Scary stories: an interview with traditional Keetoowah/Cherokee storyteller, novelist, and filmmaker Mr. Sequoyah Guess.
In light of Mr. Guess's considerable artistic accomplishments, it is with some trepidation that I claim to "introduce" him to readers of the Mississippi Quarterly. But the fact of the matter is that if you are not from northeastern Oklahoma or a citizen of a Southeastern native nation, chances are you probably have never heard of Sequoyah Guess. In an age where the numbers of Native American writers who live and work within their Nations are very few, Mr. Guess stands out as a truly unique artist. Like the few other community-based Native writers, such as the Meskwaki novelist and poet Ray A. Young Bear, Mr. Guess draws his inspiration from his lived experience within a specific indigenous community and directs his art back to the Cherokee/Keetoowah and Southeastern people of his region. However, unlike any other Native writer of whom I am aware, Mr. Guess is also recognized as a traditional storyteller within his tribal community. While the great majority of American Indian writers, artists, and intellectuals actively direct their work to audiences that reach beyond the cultural and geographic boundaries of their tribal communities, Mr. Guess is satisfied having an audience that is regionally (northeastern Oklahoma) and culturally (Southeastern Indian) based. In a quietly radical way that bears an uncanny resemblance to the actions of his namesake and ancestor, the famed Cherokee linguist Sequoyah who "developed" a Cherokee writing system simply because the people needed one, Mr. Guess writes novels and tells stories because they also fulfill a need in his community. As I hope this interview illustrates, Mr. Guess's dedication to the flourishing of Cherokee people is evidenced in his stories as they seek to create bridges between all types of Cherokees, including those of different nations, mixed races, and religions, as well as non-Cherokees. An artistic counterpart to the Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci's notion of the "organic intellectual," Mr. Guess may well be called an "organic artist," one whose notion of art grows out of his experiences within a specific community and speaks to the artistic needs of that community with the aim of supporting critical consciousness. In Cherokee terms, the goal, as Mr. Guess says, is "balance."
As a Cherokee scholar and literary critic invested in exploring the artistic traditions of my people, I find Mr. Guess's novels extremely innovative and exciting. By self-publishing his work, Mr. Guess retains his artistic freedom and is not limited by any press's expectations concerning what is and is not "Native American literature" and what is profitable literature. Similarly, Mr. Guess's work is less concerned with over-arching issues that all American Indian people face than with the specific worldviews and cultural and political concerns of Cherokee country and Southeastern native peoples. Thus, in his novel Something in the Light, Mr. Guess highlights the growing problem of methamphetamine use in northeastern Oklahoma. That issue is an important one to Cherokees but likely would not be compelling enough to draw a book contract from a large New York publishing house. But these types of community concerns, including discussions of the conflicts between Christianity and traditional beliefs, and of conflicts between the Cherokee Nation and the United Keetoowah Band, deserve artistic engagement. The fact that Mr. Guess's books are also works of gothic fiction only adds to their complexity and allure, because they explore those fluid liminal spaces that not only have a long history in Western cultures but also play crucial roles in traditional Cherokee thought.
By bringing scholarly attention to Mr. Guess's work, I hope to inspire others to do likewise with writers from other Native communities, including those from other Southeastern nations. There must be other community-based writers out there. It is true that for the time being you will not find Mr. Guess's works at your local Barnes and Noble or Borders Bookstore, and you will not find them on Amazon.com. And that is not necessarily a had thing, because you will find them in northeastern Oklahoma, in people's homes and in stores like Perry Blankenship's One Feather Books & Gifts in Tahlequah. However, for those of you who will not be going on a road trip anytime soon, Mr. Guess is in the process of creating a website through which you will soon be able to purchase his books. In the meantime, you may write Mr. Guess directly regarding purchasing his work at firstname.lastname@example.org. On July 6, 2005, I had the honor of meeting with Mr. Guess in a conference room of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokees tribal building in Tahlequah, Oklahoma to discuss his storytelling, writing, and filmmaking.
