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Rivers of War: Snippet Four

       Last updated: Tuesday, February 8, 2005 09:00 EST



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 4:


    When The Ridge and his companion saw the militia officer come scuttling out of General Jackson’s tent, they said nothing, but they did exchange a little smile. Some of the Creeks had already started calling the American general “Sharp Knife,” and The Ridge was pretty sure it wouldn’t be long before the Cherokees who were Jackson’s allies would be doing the same.

    The smile faded soon enough, however. When it came to the Americans, there wasn’t much for Cherokees to smile about.

    Many Creeks, and a fair number of Cherokees and Choctaws, would explain it on the simple grounds that the Americans were white people, and, as such, a fickle and treacherous race. But The Ridge didn’t think even the Red Sticks really believed that. Maybe in the North they did, where Tecumseh himself had come from. The Ridge didn’t really know that much about those tribes, even though the stories claimed the Cherokee themselves had come from the North, long ago. Those stories were probably true, he mused, since the Cherokees spoke a language that was similar to the Iroquois.

    But racial explanations didn’t make much sense to The Ridge, and never had. He was himself mostly a full-blood, yet all he had to do was look around him to see the extent to which “the Cherokees” had long ago begun to change, on that level which the whites called “race.” Even the name “Cherokee” was of white origin. The term the Cherokee themselves used was “Ani-Yunwiya,” which meant the “Real People” or the “Principal People.”

    All he had to do was look at the man squatting next to him, in fact. Young John Ross.

    To all outward appearances, John Ross was a white man himself. His skin was as pale as any white man’s; his hair was red; his eyes were blue. Nor was that a freak of nature. Measured by blood, John Ross was a white man. The Ridge didn’t know him well yet, since he’d only just met him on this campaign, but he knew some of the man’s ancestry. Seven of his eight immediate progenitors were white people, mostly of Scot extraction. Only one of them, his great-grandmother Ghigooie of the Bird Clan, had been a Cherokee.

    But the way the Cherokee measured such things, that made John Ross a member of the clan. The fact that he looked like a Scotsman simply didn’t matter, as far as they were concerned. The Ani-Yunwiya traced lineage through the mother’s line, not the father’s. The white man’s concept of “race” was an alien one. The people whom the Americans called “Indians” actually belonged to a wide variety of peoples, who spoke different languages and had different customs.

    No, The Ridge wasn’t really an Indian, except insofar as the white people placed him in that category. But because they did, he had to deal with it, because he had to deal with them.

    From his own viewpoint, though, he was Ani-Yunwiya, because he belonged to one of the seven Cherokee clans. The Deer Clan. Beyond that, he recognized kinship with many other tribes, since Cherokees often married outside the seven clans.

    John Ross probably had a better understanding of the white way of thinking, even if he didn’t agree with it. Despite his youthful age, Ross had already acquired a reputation among his people, and he was emerging as a Cherokee leader. Certainly no one doubted his loyalties to the Bird Clan.

    Things were no different with their Red Stick enemies. Somewhere in the distance to the south, the Red Stick faction of the Creeks had forted up on a bend of the Tallapoosa River in an attempt to withstand Jackson’s coming assault. Their loyalties to their own leaders were fierce, but had little to do with race. Their central war chief was a man who, like most Indians of the time, had two names. Red Eagle, and ...William Weatherford.

    Like Ross, Weatherford had more white than Indian ancestors. That hadn’t stopped him from leading the successful attack on Fort Mims, although rumor had it that Weatherford had tried to prevent the massacre of the fort’s population. But The Ridge was quite sure that race had nothing to do with the massacre, either. Most of the people massacred at Fort Mims had been Creek half-bloods, just like Weatherford himself and many of his Red Stick followers. The different ways in which white people and red people measured difference to begin with was just one of the many problems they had faced, separately and together, for over two centuries now.

    The Ridge had seen the sea, several times since his youth, and had never forgotten the inexorable power of the tides. They couldn’t be stopped, certainly. But perhaps they could be channeled.



