Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Searching for my Mythical Indian Grandmother

I read somewhere once that a majority of Southerners have a family myth of a great-to-some-power, grandmother who was American Indian. We certainly had a myth of an Indian grandmother in our family. In fact, I lived with her.

I asked my grandmother point blank once if she was Indian. She said she wasn't but that her grandmother was. She knew her genealogy at least. I now assume she meant Melissa Drake. Melissa married the hired hand that worked for her father, John Drake Jr. Melissa only had one child, my grandmother's mother.

In my family, my grandmother existed on a semi-immortal plain. As I look back on her life and the amazing things she accomplished, I stand in absolute awe of her strength, her wisdom, her perseverance, of her stoicism.

We Redbones universally hold our grandmothers in very high esteem. That is certainly the most significant "tie that binds." In the last century, grandmothers were the focal point in all of my families. Elizabeth "Ma Bet" Miller in Lunita, Lonie Ashworth in Singer, Minnie Droddy in Vidor, to name the ones in my family. There were a lot more because my grandmother would go visit them all over East Texas and Western Louisiana. They were the center of the circle. They taught us the values upon which we would build our lives. They told us stories about our interconnectedness. They gave us the myth upon which we create our identity as Redbones.

Many American familes have an Indian grandmother myth, but in Redbone families, there really was one. Our Indian grandmothers did not know her tribe. That memory was lost generations before. All that remained was the dark skin, the long black hair, the Indian features. No, there was more than just the physical features of the American Indian, there was also a quiet spirituality.

I did not grow up hearing stories about Keziah Ashworth. I learned to venerate her as I studied her children and grandchildren. She may have been a mousy little nobody, but my imagination refuses to see her as anyone other than the grandmothers I knew while growing up in East Texas and Western Louisiana. As I imagine her children and grandchildren and the kinds of situations that inevitably arise from life on an often hostile frontier, I think I know her well.

Anna Bunch is another grandmother who has captured my imagination. She was widowed with five children. She moved back to Louisiana after Moses died. Her children all grew up and gave her dozens of grandchildren. I also imagine that my own great-great-grandfather was her favorite, being the baby and all, and I imagine that she lived out her final years with Thompson Lorraine and his wife Sarah, and that when she died in the mid-1850s, she was buried at Good Hope.

OT, but On Track

Redbone women have always felt themselves equal to men in terms of rights. Elizabeth Hill sued her children to compel them to support her in her old age. Rachel Drake put her property in trust to protect her children's inheritance. Mary Simmons divorced two husbands before 1900 because they didn't take their commitments to being a husband and father seriously enough to satisfy her. Keziah's granddaughter, Polly divorced Elisha Thomas in 1840.

Our mythological Indian grandmother remains vivid in our Redbone cultural memories. She taught us our sense of family. She sustained us in times of want and tribulation. As a native American, she would have been considered a savage by the first of our grandfathers to encounter her. It was the other way around, however. Our grandfathers that landed on these shores were a violent breed of man. It was our grandmothers who civilized our grandfathers. We know that by observing the nature of how the sexes interact from puberty, through courtship and into mature relationships.

Something to think about anyway. This is a piece in progress. Feel free to comment, argue, contradict, just do so nicely.

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