Chris Teuton: I'm interested in the relationships between Cherokee knowledge, Cherokee writing, and Cherokee oral traditions. What sources do you draw upon when you have questions concerning Cherokee knowledge?
Sequoyah Guess: If I'm not really sure about something, I always go to Hastings Shade, whom I call my immediate elder, and try to get him to explain the reasoning behind a saying or tradition. I was brought up traditionally, but I didn't realize it till later. It never occurred to me. I just thought everyone was brought up that way. It wasn't until the mid-80s that I realized we in my family were brought up differently than other people.
CT: How did you realize that?
SG: Well, actually my morn and dad had passed on already. As I grew older I started talking to other people that weren't brought up with the same ways that I was. It never occurred to me to wonder why I knew all of my mother's side of the family, the cousins and everything, but I didn't know any of my father's side. But, traditionally, we're a matrilineal society and so for the longest time I thought we were the only Guesses left because I didn't know of any other branch of the Guess family. My brother couldn't have kids, so it seemed like the weight of the world was on me. I thought, "Man, I'm the only hope of the family going on." So, when I met cousins from the Guess side it kind of put a big relief on me. And I have a son now, and he knows he's not the only hope. I realized from experiences like that, that not everybody was brought up the same way I was. A lot of times when we were sick, my dad would take us to a medicine man first and then take us to the hospital. Over the years, as I look back on it, I think, "Wow, they were traditional." And the funny thing about it is my father was a Baptist minister. And still yet he believed in the healing ways. But, like I said, I thought everybody was raised like that.
CT: I like the way you work with different spiritualities in your books, such as Kholvn, and explore how they relate to one another. Hearing your father was a Baptist minister, I can see why those ideas are a part of your writings.
SG: Yeah, I remember I was either five or six years old, and our Dad took us to the stomp dance, and it was the only time he ever took us there. And when I look back on it now, I think he was just trying to show us where we came from. And it was up to us, which way we wanted to go, the way of Christianity or the old ways. I really never had a preference all my life. I'd go to church with them, and sometimes I'd go to a stomp dance. And there are a lot of people like that now. In this day, they'll go to both. But the thing was the Christian communities looked down on the stomp dance. There's not so much of that now, but there's still a little bit of it. But the stomp dance people never had a bad word to say about Christianity, which was always kind of funny to me. But a lot of people went to both. It doesn't matter to me which one I go to. They're both places of worship, and I know who I'm worshipping. Being acquainted with both worlds, I was able to translate it into Kholvn.
CT: Where did you get the idea for that novel?
SG: It started off as a short story about a good medicine man fighting a bad medicine man. And I wrote it for my friends and cousins because I used to like writing short stories, and then I'd give them to them. I had a whole box of short stories and I think Kholvn started off as a three-pager. I put it away for a long while, probably six years. Then I hurt my back in '89 when I was working in a nursing home and I was laid up for about a year and a half. After I was able to get around again I found that box of short stories. And I found that story about the good medicine man fighting the bad medicine man. And I reread it, and I thought to myself, "Hey, this is pretty good." So I started expanding it. "Well," I thought, "instead of a good medicine man, let's make it a preacher." And then as I kept going, I thought "No, let's put the good medicine man back in." So I put him back in. And it just grew from there until finally I had a pretty thick manuscript.
CT: Do you write every night?
SG: I try to write something at least once a night, even if it's just a line. Or I might work all night long if I really get on something good. But it's every night, seven days a week. As long as I'm home near my computer. I could be watching T.V. or whatever, but about 90% of the time I'm obsessing in front of the computer, whether it's editing film or writing a book.
CT: Do you compose in English or do you ever translate it? Do you ever think it in Cherokee?
SG: I haven't written anything in Cherokee. Somebody said they'd like to see Kholvn translated into Cherokee.
CT: At times in your work I can see what I think are aspects of Cherokee knowledge of language coming out, especially in the detail with which you describe things, and natural imagery, specifically. You seem very conscious of getting something exactly right, and sometimes it takes several sentences to get it right.
