Accessibility Navigation:

Interview with Isaac Welch [1]

Welch, Isaac [1]
Welch, Darlene
Gardner, Susan
Date of Interview: 
Native Americans; American Indians; Cherokee; Vietnam War; ethnic identity; prison; tradition; civil rights
In this interview Isaac Welch discusses his life as a Cherokee Indian in the mid-to-late 20th century. He discusses his origins and early life, inextricably linked to his Cherokee roots. He discusses Cherokee identity and traditions that he inherited, as well as issues surrounding his race during the 1960s and 1970s. He also describes his experiences fighting in the Vietnam War, on one hand noting that he was in his "element" among the forests of Vietnam, and on the other hand, describing how he and other soldiers felt they were on the wrong side of the conflict. Welch also discusses the time he spent in prison, having served two years of a twelve year sentence before a federal judge overturned his conviction on the grounds of Welch's civil rights having been violated. More importantly, however, Welch describes how being in prison convinced him to take up the pen and start writing down his experiences. Welch does not dwell on this subject for long, however, and spends much of the interview describing short anecdotes from his life and Cherokee history as a whole, ending the interview with a pessimistic outlook on the future of the Cherokee people.
Native Carolinians and Indian Elders Collection
Interview Audio: 
SG: OK! We are Isaac Welch and we are Susan Gardner, outside of Asheville on the 30th of August 1997, at his home, and this is a test to see if this is working! RECORDING INTERRUPTED. RECORDING RESUMED.
SG: I'll just recap a little bit of what I've told you about the project. It originated with the American Indian Heritage Council in Charlotte, and I wanted to introduce my students to collecting oral history. Oh, we're chattering, no problem there and I was wondering, too, if you would be willing to witness this form and a copy for you guys and a copy for me? There’s been some--, second page. I'll just put it there by the remote. Thank you so much!
DW: OK. I was just going swirl it around for you.
SG: Oh that will be a great pick-me-up; I just, I didn't stop, I just drove right on through so I was just so thrilled the traffic wasn't bad.
DW: I’m surprised I thought it would have been--.
SG: I think if I'd--, I took 85 South to 26 and, well up to 74 which became 26. And I think 85 would have gotten a lot, lot worse, but fortunately I wasn't on it very long, it was beginning to look awful but--. And got out of it just in time, it seems. And so this project was started by the American Indian Heritage Council in Charlotte and then my graduate students got involved because the Heritage Council has been doing it for years and years and years, but, but it never has any time, really--, and so they would get one or two, you know they were lucky, and so by bringing half-a-dozen, dozen graduate students also, we were able to collect about two dozen in two years.
DW: Yeah, it’s tight. Yeah.
SG: Which, it's not bad. Oh especially, the transcribing, you know? The rough estimate is--, is that for every hour on tape you spend ten hours transcribing. So, it is really, yes, it's very time-consuming, but I like to do it myself, especially with Lumbee people, I've acquired an ear for the way the older people talk. And do you need a pen would you like to use this?
DW: Would you like to--. You just need to sign this.
SG: This line yeah.
DW: ( ) looking over there.
SG: And then MariJo have you seen her recently? Suggested that now that I've started to branch out on my own, talking with Cherokee people, my students have talked to a couple of Catawbas, she thought you would be a wonderful person to interview, and so that's how I wound up here.
IW: Uh-huh.
SG: Have you seen her?
IW: I’ve talked to her; she was very irate about a writer wanting her to review a book; to write an opinion on it. She was lividly angry about it.
SG: Oh, really? An American Indian writer? Or--?
IW: No. No.
SG: I wonder--. She hasn’t mentioned that to me but we’re on e-mail several times a day so, I’m sure we’ll hear about it, especially if she was anger about it [laughter].
IW: Well the, the theme was Native American.
SG: Oh it was.
IW: So she, well, as the question of exploitation, so, so she--.
SG: Oh, she would be angry. She's very alert to that, and especially on behalf of any kids.
IW: Uh-huh.
SG: She gets really, really livid.
IW: Uh-huh.
SG: And so when we talked the other day I gathered the impression that you grew up originally on the reservation.
IW: Uh-huh.
SG: Yeah, would you be willing to tell me a bit about that: How long you were there, where abouts, who were your parents, grandparents, etcetera?
IW: OK. Well, let's take a, an anthropological profile here. My name is Isaac Welch, Jr. I am the first son in a family of eight children. I am the third in order of birth and I was born to Isaac Welch, Sr., who at the time was an automobile mechanic, and Judith Welch, Owle Welch, her last name was spelled O-W-L-E-. She was Bird Clan.
SG: Is she related to Freeman Owle?
IW: No.
SG: No, OK.
IW: And I was born September 28th, 1949, in, at the Cherokee Indian Hospital.
SG: Uh-huh.
IW: From what I can re--, recollect, I attended the Soco Day School.
SG: Uh-huh.
IW: Soco is S-O-C-O.
SG: I've been there.
IW: And the day school there. And then I moved to the Cherokee school, they, Cherokee Central. This was right after they shut down the boarding school. They then turned it into a central education facility. I went there until the fourth grade. Now I'll back up a bit. I remember the second grade in a school in Tennessee somewhere, my father was seeking employment and I spent a year, maybe more, I don't quite recollect. But coming back, I remember my third grade teacher--, OK, one year. And then from there I went to the public school system, starting at Qualla, in Jackson County, North Carolina public schools. My father's viewpoint was that he wanted me to get an education. For a man who only had ten years of education himself, it was very important to him. My mother had not graduated from high school. I went to public schools, didn't do well at all.
SG: Why do you think that was?
IW: I think it was the cross-cultural transition. I came from a primarily Native American, or Cherokee-speaking language, type of environment. And I grew up in that. And then pretty much the mind set, the, the perception, and conceptualization process was a little bit different than the English-speaking. My worst subject was English. I could not grasp the mechanics of English nor some of the, the vocabulary. I could not understand the vocabulary.
SG: It doesn't sound like you had a good teacher.
IW: Well, I think, in all fairness to the school system, I had the best of what they had available at the time, because this particular period of time, the three Rs, ABCs, were the prevalent foundation, and Horace Mann was still the, the father of education.
SG: Uh-huh.
IW: Nowadays we have remedial education. We have special tracking for special needs that did not exist back then. And so likewise I think I had the best of what the system had to offer.
SG: It just wasn't well organized for second language students.
IW: It was not--, well, there was no need to, really, because it was a, a formalized system that applied to all Americans. And, and I think that's what they're striving to get back to in this day and time, in 1997, is get back to all Americans. But, after dealing with that system, my teacher had declared me stupid. And which in my opinion was, was wrong on her part, but I went back to Cherokee schools because I did not receive the, the type of humiliation that I did in public schools.
SG: Humiliation, what of being ridiculed?
IW: Ridiculed in front of my peer group, I would be chas--, I think I was declared stupid in front of my peer group. And there were things that I just did not understand. And the, the humiliation process was different once I moved back to the, the Cherokee school system, because I was one of those Indians who had gone off the reservation. So it wasn't so much a, a point of academic scholarship to get back into the, the circles of Cherokee High School; it was more or less a test of fire [laughs].
SG: And social acceptance.
IW: That's, that’s it, exactly! And there were fights, a lot of fights, and you were expected--. You didn't have to win you just had to fight. And, and so, that's what it amounted to, and even to this day I still do not feel totally reintegrated back into my culture because of that. Even today, I just attended a funeral last week, and I was surrounded by individuals who had been fellow students of mine in Cherokee. And I realized that there is a vast chasm of, of perspective. As compared to years ago, I would think it's wider now. The only thing that, that would hold us together is blood, heritage maybe just man's compassion for mankind.
SG: Do some of your family still live on the boundary?
IW: All of them do.
SG: Ah! So you're the odd one out? Or--?
IW: "The odd one", that's a good term. "Odd one." Yes, I'm the odd one. And I'm looked at in that regard, you know. I’m the one, I guess I'm the least expected one to have gone on and gone to college, to go a degree and go through my master's. The rest of 'em have been content just to live with what they have.
SG: Where do they live, or are they scattered about?
IW: They live right there, I would say within a ten-mile proximity of, of Cherokee Municipality property.
SG: Do you go back very much?
IW: As little as possible. I find it very depressing.
SG: I'm very intrigued by that statement.
IW: There is nothing there anymore to stimulate either upward mobility, education. There is nothing there to arouse a desire for re-identification with the past. There's a lot of dredging up of historical injustices and, and historical precedent, as far as bloodline is concerned. There is no intrinsic value regarding culture and the lore. It's just, it might as well be written in a book and put on a shelf in the library, to be read at your convenience.
SG: Well, this implies when you were growing up things were a bit different then, because you are familiar with tradition and heritage. Would you say?
IW: Very much. I would say that it was not necessarily tradition and culture, per se, identified as such as we sit here and speak. I remember my grandfather eating his first pancake and the reaction. My father, my grandfather refused to speak English. My grandmother did not speak English. I can remember many firsts. I, I tickle people about the story about the grapefruit. I had an uncle who's deceased now, but he was with the merchant marines, and, and he traveled from Charleston for a week, and he brought with him a sack full of grapefruits, and he had dropped them off to my grandmother. And he, he was inferring that we would like them. They taste good, you know, the white people eat these. And he left a half a dozen or so with my grandmother. I kept looking at them and wondering, what do you do with them?
SG: [laughter] throw them around.
IW: Anyway, he came back a few days later and says, "Well, how did you like them?" and my grandmother says, "Well, I don't know." Basically, “well weren’t good?” And She says, "I don't know." He said, "Well, you did try to eat them?" She said, "Well yes, we did." He said, "But they're good." He said, "Put a little sugar and honey on them, they're good." So she put sugar 'n' honey on them, and said and they're good. Really? she says. "Well, we tried boiling 'em and, and frying 'em and they just didn't cook up that well." But, you know, things of that nature were part of the experience, but a lot of it isn't, it was a strong Christian overtone.
