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Ask Katherine Crawford
Mining for Gold
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(last edited Mar 22, 2013 08:18AM)
Mar 22, 2013 07:58AM
I am a history nut. A research dork. Certifiably, absolutely fascinated by the past, and by what made all those people who lived then tick. I love thinking about my favorite places, and about the land, and what it may have looked like and been like so long ago. History, for me, is what watching a favorite TV series or movie is for other people: I get all the drama, danger and romance that I could want by looking backwards.
But I don’t harbor any illusions about history. I don’t want to actually go back to say, the 17th or 18th centuries. Back then I’d likely have been somebody’s scullery maid—you know, the girl responsible for emptying the chamber pots or scrubbing the potatoes. I’m also pretty certain that someone, somewhere, would’ve tried to burn me at the stake.
Still, though, the past is exotic. It lures me in. So when I was researching the 18th century Southern Appalachian backcountry, the colonial era-South in general, and the culture of the powerful Cherokee Indians for Keowee Valley, I was in heaven. I spent about six to eight months on research alone, and could’ve spent years had I not been really, really inspired to write the story.
Even after all these years, history still manages to surprise me. Take for example the egalitarian nature and political structure of the Cherokee Indians. I’d known a bit about the Cherokee before I began my research—I knew that they were matriarchal and matrilineal; that property and clan bloodlines were passed down through the mother’s side of the family—but I didn’t fully grasp just how progressive they were. And since March is Women’s History Month, this is a fun topic.
No kidding, these folks were eons ahead of white culture when it came to the value and treatment of women. Women played major roles in Cherokee village life, voted in the Council House, decided on the treatment of captives, and basically ruled the family. (Not that this is much changed from now, but 200 plus years ago, the Cherokee had no problem admitting it.)
When British envoys to the Cherokee nation—basically soldiers sent to bargain with the Cherokee for land and allegiance—visited with the Indians, they were utterly bumfuzzled by the fact that women took part in the decision-making. In fact, it appalled them. They insulted the Cherokee, calling theirs a “petticoat government.” Funny enough, this didn’t phase the Cherokee—they felt the same way about the colonial government.
One of my favorite historical figures, a Cherokee leader and diplomat named Attakullakulla (the whites called him Little Carpenter) appears in Keowee Valley much as he did in real life. There’s a famous story about Attakullakulla: when encountering British leaders, and their disgust with the Cherokee allowing women to sit on Council, he said something matter-of-fact, like, “White men as well as red are born of women.” Just as the British couldn’t understand Cherokee society’s high regard for women leaders, the Cherokee couldn’t understand British society’s lack (at the time) of them.
Stories like this, and others, are gems. Little crystalline nuggets just waiting to be polished and prettied up, so they can help make a story shine.
For me, as both author and reader, history is a dusty archeological dig, Indiana Jones-cool—a treasure trove of stories just waiting to be discovered. And I’m never happier than when I’m knee-deep in the gold-filled dirt.
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