SG: Yeah, I do that quite a bit, now that you mention it. I do that in U'ktan. One of the characters says this word, which in the book I describe as being a mixture between English and Cherokee: "jisimoks." It's taken as, "I'm going to go smoke," but "smoke" is in that word. Only a real good speaker would know that word, though. And so I explain that in the book because this younger guy is talking with an elder and the young guy says that word, and the elder says, "Hey? He sounds like he knows the culture and the language." The elder starts to look at him in a new light, like this guy might be worth something after all. If they were in Cherokee, Kholvn and Red Eye probably wouldn't be that long because you can describe things in one word that in English it might take a paragraph to say the same thing. So, I was thinking if I did translate Kholvn or Red Eye, it probably would be a shorter book. Especially when talking about Indian stuff. In English you have to explain things and why something happened. If it was written in Cherokee, the only people that would be reading would be people who already know about this stuff, so you wouldn't have to explain so much, you know?
CT: Your first novel, Kholvn, is a scary book. In fact, all your novels deal with fearful things. Why is that?
SG: It's because of Gramma. She was the storyteller in our family. And my favorites were always the scary stories. She probably would have been a wonderful writer if she ever decided to do that, but she never did. Some of the stuff I've learned from some other elders. But it was Gramma's influence that led me to want to write scary stories. But also, I would go to bookstores and look for scary stories that involved Indians. And I would find a few, but there's not that many out there. And those that I found involved the Navajos or the Sioux people. I couldn't find any that involved Southeastern tribes. So one day I finally just said, "I can't find any. So, write your own." And that's how Kholvn came about. Or, like I say in the "Foreword" to Something in the Light, I had watched sci-fi and zombie movies, and I started asking myself, "Where are the Indians?" In the movies you have black guys, white guys, Chinese people, but you never see any Indians. "Well," I thought, "write your own." And that's how Something in the Light came about. And it's the same with the movies we've made, including Kholvn. Nobody got paid. Everybody did it because they liked the story and they wanted to do something like this. We started to sell a few copies of the film, but the demand was more than we could handle, so we just kind of backed off on it. Whatever money we made went back into making more videotape copies. Kholvn was actually the first all Native American-produced film. And we didn't even know that when we made it. We were just trying to make a movie. And there's a copy of it at the Smithsonian, since it is the first all Native American-produced movie ever made. There's only one character in the whole movie that doesn't have any Indian blood, and she doesn't play an Indian, she plays somebody who has never met an Indian. We kind of turned it into a Hollywood thing where we used mixed-bloods for white people. Everybody thought that was really cool. It took us about a year to make it because everybody was doing it on weekends or whenever they could. Everyone had a lot of fun and we had a lot of cooperation from the communities that we worked within and the businesses. A local funeral home loaned us caskets for one scene. Another place dealt in medical equipment and they let us use their offices for a hospital. We even had a county sheriff help out and city police and EMS units. The fire department helped. So, we had quite a lot of help from people.
CT: It sounds like it was a real community affair. Could you speak about your work as a traditional storyteller within the Cherokee/ Keetoowah community?
SG: During the Cherokee National holiday they used to have me tell stories at the museum. Not just myself, but some others, too. A small group of us get together and call ourselves "The Turtle Island Liars Club." There's myself, Hastings Shade, Sammy Still, his daughter, Tonya, Choogie Kingfisher, who's very good, and a couple of others. We just get together and share stories with each other. One of the rules is, in order to eat you have to tell a story. (Laughs) And, so, we don't care; it can be a short one, a long one, it can be a real story, or it can be one you're just making up as you go along, you know? But you have to tell a story. They're pretty good. Sammy told a story one night, and boy, he said he scared himself. He was making it up as he was going along. And it was pretty good. Too bad he didn't have it written down.
CT: It seems like some of the scariest oral traditional stories are the ones that have some of the most important messages. Do you think so?