SG: Oh yes. I’ve encountered that.
IW: And, and even then there was something that just didn't quite fit, because everyone was talking about the, you know imagine, full-blooded Native Americans talking about "the Great Spirit"! And in English terms, I can understand that, but in Cherokee idiom, the way that the spirit, the skili, is not good. And they were talking about a good feeling. And that was a conflict then. And we'll get back to that a little bit later on, but with the culture, a lot of things I could do myself, I could do with my hands. I could make weapons, I could make tools, I made a lot of my own toys, which were based a lot upon imagination. I loved to play war
SG: Uh-huh.
IW: for some reason or another. And, and I played by myself. And this in turn would pay off later in life. But I had, the, the role of the mother was very important in our family. The woman was primarily responsible for the upbringing of the children and for some reason or another I, I was aware that a lot of the young are influenced like with any family, but the woman was responsible for so much. And, and I assumed that there was a stopping point in life to where within you would change. But it never quite really change that much. Little did I know as a youth that the Cherokee society was a matriarchal society and the, the matrilineage was very important as far as the, the inheriting of the clanship, and the clan was of a stronger role as far as social expectation was concerned and, and marriage. What was unique at the Cherokee school was that even though we're separated by, by townships on 58,000 acres. Now 58,000 acres, we could tell by the physical characteristics, the physical features of any individual as to which township they were from. We did not have to know them. We did not ever have to met them before in our lives; in some cases we hadn't. But yet we could tell which township they were from, by their features. And I remember that the nightmare of them all was that we did not want to have to race the Big Cove teams in the footrace, because we knew they were fast. And for, and I remember on a field day when they had all the Indian kids together, that we were asking around here because we didn't talk to the other townships, you know, "Why do they run so fast?" "Because they don't eat rabbit meat" [laughter]. So, because the rabbit wears himself out and one of the old curses was to, to brew up a rabbit stew before a stick ball game, and take a gourd, and pour rabbit stew across the trail, so you'd have to cross it. And that way it would weaken you during the game. And, and then I remember that the, the Snowbird--.
SG: I was just going to ask you if you had connections or anything involving the snowbird--.
IW: and that the Snowbird crowd could take pain. You never want to make one angry, because you can kill him today, but he will not die until tomorrow, so you don't want to [laughter]. And so, and they, they spoke a different dialect.
SG: Yeah.
IW: And I remember it was, even today I listen to the dialog in, in "Dances with Wolves"; they remind me so much of Snowbird people.
SG: Really?
IW: And we used to make fun of them, because of the difference in language. And little did we know that's the oldest dialect. And--, but we had--, now we in the Soco community—originally I'm from Birdtown, from the Bird Clan—and in the Soco community, it's primarily Wolftown. So we were transplanted there, so we were never quite accepted in Wolftown. And loyalties to the clan, so even today there're still little attachments to Birdtown. And we were known--, we are proud of the fact that I’m, I learned, is that only men from Birdtown have the power to, to exercise the skili.
SG: Oh really?
IW: They're the only ones; we're the only ones in the tribe who can perform the skili the skili dance.
SG: Would you tell me more about that, the skili dance?
IW: Ah-- [Chuckles]. The significance of it--
SG: If you can--, I mean, if it's not a rude question.
IW: It's not a rude question; and, and I wish I could do it justice, because it wasn't called upon often, starting let's say early, early 17th, early 19th century. The influence of the evangelical Christians who came in because that was akin to paganism and matter of fact, the old Judean attitudes are still very powerful in some, some quarters. But it was outlawed.
SG: I’m not surprised.
IW: And to practice the skili dance was like not pledging loyalty to the emperor, nor to Jesus Christ, so therefore you're open for, for persecution.
SG: Neither Christ nor Caesar [chuckle].
IW: That's it, that's it! And, and, and so in a lot of ways it has lost--, we have lost the songs, we have lost the dance, and uniquely Birdtown was the center of the, of black magic, conjuring, the medicine men there. And--.
SG: So I've heard. I was just wondering, could I find out more about that in that book that Will West Long collaborated with; I'm trying to remember the Euramerican authors' name and I can't, but it may come to me. But it's Cherokee Dances and Something. I got it at the Museum, there might be something of a description there but. Of course, they'd would have to go underground, I expect.
IW: You would have to, because, ah, I'm trying to think of Mooney, his collection, and Gilbert, stated that the--. A lot of the songs had been lost because of this. And, and only certain people--, I doubt if there's anyone alive anymore, but, but as a teenager I remember there were certain things that had to be done in spite of progress and change. And to, to sneak away that after the hours of darkness to go to the home of a powerful conjurer, and for them to, to make medicine, "medicine making" that's how the idiom would come out. "Medicine making" And a number of things. We had walking human lie detectors! The aged, the elder would be called out to go somewheres to sit and listen to a dispute, and determine what the truth was. And, and they would sit there and just listen. And as soon as they heard a lie, they would point it out, they would point it out. I mean they were sharp! You'd see their hand gestures, you know, like I'm casting a stone right quick at you, you know, like, that would shut them up. If you're not gonna tell the truth, you do not speak. And, and curiously these often occurred after hours of darkness, and I guess that's why they were evil.
SG: Later it could have been just self-protection, to get away from, I mean so the authorities wouldn't know what was--.
IW: It could have been. But I remember sitting in a church, and hearing that as the work of the devil. And you know the, the element of fear was just leading you know your sense of reality was really pounded, and invalidated to accept fear. Not respect, but fear.
SG: But fear, yeah. I've been intrigued when I've heard talks on the reservation, some sponsored by the Museum or something. It strikes me very much as a tale for public consumption that when they will say, "Well, making an adjustment to Christianity was no hassle for us because we were monotheis--, monotheistic anyway"?
IW: How the hell do they know! That's my question! [laughter] How the hell do you know! I mean, you think, you eat, you sleep and you defecate, in English-Judeo-Christian vocabulary! I mean, what do you know, how do you know? They're totally brainwashed!
SG: Exactly, it strikes me like the Taiwanese tomahawks they sell. You, you it’s it's again saying what they think the audience wants to hear, perhaps?
IW: Right. Well, interestingly I had a conversation with a, a cousin of mine, Thursday. And we were just sitting up in front of the council house, and were watching people, lunchtime. Either you eat or you exercise. And you watch them: here go the walkers, there go the munchers, and we're sitting there, and he asked me, he said, "What's wrong with this place?" And I told him, I said, "There's no heart, and there's no soul here." I said there, I said that the biggest, the biggest tragedy is that we stopped living off the land. And the requirements of survival mandated that we make a living, which meant money.
SG: Entering into a capitalist system yeah.
IW: And, ah, because in--in our youth, money was not readily available. And we had to trade and barter. And the stories are right--, are about things that we used to do as children, that we recollect that to catch the fish, at the spawning of the red horse, the chasing the honey bees to find the trees, planting the potatoes, and harvesting the corn, the slaughtering time of the livestock. And, and others of us who didn't have livestock, we would raise produce, and we would share, and we would trade off for beef and pork and sweet potatoes with another family. And the community pretty much took care of itself. We didn't need the money. But as time passed hardware and, and dry goods, shoes and clothing. The schools themselves would, would just chastise the living hell out of you if you came in a pair of moccasins. And the embarrassment, the, the additional humiliation in school of not being permitted to wear moccasins because that was the best that you had--, is that your family did not have the money to buy you a pair of shoes. So the, the good Christian missionary program would send in these shoes. And they're one cut, one design, and one make, unisex-type shoe.
SG: One size.
IW: And they were a brown, dull brown, wingtip. Leather sole, I mean it’s a good shoe that you think about. They don't make them like that anymore! And narrow! And most of us are flat-footed.
SG: Imagine that.
IW: But to see children walk around in, we used to call them the white woman shoes, white woman shoes because our teachers wore shoes like that. And but you would get a pair of shoes. And that was, that was your badge, your badge of nobody, being nobody.
SG: Yeah or being paid twice.
IW: Because the idea is, the, the image, in the conversations--"He's nothing," or "He's nobody." So when that movie with Terence Hill came out, "My Name is Nobody," I, I mean that rung a bell, big time! And I, I never understood why I liked the movie! But your identity was definitely abraded. I use that word, abraded away.
SG: I like it. I mean I don’t like the process.
IW: And the only thing that you have is a very rough and unpolished surface, you can just lacquer the hell out of it and it will serve its purpose. In the end it's, it's not a perfect piece, of product, in the end. And now that--, the requirement, and--, as a parent now, back then I was a child, I could never take that perspective, but as a parent now, I'm well aware of the sacrifices that a parent will make, you know, even, ah, I see kids running around in thirty dollars. Shoes, I see kids running around in $200 shoes. But a pair, well--, step out there to make sure that their child, not necessarily fits in the crowd, but will never have to receive that mark.
SG: Yeah. I remember one summer when I was on Pine Ridge reservation, I stayed with a family there. And the mother was a fluent first-language Lakota speaker, but did not teach it to her kids. And when I asked why, she talked about the hell she had in school growing up, over learning English, and how she didn't want them to have to go through that as she did. And it made sense. I think I was being very romantic, probably very nostalgic, in thinking "Why don't you teach your kids Lakota, what a loss", and I think she wants them to learn it, at some stage, although you can never quite learn it as you would have learned it in the first place. But I acquired some insight into how she had grown up ridiculed for speaking it, and--.
IW: Right.
SG: you mentioned some stories that RECORDING INTERRUPTED. RECORDING RESUMED.
