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Archive for November 9th, 2018

by Sam Juliano

The term “Trail of Tears” defines the trek of heartbroken Native Americans to their new homes in the West.  It captures the essence of the removal experience, one wrought with hardship and death for the Cherokee people, who were victimized by the betrayal of the American government, which promised justice, democracy and and rightful land ownership.  The forced relocation was carried out by government authorities following the passage of the “Indian Removal Act” in 1830. The relocated peoples suffered from exposure, disease, and starvation while en route to their new designated reserve, and many died before reaching their destinations.   Though the Cherokees were the most profoundly affected by this tragic decree, the Muscogee (Creek), Seminole, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Ponca, and Ho-Chunk-Winnebago nations were also adversely impacted.  Debut picture book author Traci Sorell explains in a definition afterward that the “Cherokee way of life focuses on a mother-centered culture, from governance to familial relations” and that the the in-transience damaged the family structure which generally was one where children saw maternal relatives as integral to their coming of age.  While it is a fact that older Cherokee boys often trained to become hunters and warriors, and resolved to protect their turf, long held traditions were shattered, leaving familial assimilation a daunting challenge.  Sorell suggests that “many of these ‘lifeways’ were disrupted and many people died because of the removal.”  No discussion of the Cherokee Nation could possibly fail to mention this dark chapter in American History, and Sorell’s heartfelt reference is a stark reminder of what underscores the indomitable spirit of America’s largest Native American population (over 360,000) and the struggles they face in living off natural resources, even with a number living dual lives as Cherokees and as citizens of the United States.  We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga is a celebration of life’s simple purity, wedding traditionalism with modernity, and via a seasonal presentation recalling the Caldecott Honor winning A Child’s Calendar, a poetical work by John Updike, with illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman.

At the outset illustrator Frane Lessac depicts a Cherokee family of five and a dog in a Spring setting as a visual transcription for Sorell’s definition of “Otsaliheliga” which is an expression of gratitude and and an opportunity to “celebrate our blessings” while acknowledging the struggles faced by Cherokee Nation on a daily basis and through the four seasons of the year.  “We Are Grateful” bears a perennial Thanksgiving message expanded to embrace the full run of the calendar.  The first double page canvas is an introduction to the autumn season which Sorell titles as “Uligohvsdi-Fall” atime where leaves fall and temperatures drop.  Lessac’s burn-dished tapestry is resplendent and a reminder to those who love the late September to late November time window why no other time of years is quite as sensory, a time Longfellow likened to Brighter than brightest silks of Samarcand,  And stately oxen harnessed to thy wain!  Thou standest, like imperial Charlemagne,  Upon thy bridge of gold; thy royal hand, Outstretched with benedictions o’er the land.  Lessac is a proven master of leaves, and her gouache on Arches paper illustrations, as always gives her scenes a striking three-dimensional look, bringing readers into a cornucopia of brown orange and yellow read during what is surely the most invigorating season of the year.   This is a time as Sorell again reminds her audience that we must always be grateful for what is essentially at time of great aesthetic and meditative uplift.  Lessac’s busy scene shows the family heading down a wooded path in gleeful leaf immersion temporarily curtailing one boy’s raking intentions.  The dark blue sky brings in the nighttime on the following spread, where “shell shakers dance all night around the fire” during the ‘Great New Moon Ceremony.’  The author doesn’t attempt to place the Cherokee in an idyllic light, admitting like any ethnic people they too have domestic quarrels, but will invariably band together to welcome in the Cherokee New Year which is held four days in October in conjunction with an age-old belief that the world was created during the autumn season.  Again Lessac paints a place of colorful occupation, where modern garb blends with traditional dress in a bustling banquet of common purpose.  The darker background emboldens the illustrator’s phantasmagorical tapestry with heightened contrast.  The finale of the autumnal triptych depicts a gathering of buckbrush and honeysuckle to weave baskets that are posed to “remember our ancestors who suffered hardship and loss on the (aforementioned) Trail of Tears.  A proud Cherokee grandmother (elisi) is featured holding the family’s newest member, an infant boy in a sublime wooded hamlet. (more…)

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