decided to stop and be still. I started to shape my world around me to fit who I am and to reflect my deepest truths.
I don’t live right next to that particular river any longer but still, always, it flows through me.
My second wedding table runner is Water. This one is 157″ long and 13″ wide. I started with a base of pale blue organza. I pinned one edge straight into the carpet and butted a cutting mat with a 1″ grid next to the pins so that I could measure the width as I worked my way down.
Next, I tore lengths of blue, purple and grey organza into long strips about 4″ wide. I laid and twisted them over the base, adding a few pieces of bright yellow.
When I was happy with the result, I pinned a layer of white tulle over my organza river, which I purchased from eQuilter. This is a very fine, soft tulle and perfect for layering over other fabrics.
Before I started sewing, I decided to pin my fabric river to a base of white tulle. This was because my organza base had become very ruched and pleated.
I stitched long, wavy lines down the length of my river using a fairly long stitch length, low top thread and presser foot tension and a walking foot. For my first lines of stitching, I used monofilament nylon thread in the top and blue rayon thread in the bobbin. Then I put metallic thread in the bobbin and blue rayon in the top, flipped my river over and stitched a few flowing lines of blue and purple metallic thread. I finished the edges by trimming them with a fine tip soldering iron.
The Water runner will be on our table (to seat ten) at our wedding reception.