IW: But my primary position in writing these stories is that all great tragedies are always recorded from the adult perspective. And you look at children and you, and you have to look at it through their eyes. This old cliché that I hate hearing, "You have to walk a mile in my shoes." Joe South published in 1968. But anyway, I kept thinking as adults we tend to languish in tragedy, and paint the most dismal pictures that have arrows of blame everywhere. Whereas a child--, a child outside a first person is not capable of blaming anything, they have no sense of fate. They have no sense of--, of suffering, though they suffer. A child can, can suffer the greatest loss in the world and, and feel the purest of emotions but yet, after that facet of emotions, they will go back to being children in spite of their adversity, their tragedy, their hardship, and they will play. And, to me, that is the most painful, most painful slice of life that we've ignored. Because to bring to life these stories without pointing a finger, and say my children and whoever reads it, let them feel some of that rawness that this child feels without the cause-effect.
SG: Wow that really must take some doing.
IW: And, and the only way I, I could do that, is, is to lay aside a lot of prejudices and essentially write what I could feel, because it wasn't necessarily here, in Vietnam, I'll make myself clear right now, I did not volunteer to go to Vietnam, as an American. There was a war going on, and I wanted a slice of it, if I was made of what my grandfathers' grandfathers were made of, and I went, I went to kill someone.
SG: Did you just go once, or did you have several tours?
IW: Twenty-six months.
SG: Oh my.
IW: In one respect, I loved it; that was my element; that gets back to me playing alone in the woods as a child. But the other thing is that, and no question you've heard it before, is that I'm looking at these people early in the morning when the fog is clinging to the, to the nape of the earth, all the smells were very familiar to me. The early morning wood fires to cook by, the smell of the livestock, the earth, the freshness of the morning fog blowing in your face, and the mist blowing by, it was all very familiar to me. And to see all these people running around, dark skin, black hair and I, I remember watching children play, and I kept thinking, a different place and I could call this home. And, and I watched in spite of all the adversity, watched the children. And I always picked out the runt of the crowd, because it sometimes at bridges, you'd have herds of children out there selling anything. And usually I was the smallest one he usually had the biggest box, because his parents finally put him out there to, to make money. And I saw this one little fellow, he could have been no more than five or six years old, but all the big ones, they were pushing him over the bank. And we pulled up, and for some reason or other, you know, well I know the reason, but we had pulled up at the bridge, and we had stopped to, to, to secure the bridge before we crossed it. And while the team was out securing it, well these kids would swarm over the vehicles, trying to, to peddle whatever they're selling. And this little fella’ kept trying to get somewhere. And they kept pushing him back, the bigger ones, and he had this huge block of Styrofoam, and he had a big hat on, it was much too big for him, it was made for a man, and here's this little fella standing there, in a baggy little white T-shirt, and now the kids wear what they call saggy pants you know, and he's barefooted. And he can barely hold his box up and he had a strap over his shoulder, he was looking back and forth and let me tell ya, him and I yelled down through there, you know, I says, "Come here, little one!" And he looked at me, and the big one looked at me. Uh-uh little fella’. And all I could see was eyes, and a hat turning back, and he was running as hard as he could go; and he gets down there, and he is selling American Pepsi-Cola! You know, for a hundred piastres a can. And that came to about 50 cents; that was very high back then. But you didn't get it through American supply soldiers, you went to the kids, they'd get it faster.
SG: I see.
IW: And he had six Pepsi-Colas, and ice cold. And I bought everyone on the truck there was six of us, about all of them. And the kids killed him, took his money. And it made me so angry, and I kept thinking, but children. And you know, and that stuck with me. And I thought about it, and I kept thinking, I saw, you know, it reminded me so much of my younger brothers and sisters. And, and before too long I realized I was fighting for the wrong side. You know, and, and I watched how my fellow Americans were acting and how they were treating the people, and I was thinking, I'm fighting for the wrong--. It was very difficult. The only thing that kept me from picking up a rifle and joining the Viet Cong was the idea, "That's a long swim," you know, and everything that I was attached to was here. And in, in, in years later, in retrospect, even more so, and I've talked to several other of, my buddies who were there, and we all agreed, we fought for the wrong side. And, and, and but this was the seed of the children's stories.
SG: I can see how that would work. So, when you started, how old--, when you actually decided to commit them to paper so to speak, when was that?
IW: August 1984.
SG: Why then?
IW: I went to prison.
SG: Uh-huh yeah.
IW: And I had an English professor and I remember one of the lectures about Sir Walter Raleigh, when he was confined to the Tower of London that he wrote, and she says, "Oh, if any of you ever go to prison, please, by all means, write." She said, "Don't waste this education of yours, write."
SG: That sounds like an extraordinary teacher.
IW: She was. The sweet thing about her is she was on the, on the end of the continuum from my English teacher in high school, "You're too stupid", here I am, fresh from the military, my hair's shorter than it is now, and I have this very abrupt manner and demeanor, and it's freshman orientation, I'm twenty-eight years old, a freshman, and I'm walking through the departments, you know, they, they say you have to go to departments, yeah. I knew what I wanted to do. But, they give you a check sheet, to have these professors from every department to sign off on--.
SG: Where was this?
IW: At Mars Hill College, to make sure that you didn't just waste your time. That way they can't be blamed by parents, but I'm twenty-eight years old! And I don't walk into this, this first room English Dept., and she's sitting there, and she has this way of doing a number at you, and she says--, and I just walked in. And she's a very genteel lady, from, from Mississippi, and she said, "Excuse me?" I said, "Yes ma'am!" [laughs] "Oh! A man of authority!" I says, "Yes ma'am!" "And we are thinking about becoming an English major?" I said, "No, ma'am, I am an English major." "Oh we'll see about that." [laughs] And the just--, the way that she had addressed me, I had no intention of being an English major! But she challenged me, so here I go. Well, I came out with, with a 3.64 GPA, so--.
SG: Oh well done.
IW: And she became one of my best friends and confidantes. And likewise, even after I had gone to prison, she used to write me some of the most eloquent and elegant letters. And, in the end, I had several stories put together and, and the emotions are raw in there. Someone asked, "Well, who, who would buy this?" "It doesn't matter who buys it," I said, "if one person is affected by it, that's all that counts. Any mother out there that loves her child may read that; there's no way that they can say they weren't affected by it." And, so I've carried them around in a sheaf and showed them to people--. I had a Professor Kolenbrander from Western Carolina University steal them, but he can't print them.
SG: What did he do, just walk off with them?
IW: K-O-L-E-N-B-R-A-N-D-E-R he was, Western Carolina.
SG: I will see that he is memorialized.
IW: Yeah, I got his name. [laughs]
SG: What was he doing, looking at them and then thought, hey, yeah, I can put these to use, or something?
IW: I don't know why he hasn't released them, and he hasn't had them printed, I'm waiting to see.
SG: In prison you had no, they, they didn't interfere with your working on these stories?
IW: Like I tell a lot of people, in the North Carolina Department of Corrections, I had probably more freedoms than any other convict.
SG: How so?
IW: They all believed me innocent. You know, a—the judicial process—you can bend, you can altar, and you force that square peg into that round hole. But once you're into the system, you have to play by the letter of the law to get back out. I was charged with first-degree rape and kidnapping by a student at Mars Hill College, and the sperm smear was A positive and I'm an O, but I was still convicted. Now, the, the, base, or minimum level of educational statistics for the employees of the North Carolina Department of Corrections is not that high. However, they take one look at my father they convicted me? And likewise
SG: Was it because you were an Indian, do you think?
IW: I don't know what it was. What I do know is, I knew that three days before I was convicted I was going to be convicted. I knew that I was on a lesser charge they couldn't make stick; they could bend a little bit. I knew I was not going to get away. And so, in the end, I got twelve years, and of that twelve years, I spent two years and nine months in the penitentiary before the Federal authorities intervened.
SG: Why did they intervene? That's interesting.
IW: Violation of my civil rights.
SG: Did you have a good lawyer? Or, were you your lawyer?
IW: Well--.
SG: How did it come to their attention?
IW: I didn't have a good lawyer! [laughs] I learned that the North Carolina judicial system is just one big country club of cohorts, buddies and good old boys, and I learned more about it even my attorney, years later, the Honorable Lamar Gudger, former Congressman, admitted they had obscured that. He was within two years of receiving his pension from the US government for service to the country, so he couldn't rock the boat because the then Governor was looking on having him appointed as a special Federal judge--, Superior Court judge, excuse me. And he could not make any bad waves right then in the political circles. And he needed those two years to get that pension. And, and subsequently I was--. START OF TAPE 1, SIDE B
IW: sold down the river. And I was told I would have to get on with the witness stand and testify. I was told to go ahead and plead to a lesser charge; that the judge said he would consider twelve years, and later on, talking to a lawyer who was drunk one day, he says that judge offered a plea bargain because they had no case. "He offered twelve years," he said, "that's the most they could give you, they knew it." He said, "But they had you accused of first-degree, you were looking at death penalty, and they suddenly offer you twelve years a walk."
SG: Yeah.
IW: And he said, "Man, they had it set from the beginning,"
SG: It sounds really steep.
IW: And he said, "The, the jury was rigged, man," he said, "The jury was rigged." And he left it at that, and the, come to find out the jury was. But in the prison system itself, again they treated me with the best that they had available. I was accorded a lot of respect. I really can't think of anything bad other than a few bad personalities in the, in the prison guard uniform here and there, you know what I mean they're all like that. But I'm, I'm kind of proud of it. I've been in with society's worst, and I was respected by them, and my credibility was good with them. And to me, that means a lot more than working out here on the street, having to get a notary to stamp something for me, because in there, I didn't need that, just my word alone, you know. And, and, and in there they had their own set of rules, and guidelines, that they go by, that the prison does not interfere with. It's a, it's a, it's a culture within the system.
SG: It sure is.
IW: And it can get addictive. The security, you know exactly where you fit in the system.
SG: Could you become even reluctant to leave?
IW: Very much so.
SG: Yeah.
IW: You wonder why a criminal who was innocent to begin with, who got out after six or seven months, that went out and committed the crime and went back in.
SG: Yeah interesting.
IW: Because you have, you know who you are, you know what you are, and you know where you fit.
SG: And I would guess that many of the people there hadn't known that before?