    John Ross was somewhat in awe of The Ridge, and so he took his cue from his older companion’s unreadable countenance, and his still manner of watching things.

    “Stoic.” That’s what white Americans would have labeled The Ridge. The word wouldn’t have meant anything to the man himself, since he spoke no English and was basically illiterate. But John himself was fluent in English—more so than he was in Cherokee, in fact—and he was a voracious reader.

    Still, John was a Cherokee, and he thought like one. So he knew that “stoic” was a misnomer. The Ridge’s manner did not derive from the ancient philosophies of the Romans, whom most Americans saw as their political forefathers. John Ross had read some of those Roman texts in school, as did most educated children, but he was sure The Ridge had never even heard of them.

    No, The Ridge’s manner came from the traditions of his own people. The stillness of hunters waiting for prey; the patience of the river bottoms where a people grew its beans, squash, and corn.

    The Ridge was in his early forties. He was well known among the Cherokee as an advocate of finding workable compromises with the whites, and even adopting many of their practices, when it made sense. But, in other ways, he was something of throwback. One of the great ancient ones, John Ross liked to imagine, come back to life in the Cherokee time of need. The Ridge wasn’t entirely a pure-blood, since his mother’s father had been a Scot frontiersman. But there was no trace of that ancestry in his form and figure. The Ridge was as dark-skinned as any Cherokee, with the dramatic nose and cheeks to go with his powerful build. He’d been named for his hunting prowess. “The Ridge” was an English translation of the Cherokee Kahnungdatlageh, which meant “the man who walks on the mountaintop.”

    He had been a blooded warrior at the age of seventeen, killing one of the white Tennesseans who had been allied with the Unakas. By the time he was thirty, he was one of the Cherokees’ most influential chiefs. He was often referred to as asgá siti. The term was usually translated into English as “dreadful,” although for Cherokees themselves the connotations were more that of “terrifying” or “formidable.”

    Still, The Ridge had for at least a decade been the principal voice among the Cherokee, advocating an end to the ancient Blood Law that kept the Cherokees—like most Indian nations—continually embroiled in clan feuds.

    John’s own musings were interrupted by new movement at the entrance to the general’s tent. Two more American officers were emerging.


    The Ridge was already studying them. One of them, rather.

    The man on the left, John Coffee, wasn’t the object of his scrutiny—he was already well known to the Cherokee. It was the young officer who accompanied Coffee whom The Ridge found interesting.

    Physically, at least, he was certainly impressive. Very tall, broad-shouldered, and with a muscular physique. But The Ridge could outwrestle almost any man he’d ever met, so that was of no interest to him. Instead, he focused on the young officer’s face.

    That face had possibilities, he decided. The blue eyes looked to be intelligent, and the mouth seemed to be one that smiled easily. Better still, one that could tell jokes.

    “Is that the one?”

    John Ross nodded.


    The adopted son of Oolooteka, “he who puts the drum away”—or John Jolly, as he was often called. John Jolly was a fairly minor chief among the Cherokee, but his older brother Tahlonteskee wielded great influence. Mostly a bad influence, The Ridge thought, since Tahlonteskee was the most prominent advocate of moving the tribe to the West. Indeed, Tahlonteskee had already done so, leading a thousand people in his own clan across the great river into the region the Americans called Arkansas.

    At best, The Ridge thought the decision had been premature. But Tahlonteskee wasn’t the only one who was advocating that course of action. His younger brother John Jolly did so as well, although he hadn’t yet made the move himself. Their position was especially influential among the purebloods.


    “I think we will talk to him,” The Ridge announced.

    John Ross started to rise. The Ridge placed a hand on his forearm and drew him gently back down. “Not now. After the battle.”

    Ross shot him a questioning glance. The Ridge allowed himself another little smile. “Whatever else is different about Americans, one thing is not. They prize courage as much as we do. So. After the battle. He will be a great deal older then than he is now, once that day is over, and everyone will know a great deal more about him.”


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