SG: Mm, hmm. Well, a lot of the stories that Gramma told me were scary, but they had a hook in the end that made them funny. And, when you try to translate the funny parts, a lot of times they're not funny because it was the words they use during the funny part that made them funny, and some of the words don't translate good. Like, there is this one story that Gramma used to tell me where this minister was riding on a horse back when they had circuit-riding preachers. And he was heading for this house and this drunk man was telling him which way to go, but there was two roads there, and one was a short cut to where that preacher was heading, the other was the long way around. And so the drunk man would run down the shortcut way, cut across the woods, sit down, and that preacher would come up to him again, you know? And they did that about four or five times until the preacher thought, "Hey, this is getting creepy. That guy might be a Sgili, or a ghost." So, finally, when he reached his destination that drunk man was sitting there again. It was too much for that preacher to take. He was sitting there on the horse and in English you would just say, "He fainted from fright." But, in Cherokee, they use different words, like Gramma said--it was a word you would use for "cracker" or "toast," something that was pliable at one time but stiffened or hardened. That's the word she used when he fell off the horse. And there is another story where a black snake freezes to death. In Cherokee, it's funny, but when you translate it, it's just sad, you know? But, in those kinds of stories, the scary parts are scary no matter what language you use.
CT: Are there different types of scary stories? For example, Cherokee "scary" and then other culturally specific ideas concerning what is fearful. Do you classify your novels as "horror," as in the kind of writing Stephen King is known for? My sense is that your work is scary in a different way.
SG: Mmm, hmm. Lots of times, when I'm being introduced to tell stories, they use that comparison with me: "Stephen King of storytelling." And, yeah, they are scary, but, like you said, they are a different type of scary. I don't think somebody that's looking for something like King would write would enjoy my novels the same way they would enjoy one of his. As a matter of fact, you'd probably have to know quite a bit about Indian lore to enjoy mine. But, I have found out it doesn't matter what tribe you are. I've had Lakota people come up and say, "Yeah, I enjoyed it. Boy, it was scary." (Laughs) And that's what they said about the Kholvn movie. You know, people that didn't know the culture or weren't of any kind of tribe, they would come and say, "I didn't understand it." And Indian people, no matter what tribe they were, said, "Man, that was scary." And so, you just got to know the lore, I guess. However, I've been kind of taking poetic license. So, actually, in Red Eye, I explain in there actually the Red Eye people were ones that we met on the migration journey thousands of years ago. But Hastings Shade and I were talking and that's where I got that quote. And the story didn't even develop then. Hastings and I were talking about the mounds. We're in the NAGPRA thing. Hastings is a consultant for our NAGPRA committee. I was talking to him about Red Eye people, and then about a year later, the incident that I write about at the ending happened. I was on the plane coming back from that meeting, and that's when my mind started thinking, "Hey, we could tie all these things together." And so Red Eye became a vampire story that was based on the old "Fierce People." Plus, I like vampire stories.
CT: You are a traditional storyteller and a novelist, which is a combination that few, if any, other Native novelists can claim. Could you speak to the relationship between writing stories and telling stories? How are they similar or different?
SG: Well, in Sgili, I took some of the stories Gramma gave me and some others that elders gave me, and I kind of just wove them all together to make one book. In the original stories, the events that take place happen to different people, but in the book they happen to the same people. So, in that sense, storytelling and writing have come together. But writing and storytelling are really two different things. With storytelling, you just kind of have to be a ham. (Laughs) As I said before, I'm known for telling scary stories, even though I know some funny stories. But, storytellers are often known for a certain subject they talk about. In the "Turtle Island Liars Club," Sammy Still will do all of the talks about games and weapons and stories that involve those subjects. And Hastings will come and talk about governments and history. Choogie, he'll do funny stories. Tonya, Sammy's daughter, she'll usually do something that involves music, because she's a musical person. I have all the scary stories. That's the way it all works out. So, when the museum calls on us, we automatically know what we are going to do. That way, the kids aren't hearing the same stories over and over. We do share stories, all of us, and we don't mind if one of the others tells a story that I tell. Our only rule is that we'll get together in the beginning and we'll tell each other what stories we're going to tell. But, when I tell stories, I do it like Gramma used to. I start my stories just the way she used to, except, of course, she gave all hers in Cherokee. So, I translated her introductions and everything else into English. And I explain that before I start telling the stories. When Gramma finished her stories she would always say in Cherokee, "That's what the elders used to say." And, since I learned my stories from Gramma, I always end my stories, "At least that's what Gramma said." One of Gramma's storytelling tricks was to use different little voices for different characters, so I do that, too, because that's what she did. Like, Rabbit has a high voice and Wolf has a low voice and sounds kind of dumb. Gramma used to change her voice, and so I do the same. And the kids love it ... not only the kids but the grownups, too.