IW: Oh definitely. That’s their identity. It's their identity. And you come back out on the streets, "Oh, he's been in prison!" You know, it's sort of like you've got the plague. I make no bones about it, "I've been in prison", I've had people frown at me. "Do you have the guts to go do that?" [laughter] It's like the veteran--, he had the guts to go to combat, walk back out, but, to have done that, and to come back. But that, but the, to have done that and to come back, they never interfered with me, I was able to get up before anyone else and write, because my optimum window of writing usually started at 5:30 in the morning until about 7:30 or 8 o'clock. And I would write anywhere from two to five thousand words a day. But--
SG: Longhand?
IW: Longhand, fine tip, because I only a first-class postage stamp would carry seven pages. And so I had to really write small. And I wrote every day. And I had that goal in my mind; I remembered Dr. Godwin saying, "If you're ever in prison, by all means write. Set a goal, and meet that goal every day!" And I did, every day. And he said read. If you're ever in prison, can’t get a better opportunity to lie back and enjoy it! I read three different genres at a time.
SG: What was available?
IW: I was into anything along the lines of philosophy, historical narrative, and escape literature. And whichever one, I would read a chapter a day in each one of them, and then I would accord, myself an interval of the afternoon to read an extra chapter of something I was enjoying! And, and then I had an interval of drawing, being able to draw pictures, I did that for three or four hours, and then in the evening I would write personal correspondence. And then by ten o'clock I was in bed. And this went on for two years and nine months.
SG: Did you do any of the drawing in here? [pause] I was wondering.
IW: This is my red sun drawing, there's other ones out there--
SG: I just thought you might have.
IW: It's pencil.
SG: Is it?
IW: Yeah. But that's just being able to put things that I find pleasing that's one of my sons, there, and that's one of my sons; that's a very close friend, I might as well consider him one of my sons, but I could draw just about anything.
SG: Maybe MariJo could use one of those as the cover or something--.
IW: She wants me do my own illustrations.
SG: Yeah that would be really wonderful, too.
IW: You know, and not only that, but where it comes back to, to the children, and the--. I remembered a lot, there's a lot of things I just can't sit down and recall, but in prison, I learned to keep, you know, just continuous notes, and I would number them, I'd date it and number them, and write it real small, little peg notes. That's a thing that I remember. And so at the end of the day when I would think about it, and a picture would start formulating and I would write about it. And, and it covered anything. Back then I was--. The best thing that happened was the introspective
SG: Ample time for that I expect.
IW: And, and I, I felt sorry for a lot of convicts because they were not facilitated with the degree of thinking that I was capable of thinking. And I kept thinking, they're prisoners, they are really prisoners in their own minds!
SG: Yes, yes uh-huh.
IW: And, and it developed there was an hour's period of time that several convicts, we, we would sit together, and we called ourselves the, the Apostles Twelve, because--. And they would bring up works: Nietzsche, Wagner [laughs].
SG: Where were you getting this stuff?
IW: Inter-library loan! Give you anything you want!
SG: Even in prison?
IW: Even in prison.
SG: And I've always thought I don't care too much about "heaven" or "hell" but there must be inter-library loan there!
IW: You do. You have to have it! And what better place for a library to loan its book, 'cause it's going nowhere!
SG: They'll get it back!
IW: But, we would sit and have talk about questions, and, they would hold their own trials, and I figured out I was the ladder of credibility at the time I was asked to be a judge at a trial.
SG: Yeah, yeah what an honor.
IW: And it was a case over intent, reciprocation, for moonpies and RC Cola! [laughs] A man was trying to trap and entice a younger man in amorous intent, but the guy reneged, and so they had to settle the lawsuit! [laughs] But the idea is, the way the system was working, and the opportunity that I got, a chance that to and realize. I placed entirely too much faith in the judicial system. And at that time they were talking about suppressing those lawsuits. And, and I had no law books; they told me the nearest law library was in Salisbury, and that I would have to transfer to Salisbury to get it.
SG: Where were you then?
IW: In McDowell, down in Marion. And I kept thinking, I just rationalized, well, isn't the foundation of the American judicial system based upon the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights? And I sat down and I wrote a letter to the resident Superior Court judge and Charles Lamb. Good English name.
SG: I'll say! Very literary!
IW: And, and I addressed it to him, and I questioned the judicial process in that district. And that I went into the court with the utmost confidence, not only in my attorneys, but in the system. And I said but after reading this North Carolina history book, that contained a copy of the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, that over half of these--, I have seventeen points that were violated! And, and I wrote the letter, and within a week I got an answer, in the form of a court order ordering me back to the district for a post-conviction relief hearing.
SG: A post-conviction what?
IW: Relief hearing.
SG: Oh OK.
IW: Based upon my letter, questioning why I had my civil rights violated. And I had seventeen counts. And he, come to find out the court room was under repairs, they had no courtroom, but he conducted court standing on top of a chair in front of the Madison County jail. And heard the letter and issued a court order that I be transported immediately back to Madison County to await a hearing date. So they got me out of prison, and by this time the sheriff was on my side, he said I was lied to, I know that now. And, but the North Carolina judicial process is all political. Jim Martin was governor, and the prosecutor Mr. Tom Rusher was a roommate in college of Mr. Sam Wilson who was chief legal counsel to Jim Martin! As with Jim Trotter you know, he was part of that crowd too. And, and so the idea was to keep me in prison, because of political pressure to have me convicted anyway.
SG: Yeah.
IW: I was Tom Rusher’s first prosecution as solicitor. Judge John R. Friday, I know you've heard that name.
SG: Oh yes. We have a building on campus named--.
IW: Yeah Benny Friday's brother. What people of North Carolina know is John R. Friday has had more capital and class B felony cases overturned more than any other judge in the history of North Carolina. Why is the man on the bench?
SG: Ugh huh
IW: Why is the man there? And I addressed that! And that was twelve-fifteen years ago. I addressed that then, and he's more so now.
SG: Yeah.
IW: Well, inadvertently they-- I was fighting an uphill battle against the system, which says, "We're gonna keep you there, as long as it's within our power." And I wrote a letter to Governor Martin, and just asked him, you know, why, why have I been singled out? Why do I have to suffer this? I thought that the Constitution and the law was set aside to protect, even if I am guilty! Where is my protection? And, I guess it never got to him. But I wrote another one, on the recommendation of a friend, Mrs., Mrs. Erlene Stikes from Charlotte, a close personal friend to the governor, had a meeting with him, and I wrote the letter to her. Well, she had an appointment with him, and she walked in, and she says, "Jim, before we start talking business, I want you to read this letter." And, well let’s say it kind of hit the fan again, because they paged me to the White House, which is the administrative building, building on the prison camp. "Come to the White House, you have a letter from the governor!" Because they can't open it.
SG: Oh really.
IW: They can't. They can only lay it there on the table and say, "Open it." And I opened it up, this was a form letter, you know, "I'm aware of the situation, have exhausted all honesty but “P.S.” in pencil, "As Governor, I'm in the most helpless situation as far as your problem is concerned. I cannot intervene. However, I will hand your letter over to a personal friend of mine, and maybe, maybe he might have some suggestions as to what to do." Well, they finally set me a date for a hearing. And they take me way back up into the woods of, of Avery County, sitting there [laughs]. And I have a court-appointed attorney, they brought my old attorney, and he's a judge now, so they're all kowtowing to each other--
SG: Protecting each other.
IW: Yeah, sitting there-- RECORDING INTERRUPTED. RECORDING RESUMED. [Remainder of this text is not displayed on the tape, but was completed using the manuscript. It was done by the first transcriber]
SG: So, there you are in the back woods, and--
IW: They're hearing my--my letter, and my country lawyer who's been appointed for me is just rippin' it up, you know. It's not consistent with the law, it does not meet North Carolina General Statute such and such and such and such, and the district attorney agrees, 'n' says, "We don't even know what paragraph will apply," the rudiments of legalities. And all of a sudden the district attorney jumps up and he says, "Your Honor," he says, "We are very honored to have in our presence a personal friend of the governor up from Raleigh." He said, he says, "He's here in the courtroom right now." Of course,[there's just?] the judge, him, us, this fellow in a blue suit in the back, and he says, "Welcome the Honorable Robert Orr," you know, and says, "He's from the North Carolina bar, personal friend of the governor, on his staff", and Bob says, "I was just up here on some personal business," he says, "didn't want to interfere. " He said, "I thought I'd drop in and see how you were doing," he said, "but I'm no longer on the governor's staff," says, "I resigned, like I said, take care of some personal matters." "Well Bob, make yourself at home, anything we can do to make"--all this garbage. And he said, "Well, there is one favor I would like to ask of the court if it so pleases." Of course, Marvin Gray, from Charlotte, was-- [laughs]. He all but stood up, he said, "Most certainly, the Hon. Mr. Orr!" He said, "I'd like to request permission to sit at the table with the defendant, please." And [laughs] that was--I mean, that was about five minutes of just breath-hold, uh oh! And from there--I didn't win anything there--but Bob took one look at that letter that I'd written to Judge Lamb, and he said, "Why are they holding you?" I said, "That's the question I asked." And he looked at it and looked at it, and he said, he said, "They're going to tie you up with formalities." He said, "By sundown tomorrow, that'll be taken care of." He worked all night writing a petition. And brief--for the courts. And brought it to me. He says, "File this." And he said, "Don't be disappointed." He said, "They'll probably deny it." He said, "Marvin Gray, he'll deny it." And, ah--he said, "Here's a cover letter for you." He said, "It'll be denied again. Here's another cover letter for when it's denied." He said, "We've got to exhaust your state remedies." And I sent it forward, 30 days later, four weeks later, Marvin Gray issued an opinion; he denied my motion. So I put the cover letter Court of Appeals, 12 to 18 months of my prison sentence. So I sent it off [laughs]; the next week it comes back. How about that--there's a typo on it; I thought, "You nitpicking. " Picked it up, and the cover sheet was to be heard; the court decided, "We'll not hear this case; therefore summarily denied." Then I take the Supreme Court cover sheet, shooed it out, and they're talkin' maybe two years. Well, by the end of the week I get it back. "The Supreme Court refuses to hear this case." But bottom of the--there's a stick-um note on there, written in ink, it says, "You have hereby exhausted all your state remedies. Good luck." And "R.O."--Robert Orr. And then I put the cover sheet for a writ of habaeus corpus to a Federal judge. Now, this started out in June. By the middle of September I had a court order from the Federal Courts to appear.