CT: You've told me your Gramma chose you to carry on the storytelling tradition. How did that happen?
SG: My Gramma died in 1981 when she was ninety-eight years old. And all my life she would tell me these stories, even when she was on her sickbed. At the house, she would always call me over and tell me these stories. And I never realized that I was the only one that she was doing that to. My brothers, my step-sister and -brothers, she wouldn't do that to. And finally, I asked my mom after Gramma died. I told her "I remember all these stories from Gramma." And she told me that Gramma had picked me to carry on her stories even before I was born. Mom told me that one day while she was still carrying me in her belly Gramma came up to her and said, "This is the one that's going to take my place." And that's why she told me all these stories over and over and over. And I probably know, all together, forty-five or fifty stories that she told me. And that's including funny stories, scary stories, histories, family stories, and that's including the one that we just call "Grandpa," which is the original Sequoyah, of whom I'm a sixth-generation descendant. Hastings Shade is a fifth-generation descendant. All these stories are in me and I try to honor Gramma by doing just about the same thing that she did all her life in telling me these stories. So, in storytelling, everything I do is an effort to honor her. These people in Austin asked me to come down there to tell stories about two years ago. And, after I got through, some of the people, they enjoyed it so much they presented me with different gifts. Each time I would tell them, "I can't really accept your gift, but on behalf of Gramma, who I learned the stories from and who I honor, I accept it in her behalf." Because it wasn't me, it was Gramma that did the stories, and I'm just repeating what she said. But there's one story that everybody seems to like that actually came from my life, and it's called "The Casket." And, it's sort of creepy and ... oh, I'll tell you after a while. (Laughs)
CT: A lot of the stories in your novels deal with Cherokee spirituality and, for lack of a better word, the "supernatural." Do you ever feel there are things you should not write about? For example, do you ever say to yourself, "OK, I don't want to mention that, but I want to make it scary and give people an idea of what's going on here, but I can't say too much."
SG: Mm, hmm. Yeah. What I do when I'm writing is, like in Kholvn, I went back through and read it, and I had to delete quite a bit of stuff. For example, the good medicine man and his granddaughter go to water, and I describe the ceremony. Later on, I thought, "That's not good. I better take that out." And so I kind of edited it down to where it said they went to water and splashed, and that's all I kept on that. That same thing we did in the movie, we showed them at the water, and all you hear is splashing.
CT: That editing must be tricky at times. There are times when you explain things in your work, and then there are times you don't. For example, you explain a little bit about the fire in Khalvn, but you don't explain everything about it. I think the story would be richer for someone with some knowledge of these things, compared to a non-Cherokee reader who might not have any cultural or spiritual knowledge.
SG: And it's like I was telling you, the people that know about stuff like this, they come and say, "That was really scary." And the people who don't know say, "I didn't understand it." So, it's a fine line on what I want to expound upon and something that I just want to mention and not go into much detail about. And, of course, it's mostly when I'm talking about the medicine or some beliefs that I have to watch how much I do let go of. It's kind of fun sometimes, trying to see how far I can go without really actually letting the cat out of the bag. (Laughs) But I go back and read it and make sure I don't cross the line. And sometimes I found out I did, and so I rewrite some things. Editing myself.
CT: Have you ever had anyone say you've crossed the line?
SG: I did with the movie. In the book, the scene is there, but I don't write down the words Henry Longbush says. In the movie, we had him saying things. I kind of modeled his chanting from some things I remember hearing a long time ago from medicine people. I modeled the chanting after that, but I put in my own words. When we were filming it, the person whose land we were filming on was near Keys. Henry Longbush starts chanting these words and stuff. When we got through filming, that guy come over and said, "Hey, was that real what he was saying? It better not have been real. It sure sounded real." (Laughs) And I finally told him, no it's not real, it's just something I made up. And he said "Where'd you get that chant from? It sure sounded like something I heard before." And I finally explained to him that I just made it up. And he said, "Boy, it sure sounded real." And that's the closest I've gotten, and some elders did come up and ask me about that. I keep true to culture, but I kind of give it a twist so people can't say I went too far on anything.
CT: Have you ever written a story that is not scary?
SG: You know, I've wanted to write something kind of "normal." (Laughs) I'll start one, then I will just lose all interest in it. It's not like me to start one and lose interest in it or later on come back to it. With these others, I just get so far and then I won't like it and I'll trash the whole thing. But I did write one. Well ... it's kind of weird, too, so you can't say it was "normal." But I did write a Christmas story. Again, I was looking for a Native American Christmas story and there was none out there. And so, usual thing: "Do it yourself." It's about this guy named Tom. He's lost his sister to leukemia the month before. He's still grieving because that's the only family he had left. And, at the same time, there's this girl whose father is in the hospital. He had open heart surgery and he's having a difficult time trying to get his health back. And so, they're both looking at spending the Christmas time alone. So, Tom decides to work on Christmas Eve, and these animal puppets come to life and they start trying to get the Christmas spirit to wake in him. Finally, they do awaken it in him. They find out he's still going to be alone and they work this kind of magic, and the girl with the dad in the hospital just happens to be driving by where he's working and she has car trouble. Anyway, they wind up spending Christmas Eve together. So, anyway, we made a little short film out of that one, too. But it started off as a book.
CT: Community seems really important in your books, and bringing people together. They're scary, all right, but the more I think about it, the inter-personal relationships that happen in these stories are just as significant as the fearful situations. The trials that characters experience and how they meet other people who help them get over what they were feeling is often central to your plots. Difficult histories get resolved. People come together and get married.... There's a lot of that.
SG: Mm, hmm. Yeah. I think even though my stories are scary, I'm still just a hokey guy. (Laughs) I think there should be happy endings. I think the good guy always wins, you know? Except in Red Eye, where everybody got killed except for the one girl. (Laughs) I think I was kind of down at that time. (Laughs) You know, I just think the reading audience enjoys happy endings. I have been asked to do a part two to Red Eye where the kids at the end come together with the white woman. But I don't know. I already got three on the burner already.
CT: Things come together at the end of your stories. Things find a balance.
SG: Mm, hmm.
CT: And that happens a lot in Cherokee oral traditional stories.
SG: Yeah. Now that you brought it up, that is one of my philosophies. You can't live a whole life unless your life is balanced with nature, with yourself, and with other people. I believe you can't be happy unless you have this balance, not only with yourself but with the people around you and with Mother Earth. That's not to say I go out here and talk to trees and stuff like that! (Laughs) But you know, I can be driving down the road and I'll see an awesome sunset and I'll stop and just look at it and think, "Wow, that's beautiful." Or, I love to watch these little birds attacking the bigger birds, chasing them away. I like to see that because that's like the little guy taking on the big guy. It's stuff like that that a lot of people don't notice or take for granted. But back in '83 1 died for about five minutes. Of course, I was young and wild back then. It was a drug thing. When I woke up, I thought, "I could be dead right now." From then on, I started looking at things in different ways. While I was driving I'd see clouds and I'd say, "Wow. Another minute or two and you wouldn't be enjoying that scene." I have an appreciation for nature and just a lot of things other people take for granted because of that. I believe most people want their lives to have a happy ending. When they pass on, they want people to say, "That was a good person." No matter what people say, people don't want others saying, "Man, that guy wasn't very good at all. I'm glad he's dead." (Laughs) Nobody wants that said about them. That's where I guess my characters, even though some might be unsavory at first, in the end they overcome whatever it was that was keeping them from being in balance with themselves and other people. They overcome that and turn out being all right people in the end. In U'ktan, the hero, whose name is Spider Dihi, which translates as "Spider Killer," is a drunk at the beginning. He goes into cahoots with a woman detective, her grandpa, and her son. They're the ones who deal with the U'ktan. And over the course of events he straightens his life out and winds up being the hero at the end.