SG: That's fast, is it not?
IW: Very. Unprecedented. And the state was ordered to deliver me to a courtroom, which was unusual, because at work they called me up there, said, "I have court orders, that judge is evidently mad because he's ordered us to deliver you." He said, "Ordinarily we make you available so Federal marshals can pick you up; but he wants you delivered." Got up there, he walks in 'n' he says, "Well, I'm going to give this case 45 minutes 'cause I got a fishin' trip; I ain't got that much time to waste on it." And my attorney was a appointed attorney, Carlton [Knight?]; his first Federal case. And they got him on the Bar, because I was--I'd filed as a pauper, so the Federales picked up the expenses and had him join the Bar! [laughs] But he asked one question. 'N' the judge says, "Excuse me. I know that you have your client's best interest and everything in mind," and he said, "But I'm in a hurry," he said, "I've got some questions I want to ask." And it happened. Just boom, boom, boom, the whole state's case fell apart. Right there in the courtroom. In 45 minutes. And, ah--he totally destroyed the prosecuting witness' testimony, he ( ) the jurors, and that was the first time I'd ever heard anyone chastised by the judge like that. Because he was out of his chair, pacing back and forth, had his robe pulled up, and he was wearing blue jeans! And he was walkin' back, he kept lookin' at the ( ), he says, "I can't believe this." He said, "That this case came into my courtoom." And he said, "And you call yourselves 'protectors of the people.”And he singled out Mr. [Con?] and he said, "You're protected by the law." He said, "Any other person go into a man's home, take him by force against his will, hold him against his will, deprive his family of his presence, and his provision. ." And he said, "And hope you didn't scratch an elbow 'n' leak blood," he said, "It'd become capital." He said, "You're protected. You're a criminal in the worst sense of the term." And he said, "I think you know what my decision's goin' to be." He said, "I can't just turn him loose right now; I have to write an opinion." He said to his clerk, "I hope you got your fishing clothes with you," he said, "We're leavin' here soon, and you're goin' with me." He said, "There will be an opinion by close of business Monday"; this was on a Friday. He said, "Mr. Welch, please. Bear with us a little longer." Then it was a race to get me out of prison--the Federales and the state. But, out of that, came a lot of, ah-- in some ways that ending was sweet poetic. And in one sense, it did, ah--exonerate me. But at the same time it gave me a new badge to wear and carry: I had been the persecuted, the wronged, and, ah, in some ways it was good because it gave me an opportunity to read, it gave me an opportunity to write--and most importantly, it gave me an opportunity to find myself, that I would not have had, which is part of the affliction with the people in Cherokee, they are afflicted with a need to have to make a living.
SG: Yeah, I can see that. Do you mind if I backtrack just a moment?
IW: Go ahead.
SG: When you said "people in Cherokee," that reminded me of a few things. Do you know Walker Calhoun?
IW: Mhm--
SG: At all? Yeah. I have't interviewd him formally, but we've chatted quite a bit--when you were growing up, did the Stomp Dance or the Green Corn Dance still occur?
IW: We had dances--
SG: This sounds like a terribly rude change of subject--
IW: That's fine, I see how the web is woven here. It was not dance per se--maybe at the turn of the century, you may have seen the Green Corn, but the Green Corn had been lost and brought back by the Western Cherokee. And, ah, I know that Walker [was] initially instrumental in that--there were some others who went out there. Because stomp dancing is very common out there. And they're more strict about them than they are in Cherokee. In Cherokee I'm aware as to why the ritual isn't as--as articulated as it is in Oklahoma, because there's not really a full understanding by all participants. Walker, I think, speaks enough of the old language to where he understands [his own path; also?]; he understands, primarily, because that dictates as such. And I have yet to make a stomp, a green corn, here in Cherokee. We went by the square ground--they were getting ready for one, and they were kind of prohibitive about, or conditional about who could walk on their square ground. And Pat made it clear quick when we first approached. I'm not sure as to how we would be received as--as warriors.
SG: An interesting point, yeah.
IW: And, because the more people around Cherokee have a conflicting--not a conflicting, they have a set perspective on the warrior, which is the English interpretation, and that is one thing that we've had to deal with in a lot of circles here in the East, because the understanding, the understanding--ah, is lacking. A lack of understanding. So--the only we can bridge that is a slow process and hopefully that--I was wishing that Walker would become more verbose about it, but I'm kinda questioned as to whether or not he has ever really entertained that aspect of the culture. Just like the highest title that you can have among your people is to be called a killer. Among the Cherokee. But how many people in this day and age would call themselves, "I'm a killer. I'm not a warrior, I'm a killer." [Both laugh] And they were the esteemed ones. That you could not become a killer until you had proven that you were a spiritual leader.
SG: I would say that's a link we never make.
IW: That's it exactly. That's the reason--We had tried to, ah, find a venue of cohesion among all the different tribes, and a better vehicle than your warriors' societies. But, we ran into the problem not only of inter-tribal jealousies and misunderstanding but also the perception of warrior among them, whereas here, among the Cherokee--and we didn't discover this for a long time, we were just as susceptible to that--to that perception ourselves. When bit by bit making different, ah-- ceremonies--and if the warrior is so important to the ceremony, why is he important? And let me sit back and re-examination--a re-examination of the language that's being used. And I have a little bit of linguistics background, enough to make me troublesome [SG laughs], but in listening to the words, and trying to translate the words in m'own mind, not by English handles, but to release myself and permit the imagery. And generate, if it can, at times, because these concrete terms come in, and I realize--that the inconsistency has to be found somewheres if there's one there. And why when the eagle feather hits the ground only a warrior can pick it up; why? And then I got to--there's nothing to explain this--and so after making some of the different groups and listen to 'em--we need to, ah--I heard one old man say, and--he's dead now, but--a warrior has to be an example. OK. A warrior has lost part of his soul. The story in that chaos--Giant and his brother were jealous, and they tried to take over, and, and so the--and we all were one people, a people of peace, and someone had to go forth and fight Giant, but he was so big, who would go, because surely he would die. And not only that, but you'd have to kill him, and that's wrong, but that's the only way you could stop him. So who do you send? Who goes? And do we have any brave young man or woman or child who is willing to go forward? Brave? So this is--and several young men stepped forward, and some women. Willing to go forward. Because Giant has disrupted the the harmony, and has to be restored. And if you succeed in--in quelling Giant, and restoring harmony, we will honor you. And you will sit in the front of our councils, and you will have special privilege to the ancient ones and the ancestors. You will--you will have to sacrifice a portion of your soul, and for that sacrifice that you make we will honor you even more. And that you will come back incomplete, and we will help you, we will help you establish a new balance so that you may live. [long silence]
SG: Yes? [laughs nervously]
IW: I've had a lot of problems in dealing with my war experience. And since taking up the lance that I realized there was a lot of foundation to this. And that maybe this was an avenue that has been lost. Because I realized that personally I was incomplete. And that once I identified myself as a warrior, and I wasn't--once I heard that story, I cried. And I got to thinking, my gosh, everything I've ever read, all the psychology texts, the guilt complex, and all that garbage, the traumatic stress syndrome, and here it is in the most basic form of myth and lore.
SG: How do you re-enter the society?
IW: That was, you know, like OK. You may recall that the Cherokee ceremonial purification--because all members were impure when they came back. And so the woman was in charge of the purification period. Because you could not lead until you had been purified. OK, let's take this part of the equation, and take what [out?] these X factors, and just see how they start translating now. You know, not that it's a divine revelation or anything; it's always been there. Because we have lost our identity to like the animal that we are, the animal that we're trying to mainstream and make a great society, so--looking at that, it hard to figure out: OK, you're not complete, you're born perfect, you lose a portion of your soul, and we joke about it, we call it PMS: the physical, the mental, the spiritual have to be in balance, and if you're incomplete in that area [you are in the others?]. And in order for you to survive, you have balance by re-adjusting the weights factors of the triangle. And whether it's spiritual, mental, and because you've lost a portion of your soul, and so you're missing a lot of the physical, so what's left? It's the spiritual. And kept on thinking--is that why the warriors pick up eagle feathers? Is that why the warriors have final decision? Are they saying the warrior has to be an example? But just because you've gone to battle does not mean you're a warrior. Until that realization, this is what I have to do for the rest of my life. It's like living with that demon on your back for the rest of your life, but you have to learn to live with it. Develop strategies to live with it. In harmony with the rest of the world around you. That's when you become a warrior. That's when you can pick up the eagle staff.
SG: This reminds me a good deal--and I'm speaking from personal experience here--of AA philosophy also: the physical, the mental, the spiritual. And I--I have a book that's very hard to get about Native Americans, alcohol, and drugs, and it's called Wounded Warriors--that's a very pleasant--well, it's not a pleasant reality--it's a pleasant image, and the importance of bringing Native American traditions to bear on the healing process. You know, that something that simply emanates from our culture is not--mainstream culture--is not adequate.
IW: We've had some problems--like we've been trying to establish warrior societies within various tribes, and this started out back in the 80s. But in Cherokee we have the Tsalagi and the Qualla. And they have problems. Primarily I think it's an interpretation of what they are, the purpose, and on the other end of that, the Etowah, or the Etowah here, in Asheville, we meet at the most unlikely times. We meet on Wednesday morning in the middle of the week! Ten o'clock, thirty men coffee session. The Old Man Coffee Break, sometimes we call it. But we--it gets crowded in there sometimes. We don't have--we don't have dues. Most of the people who come to these coffees are non-joiners. They don't participate in anything else. It's a strain for someone to get out there and sell somebody poppies, you know, or to be in a parade or something like that; what would prompt an individual who will do none of this pick up a lance or a rifle and go into a circle and dance. that absolutely refused to get involved in anything. That's the [stuff?]
SG: This is for men particularly?
IW: And women.
SG: Do women come?
IW: We have women can go enlist, but we don't have that many women around here who are active.
SG: Why?
IW: I have no--maybe women veterans--
SG: Yeah, that makes sense, of course.
IW: The most I have seen was in Albany, Georgia, back in May, and there's a number women came into the circle. But you know, it's the idea of that we don't have as many problems so we don't have dues, but we never have problems of money. The other organizations, that's all they're working for, is to get money to float their treasury. And they get--it boils down to, I think, just the basic concept of peace and harmony is what we're working for, we're not looking to better our image or name, because we are examples. Every man is--is a humble man--if you'll pause that just for a second, let me get let me get a card, it's over here.
SG: Certainly.
IW: I got something in here. OK, this is a, a--we say as a pledge--but in actuality, when we dance, we're supposed to be chanting this in song, and, "As a warrior, I pledge to refrain from war. I pledge to refrain from bloodshed. I pledge to refrain from all forms of violence. I pledge to refrain from party contentions. I pledge to refrain from pride and worldly ambitions. I promise, as a warrior, to be just. I promise as a warrior to be honest, and pay all debts. And as a warrior I promise t'adhere to the truth, and as a warrior I will oppose falsehoods, deceits, and hypocrisies. And, as a warrior, I promise to keep all these vows and promises."
SG: That is so powerful, and so counter to the mainstream culture's stereotype of a warrior.
IW: Well, they wonder why I don't like to hear war stories. Particularly if it's about self; it's not our role to as self to sing our songs. The measure of a man or a warrior is to have someone else sing your songs. And we had a beautiful journeying ceremony for a friend of mine who had passed away back in June. And I was on the inner circle and I was saying that this was the kind of man that legends are made of, this is the kind of warrior that novels are written about. You know, and I was telling them a little bit about him. And we're here not to honor him but to-- to express to the ancients, and our ancestors, that we are grateful that they have sent him back here to us for such a short period of time and now, and thank them for taking him away to make room in our hearts for the next--next warrior. And we beg them to receive him back, and, you know, and--to have that circle, the journeying ceremony to release him, was such a powerful experience, and no two journeying ceremonies go quite the same. You know, it depends what the setting is, the people, you're not sure as to how people are going to receive it; it--it gets--and the man I talk about in that was that he [laughs] by himself fulfilled all of these. And during Tet in 1968 he was senior advisor to the Chelong province, and in all of South Vietnam during Tet of 1968 his capital was the only one that did not fall into enemy hands. And he explained why it didn't fall. But then again he got a lot of criticism for what he did. But they had the--the Vietcong, the National Liberation Front, had broken into the warehouse, they'd gotten in there, gotten into ARVN uniforms, and equipment, and you could not tell them from the Army. And he--as soon as his troops hit the capital, he received word that the warehouse, the depot, had been captured by the NLF. And he laughed for a second; he says, "Well, they can't wear the boots because they're all flat-footed," and issued a summary order, summary on-the-spot execution of any uniformed Vietnamese without boots on. He got a lot of criticism, but he stopped the 371st VC battalion that way. Anyone without shoes on [that he sees?], he shot.
SG: That strikes me as such a complicated story.
IW: Heart of Darkness, Conrad, and "Apocalypse Now," the film they sent into the back regions. Bill was like that, he saved the Cambodians from ( ) army. And I'm still trying to deal with his passing, as is everyone, you know--Darlene--and everyone else, and that's because he just surreptitiously got into the fibre of your heart, you know, and, ah--but he made that staff right there, and--ah--he would have finished it, and so he died. And that appreciation never [run?] quite well, or had been [?] until Thursday when I was with my cousin, and we were talkin'. We were talking about the eagle head, and the wolf hide, the deer hide, the white oak staff, and the eagle feathers, the eagle head, and I said, "Well, he finished it." And he said, "Well, he had no other reason to live then, did he?" 'Cause he was one of those who didn't--he just bing, gone! you know, just shocked the hell out of everybody. But--and since Thursday I have been looking at that thing more and more, after he had said that. Because I remember the utmost importance at the time was to recover that eagle head and we couldn't find it. And there's a taxidermist had the staff attached to the wolf hide, to the shaft, but we couldn't find the eagle head. But it got packed with the rest of his estate, and shipped out. But after two weeks it came back. But he had pretty much done everything on that.We had been holding--we had an eagle head before, but we gave it to the Oneida. 'Cause they were strugglin' up there, and they had quite a large group of people. And what happened with the Oneida is that all the Native Americans with the VFW, the American Legion came over to the Oneida to the warrior society, so they needed an eagle staff, so we carried the eagle head and ( ). But we got this one, and we got another one, but we don't know where it's to go, if it's needed--
SG: You'll know.
IW: Yeah, we'll know. We're very proud of this one and right now there's no one to carry it except me. And, ah--
SG: Why is that?
IW: The warrior society member--we have to follow the warrior lance that we carry. And, for a year after his death--that's him on the table there. For a year after his death, well then, someone else takes on his spirit. And they carry his feather on a lance. And during that year they have to pledge abstinence from alcohol and tobacco because they represent his spirit. And they can only be pure, and unpolluted, to do that. And so after a year his feather'll go to the lance here. And we had just put it up because we had another man--a member of our group--the bearded ( ) over there, last year. And, ah--he was Lebanese. Marine Corps. But he after a bout with cancer, he finally passed away last year and had made the eighth. I brought the fallen warrior's lance home and I put it up [and Bill had?] carried it for years, and as you know, recently ( ), they don't have to use it again for awhile, and the next thing I know, taken it back down . And he felt so guilty, because he says, "Why did I say that?" Like he could have altered fate, you know? But, you know, it--if there's any kind of kinship, or reunification with-- with their heritage, and I've read some of Noam Chomsky's the innate--that maybe that is what is drawing these men to this kind of social and spiritual search. And possibly it will serve as a venue to find themselves, because just about everyone in the group had some pretty harsh combat experience in the past that has left a scar, you know, in their minds.
SG: How did this society start? Has it existed long, in its current version?
IW: It had to start with--back in '82--so let me think on this a minute, because I know where it started, and how it started. It did not start as a search for a society as much as it started as a group with Oklahoma. And, ah--let's take a break for a few minutes.
SG: Sure! I'd be glad to. .. BREAK
IW: I was five or six years old, and it was informal, but my uncles were there, and we were doing something else; it was on a Saturday morning, bright and sunshiny, in the summer time, and one of my uncles had a huge snapping turtle and what he did was, he took this snapping turtle over to a block of wood; and he had an axe, and he handled it by the tail, and the turtle stuck his head and his legs out. He hacked off its right front paw and then he took the turtle and turned it loose. He kept the paw.
SG: That must have been one very startled turtle.
IW: He said, "We have to thank the turtle for sharing with us," he said, "but because it's missing one paw," he said, "it'll stay in this general area now," and he said, "No one will ever bother it." But they did the scraping, they went to a stream there, stories, and scraped my neck with it, and they said, "It will give you long life," and--it was an older man there, too; and he had mentioned--he said, "The time will come that if you"--he said, "Listen, you'll see death three times." And he said, "And you'll face it each time." He said, "But the fourth time will be the one that you will go with it." And I would think that I've seen it twice already, at least that I can be consciously aware of. But they had drawn blood on my neck, and on my chest and on my lower back, and said, "As long as you have water, you will live." And that was one tradition I carried on with my two older boys. And both of them. We got a turtle one day, and we went down to the water and I had another man with us; the one on the right, he was with us, he was with us, he's--a unique story about that, but he did the ceremony. And [Andy? Cherokee words]. And--my father--that's my father on the left--those are pencil drawings, by the way. The ones that I did. But my father, when he died, he gave me to Andy as a son, because Andy had no sons. And the ( ) had come to my son; when my father was terminal back in '83. He would never come before midnight, it was always at midnight that he would show up, and he was sometimes sittin' till dawn with my father, maybe they would talk for a little bit. And one night he asked me to take a walk with him. And this was in January. And we went out to the river and each man has his--his--for lack of a better term, his ritual, his medicine make. And he performed his and then he gave me permission to perform mine. And he watched, and afterwards he said he'd finished up with another ritual. He asked me, he said, "You know your father don't have much longer to live," and I said, "Well, the doctors said maybe two years." He said, "No," he said, "I see fresh strawberries." And afterwards when he had left, the long story short, the boys were just little fellows. And I used to raise a lot of strawberries, and ( ) came running in one day and he says somethin': " ( ) here, look what I found out in the garden." Huge red strawberries. So I took a basket out there and we found a few ripe ones; had enough, maybe four, maybe a pint. And I took 'em into the house and I kept 'em and I cleaned 'em, scraped with some sugar on, and here both the boys ran to their grandfather sitting at the table in the back yard. And he sat there, and that basket, and he pulled up a strawberry; he put one into each mouth and a couple of bluejays, and then he would eat one. And this was on a Friday night, right about sundown, that he was doing this, and he died right before breakfast the next morning. And ( ) fresh strawberries. And it's things like that that make you [laughs]—
SG: It really does. Do you know J.T. Garrett--oh, this is an enlargement--
IW: Dr. J.T. Garrett, yeah.
SG: Now why was I asking about him, though? And Michael, his son. He's also a professor at UNCC now; he joined us last year. Oh, it's Michael who said this to me; I was talking, probably not very diplomatically, also about how disappointed I was that--at what I still do regard--but I don't know, I'm probably being too judgmental--a kind of brainwashed Christianity on the reservation, and Michael suggested--he thought some of the really elderly people had adopted churches, or affiliated with churches so as to carry on with their own beliefs anyway. That the church has functioned as a kind of cover.
IW: I think it used to be. More so because I used to see a lot of ritual and ceremony outside of the church, in the homes. Sometimes we children would be called to dance and there was no occasion to dance other than the elders callin' us out, [they?] packed earth around the house to dance, while they made noise on a old dishpot and had rattles or something, and they would sing the song, and then show us how to do these dances. And to us it was fun make, because we had no idea what was going on; but for some reason or another the older people were very much involved in what was going on. And nowadays I see a lot of--one thing that blinds me real quick--is to hear the-- END OF TAPE TWO, SIDE A TAPE TWO, SIDE B
SG: But it interested me that in peoples' attempts to re-Indianize themselves, they have to use what's there.
IW: ( ) the Cherokee. Now that is--my cousin and I were talkin' about this--this syncretism that goes on among a lot of tribes now, who had their cultures decimated by other Christian viewpoint. The "Great Spirit", what's the "Great Spirit?" I think it's either Jim Beam or Bacardi Rum. Johnnie Walker, especially the red one, I like the red one. [laughs] I'm being facetious. The Great Spirit. I've had to go back to Columbus: Cristofo Colombo and his chronologer, Father Bartoleme de Las Casas, who wrote about the natives being perfect, except they weren't Christian. [laughs] And so that's what it comes back to the--the Great Spirit, so, how could they determine what we believed in if they had no fluency in our language, we definitely had no fluency in theirs, and even back then, they were living off concrete marks on a piece of paper, and we only known 'em by imagery and stories, and chronology [as far as it went? of an event?] And so it--how can they--"What do you believe in? Do you believe in God?" What's God? ( ) 12,000-year-old man, I can't think of anyone who knows what God is. I'm thinking--now this is just a hypothesis on my part--is that the Great Spirit refers to the intrinsic desire and appeasement of doing and having done good. And that there is no way of communicating that to an English-speaking person in your face. Ah, I don't believe in God, I believe in something--how can I say "intrinsic feeling" in Indian context, and translate it into English? That's where the confusion comes. I try to tell young people who are searchin'--and the best analogy that I can draw is a football pep rally--is that you don't believe in the football, you don't believe in the rally, but somewhere along the way you get worked up. Psychologically you get your--your spirit--for lack of a better word the spirit, the team spirit, the school spirit evolves; there's this energy. And I asked 'em, say, "Haven't you ever just done something to something, something from the goodness of your heart for somebody, with no thought about God, hell, penance? Just done something, to share." What's that feeling? How do you describe that? You know, to me this is what binds the People together. Because I hear so many little chestnuts of--of history, hear and there, the anger factor; there was no anger in the--in the--the clan, or the tribal community: if you upset me, whatever your colors are, on your bracelet there, gold and orange and black, those are your colors; you angered me, so I'll let go and I'd take my knife and throw it ( ), and I'd take a string, and I'd take a gold, a black and an orange bead, and I tie it to my knife and I'd stick it in [the doorframe?] of my door there. And you--"I'm goin' over see Isaac today," walk up, "Whoops! There's his bone-handled knife with my colors! He's mad, I better not go over there. Better yet, we'll send someone to come and--under the guise of being social, "Come and drink my ( )," you know, I'll let them drink, I won't let you drink'--but sit down and somewhere or another the conversation will evolve, "I'm glad that's not my colors hanging on your knife on your doorway." Well, that would give me license to talk, because you have to [evolve?] for me to say, "Well, you tell your friend somethin'--you can't do that, you know." Everything has to be of a passive--
SG: Non-confrontational?
IW: Right--and I would say, "Well, you know, being the lowlife that I am, I wear my feelings and emotions on my sleeve, you know?" Then you would talk to 'em, "It sort of irritated me. Yes, really! Now why would you do that?" You know? And, ah, said, "What can be done to correct this problem?" Maybe they didn't know. And, you see, this is how harmony was maintained. I look at that, and I think about intrinsic--right here. There is no written book that says there's a divine influence, a divine revelation. There's no set to--to--validate something that is being divided up. It's all essentially, from here, that desire to live together in peace--peace and harmony pops up so many times, not just in the context of peace and harmony, but in the context of--of the stories, of-of-of of the way you talk. In a language itself is--you don't quite have the vocabulary to question--you know what you can do, is raise the tone, the nasal tone, and--like you're doing, and just say, "Well, I don't understand," or "I do understand." If I do understand, it's "M'hmmmm, m'hmmmm, m'hmmmm. ." Now the idea is we don't do this because God says so. This--we do this because that's the way we do this. "But why do you do that?" "My family was hungry. That's the reason we prayed to the spirit of whatever we had to kill until its family, so that my family might live, you know." And I'm not one to judge you for doing this as long as, you know, you made it right, you made blood price with his family. That word comes back into my--"You make blood price." And likewise, in a same village setting, if there was a transgression against another clan, there was no constable, there was no magistrate. They would come to your clan and talk; to the elders of your clan, you know, "We have been insulted and wronged, what's the price that would be required to correct this?" And maybe you work out something. That would be the price, the blood price; if this transgression was so great, it would require a blood price. "Your son inadvertently killed my son during a stickball game. I have lost a son." "Well, what's the blood price?" "I need another son, not a newborn, I need a grown man." So he leaves your clan, he becomes a [member?] of their clan. So it's all a matter of that spirit, the intrinsic energy of doing good, feeling good, but I think that the--ah--was perverted into a concrete image of a supreme being. That lack of--not the lack of, but the inability to communicate it adequately.
SG: I suspect way, way, way--millennia back--in European culture they may have felt like that as well. They got so lost, they took a different path, and now--we're so far apart. But that's just a supposition of mine. You mentioned something to me, when we spoke on the phone the first time, about a panel of Wisdom Keepers?
IW: Right. I don't know where the term "Wisdom Keepers" came from, but I keep hearin' it poppin' up, over the past eight years. Ah--I was asked to sit as a Wisdom Keeper, mainly because the program and the committee were running out of Wisdom Keepers, they just didn't have that many.
SG: The committee and the program of?
IW: The Kituwah, as they call themselves, it's the Kituwah. I made American--when was it--heavy Native American involvement the first year, but they were primarily mainly profit-motivated, they were just using us. Many of us dropped out. But part of it appealed to the granola bunch, to have Wisdom Keepers. Because they're willing to--to spend a hundred dollars to come and sit--
SG: They're able to afford it!
IW: Yeah! [laughs] And I had the opportunity to sit on a panel with two other people: one was from Oklahoma, and Cherokee. And they were giving the pat answers, that they learned from these other two panel members. About their education system; well, we had a very good education system, comparable to any other education system in the. yeah, OK. But anyway, I lasted one session! And then I was not advised to as to which session I was sitting the next day. [Both laugh] Pretty much questions like what I just answered about the Great Spirit, that was not too well-received by some of my--my fellow Cherokee people, and that was blasphemy, it was--[laughs]
SG: Do you mean ones who had become Christians?
IW: Right, right, if you don't believe in God, it's actually the Great Spirit, you know, then you're a follower of the devil, basically.
SG: Isn't that sad.
IW: I can live with that. I can live with it. [laughs] I'm not out to convert anybody. And it's just that after that one session of Wisdom Keepers, the Wisdom Keepers just sort of lost its--its status as a viable vehicle of maintaining historical data, fact, substance, or whatever.
SG: So it doesn't really exist, now.
IW: Not really.
SG: I mean, was it tied to that festival? So I gather you have no particular fondness for the New Age.
IW: Not really.
SG: I don't blame you. But this is a New Age capital up here, it seems like!
IW: It is!
SG: And where I live in Charlotte, there's something called Central Sun just down the street--you gag when you walk in that store, there is so much incense and so much pseudo-mystical crap. That's what it boils down to, I think.
IW: Ah, I was invited to a medicine wheel--
SG: Where?
IW: Over here, at ( ) of Ivy. And [chuckles] I went down there; [chuckles] why I was invited, but I also ( ). But I went down there, and it was like the Isle of the Sirens! I was waitin' for 'em to throw some lotus blossom at me, or something. [Chuckles] But they had a medicine wheel, they had rocks out there, posted, all the different poets, and [chuckles] a kind of Iroquoian medicine wheel here, and I said no man alive, and they says, "Well, we had a blast." Well, I said, "I don't know how to bless a medicine wheel, you got yourself a priesthood, Catholic church, have them way back". But it was part of the lesbyterian movement up there, so.
SG: Of the what movement? Oh, you don't need to explain, I got it. Oh, how funny! [Both laugh]
IW: So I expect to see a man nailed to a tree! But--I see that, and there's two groups here; I've had people inquire about "sweats," and I suggest malaria; they say "Build a sweat lodge", oh, OK, yeah, sure. And I prefer to describe over in Black Mountain; they're a pretty sincere group of people for what they do. However, I'm very guarded about sending people over here for an inipi ceremony. It's very Gothic--and I think, in the past five years, I've sent two people. Whereas, with the crystal swingers over there, I have sent probably a couple of busloads by now; yeah, and I've been invited to their--their bear dance, now get this--I was invited to their Beltane fire ceremony, a bit of the Celtic in there somewhere! You would see people running naked in the middle of the night! OK, we call them Rainbows, over here, in the Pisgah National Forest. And they sit down, and they have to do all that smoking, and the first thing that Andy, the first thing that he taught me, you see that one [a photo] over there? Yeah Andy--the first thing that he taught me is that you don't--he said, "If it really works for you, you don't need that to help you." 'Cause some of them have to--like out West they refer to datura, alcohol, other, ah--ah, agents to open the threshhold. He said, "You don't need that, and that it's not good that you do, because it will blind you, that's how ( ) will blind you." And that's what they used to ( ) for getting drunk. Was go blind. Go blind, go blind. And so, I see these people out there, and they're looking for something they can pick up a recipe for, shake 'n' bake it, consume it, and like with the Wisdom Keepers, we never solicit monies for anything that we do as a warrior society; we're called upon to go somewheres, we go. You know, we pay our own way. And this is where the other society, we're talkin' about 1982, this is where we had come to a partin' of ways. 'Cause there is money to be made, you carry your eagle staff and have a couple of blanket dances, and that's where the Qualla and the Tsalagi have--the Qualla is strictly mercenary, they don't go anywhere minimum a thousand dollars. The Tsalagi, they're very factionalized now. And they don't like the yellow star, the looks of it they do not like, they do not appreciate us being at the same functions as them because we will not accept money. Even for the ( ) there is a lot of money, and we sought to meet somewheres else, you know, we don't accept, because right in front of them we hand it over we won't accept, because we are and we are not--we are not to have anything of our own. We take care of ourselves, and we take care of the People, and that's the spirit of the warrior. But the only thing that we require if we come to your location is to be fed at least one meal and a place to go over lie down to sleep. Otherwise, we take care of ourselves. And that's the way it was with the Cherokee, you know--you show up here, we'll feed you, it's our hospitality--that's how some of the tribes got along, was the hospitality; if you didn't receive hospitality, that meant you were not welcome. And so when you came to the fringes like Tecumseh back in--back in 1809, somewheres around there, when he came in, he was so feared, the power of his rhetoric was so feared, that the chieftains met with him, or the clans met with him, on Soco Gap up there. That's as far as the Cherokee territory would permit him to come. Because they knew that once he started making the rounds of the Cherokee villages, that they would not be able to hold the young warriors back. And because it was a democratic system, that the councils would then be hearing the uproar, the young people saying, "Let's join Tecumseh's federation." Which was a smart move on the part of the council. But he came there, they set up a village there, to where his entourage. . Tecumseh was shrewd. He--he recruited an entourage of warriors. From the different tribes. Only the best of the best. The most majestic looking ones. So, whenever he approached a village, they would come in in formation, and pageantry, with their rattles and their drum, chanting. And what tribal council inn an agrarian agricultural tribe like the Cherokee could stand up to something like that; here's all the glory coming down the thoroughfare and we're goin' to try to convince our young bucks to stay home? And, ah--but he was, he was shrewd, and the--the dangerous thing was that he was half-Cherokee, so he could appeal—
SG: Why didn't I know that? I didn't.
IW: His mother was Cherokee. But he was raised here.
SG: He was?
IW: He was sittin' here as a child and raised by the Cherokee. He, ah--ran into the tracks of Dragging Canoe, in the Tennessee valley, up there, ( ) in the 1790s and, ah--John Sevier chased him all over the place. But he learned from Dragging Canoe, went back, and then he went to England, and got an education, came back. In my book he's just as comparable as any great military leader, because at one time he was put in command of the forces that besieged Detroit. And then, ah, the general was replaced by a blueblood, who did not want the average [Indian?] involved, so he was reduced to this capacity. But he masterminded the victory at Detroit. He was a very fair man.
SG: Was there something you wanted to show me?
IW: Oh, I was just talkin' about Andy there. That's another drawing, that's from the war experience . . [longish pause]
SG: I have stayed here so long, Mr. Welch, it's incredible, but could I just ask one or two things more?
IW: Yeah, sure.
SG: What would you regard as the major accomplishments in your life?
IW: Pertaining to--myself, my people, society?
SG: All of the above?
IW: Ah!. major accomplishments. I don't know if it's good or bad of society, the image I think of the Native American has evolved to that romantic image that everyone that the hybrid nature of the American society is trying to grasp on to something, because they can't find anything solid in their European, their Anglo roots. And in one way I should be proud, but in another way I'm saddened, because we talk about the New Age--seekers who show up and totally, without any--ah--without any really forethought as to how they may be denigrating the image. And the ignorance of society as a whole accepting anything that they hear about Native Americans, because they have this almost unquenchable thirst for knowledge, and you have a lot of charlatans out there who are taking advantage of this, this mystic and holistic healing process, the roots, the herbs, the spiritualisms. You go out and dig up crystals, and I got a drum circle over here, you know, and go over there, nothing but African [tongas?] and, ah, hairbone necklaces. And, in one way that's good, but in the other respect I think it makes some of the more traditionalists withdraw to the shadows of obscurity. And I don't readily say or share much of what I know, because I don't--I don't think people will understand. And what they do understand, they will find boring, [mundane?] or too demanding. As a culture I don't--I think the culture's gone. For the Cherokee. I mentioned this before, that the value of history, the value of culture is no more. We'd be better off right now being put on the pages of a book, labelled, given its' library number and put on the shelf, because I don't think there are that many people who are willing to sacrifice their personal attitudes, their personal needs, their standard of living, and their desire for a better tomorrow, to acquiesce and just be satisfied with being a human being.
SG: How do you handle this with your children, then? What do you try to transmit to them?
IW: You--the way I see it is that there are--so many, so many sensory-appealing aspects of modern society, the noise, ah--the taste, the feel, the smells that--that anything that goes back to the old culture has to be cultivated, and a taste acquired. You know, I--I can't stand caviar, goose liver pate, but people love it, their blood runs bluer, they've got a good palate for wine, fine. But it has to be cultivated and--and people who are cultivated appreciate to a different perspective than what we would. The New Age is that they could not appreciate a bottle of ( ) like you would a bottle of Ripple. Because the taste and the buzz, they do not know how to tease, and, and--and to, ah--to tease, and arouse the palate with a sniff of wine, you know, they don't have a clear palate with wine, they gulp formaldehyde. But, ah, it is the same way with any culture. They're gulping the imagery, they're gulping the romanticism of it, the savagery, the appeal of it, the rest of the manliness, the womanliness, the openness of some of the aspects of some societies. It--it--( ) maybe to distort maybe their perception, their metaphysics. And they use ( ) to justify their actions, I don't know, but the thing is, that the reasons are multi-faceted. And for m'own children, I'm proud to say that I see little tinges of why am I doing this this way? Well, that's the way your grandfathers used to do. But where did I learn this? When you were a child. Oh, I remember when we were children, we used to do this, and it was so much fun, yeah. We used to eat this, it used to taste so good. Either that, or never quite tasted like I have this hunger for it. Who knows how to make this? Things of that nature. And, ah--it's, it's difficult--and it's just sad, because I figure when the next two generations--it's going to be nothing more than a tom-tom party week after the ( ) party.
SG: What do you think of any efforts at cultural preservation?
IW: How can you, ah--some of the western tribes have held on, but a term that I use for for Cherokee a lot, it's a wasteland, an intellectual wasteland, and a society wrapped in secure misery. And I see that a lot with some of the western reservations because no one has a uniqueness about them, they all live in the same kind of dwelling; they all work for someone or they don't work and they used to, they're nobody now. Because they don't have a job. And when you're nobody, what direction do you have other than to find a can of Lysol and some sponge bread and drive on, and try to drown your. Remember the old ways, that's how it's being preserved! Because you can't appreciate the old ways unless you live in the old ways and the old ways sustain you. You can't go out here and expect to live in a white society to--why do I say white society, a modern American society, to live up to their modus operandi--the cars, all the garnishing of affluencies, of providing for your children, it takes hard cash, hard credit now [chuckles]--they don't--they don't rely on the communities; they've become an individualistic society of, of-- I'll make X number of dollars, and therefore you respect me and give me credit, and I can live. It's not like I'm not sure I've killed one deer this year, that's enough for my family, but because you have none I will give you half. It doesn't happen like that anymore. And it used to be in the community, we knew we'd never go hungry. The most memorable Thanksgiving--why Thanksgiving--was--we were alone, my mother, my two older sisters, and my younger sister, there were four of us, and a dog. And all we had was a boiled potato apiece for Thanksgiving. But a neighbor, who also had boiled potatoes, split a pound of butter with us. And that was a happy Thanksgiving, because everybody else was having their regular turkey, the trimmings, you know. But people said, ["You're in your place here, and?] And I couldn't have been more than four or five years old. Standing on the bench between my two sisters to keep from falling off of it, and mashing up my boiled potato, putting butter on it. And that was in some war, I can't remember. And I can't fathom in detail any other Thanksgiving [in the whole world?], even November of 1996.
SG: Is there anything you'd like to add? Besides what I've asked you?
IW: I don't know if there's anything I'd like to add. It would have been nice if the cult--or the race--if the race could have been preserved. I'm a full-blooded Cherokee.
SG: Are you enrolled also?
IW: Yes, ma'am, card-carrying, certified! And that's not that many of us left, we're an endangered species, and there's been no program that would be morally and ethically. Hell, they're doin' better with sheep 'n' cows now, than they are with one of the most valuable things in the world right now, and--if there were just some way to preserve that, I would be willing to contribute to a genetic pool somewheres with other fullbloods of my race and my culture. And maybe some day when I get beyond those narrow blinders of ethics, well then, Let's put these two eggs together, two thousand, see what we come up with of the old races of this country, you know? And I know there'd be a lot of issues in question but surely it can't last forever.
SG: The implications that this makes me wonder about--is being Indian, or any other kind of traditional people, whatever, is it a matter of genes or of culture? Or am I making a false separation?
IW: Well, mainly because I'm of a unique kind. And somewhere down the--the line, the lineage, some point down there's--you know my great-great-grandfather was a fullblooded Cherokee. That saddens me. My granddaughter is very proud that she's Cherokee, and it shows. This is--this is a weeping that will never be heard. When you see the death of a civilization, the death of a race-- we talk about Pompey, the mythical Atlantis, but right before your very eyes you have one diminishing away. And there's some beautiful stories--beautiful experiences--some beautiful lives that can never be appreciated. Even if you shared them, they couldn't be appreciated, because we've lost so much of basic human fundamental value in life. And when I see that, I'm not sure that I want to live anymore. I look forward to death. Maybe that's why the Lakota and the Cheyenne say, "It's a good day to die." Maybe they didn't know why; they just knew.