CT: In a couple of your books, Kholvn and Something in the Light, drugs and bad medicine are mixed together. The drugs seem to make people weaker and susceptible to bad medicine.
SG: Yeah. Some Cherokee medicine that is used in actuality could be used in a narcotic way. And that's why you have to be a medicine man to know what you're doing, because a little bit of this or that, too much of it might wind up bad. So, people that know the effects of plants, that's why they are the medicine people. That's why they are the healers. They spent their whole lives learning. And that's why certain persons like me, even though I might know what plants to use, I still couldn't go out there and mix it up and give it to somebody. The drugs are in Something in the Light more than in any other book. In that book, I was kind of trying to portray drugs themselves as being the "bad guy," not necessarily the dealer or the ones that were taking them, but the drugs themselves. Did you notice the bad guy never had a name?
SG: They just called him the "bad guy." (Laughs) I did that on purpose because I was hoping if somebody read it and they were sort of in that situation, they would picture themselves in that part. But, of course, in the book the bad guy winds up in a terrible end. And that was the warning that I was trying to set out about the drugs. If you keep on doing them, you're going to wind up with a terrible fate. I was kind of having fun, even though a lot of his visions were caused by his concussion instead of the drugs. Especially with the game show.
CT: My students said that was the scariest thing in the story: a creepy, delusional game show.
SG: Yeah. You know, I still go back and read my books. Least of all because I wrote them, but I go back and read them because there is nothing out there like that. We label it "horror" because people would understand that more than anything else we would label it as. But I go back and read them. I put myself into a mind where somebody else has written them. A lot of times, I'll come across whole paragraphs that I didn't remember I wrote and I'll say, "This guy is pretty good." (Laughs) And with some of the scenes in there, even though I wrote them, I'll think to myself, "Man, this is kind of creepy. Where did this come from?" Especially in Red Eye when the orderly, Floyd, is taking that body downstairs to the morgue. When I read that part again, it gives me cold chills.
CT: A lot of poets and writers talk about having a creative voice that you cannot entirely control. Do you feel like that when you write?
SG: Oh, yeah. I've written scenes where I try to make a chapter at least ten pages. A lot of times it doesn't work out that way. Some are half a page. But, sometimes I'll be writing a chapter and somehow or another these thoughts and images keep coming to me and I'll just keep on writing and pretty soon I'll find out I've written fifteen pages. And I don't know where it came from. The way I write when I'm sitting in front of my machine is, I picture it like a movie, and I'm just trying to describe what I'm watching. A lot of people have told me that when they read the books they said it's like reading a picture. And I think, "Well, that's great, because that's exactly the way I'm doing it." (Laughs) They say they like it. And mainly I hear that from Indian people because I think Indian people are more visual. If they can see it, they can understand it more than if they hear about it. And so I think that's why I write that way, because I'm that way. If I can see it I'll understand it better than if I just read about it.
CT: Do you think of your audience as a Cherokee audience? Or is it more of a northeastern Oklahoma audience?
SG: I think more of a northeastern Oklahoma audience. Well, actually, Southeastern tribes. The Creeks put my books in their library and they're always e-mailing me asking for my books and seeing if I've written any more. Chickasaws have bought my books. So, it's more of a Southeastern tribal audience. I realized after that started happening that most of my books just had Cherokee people in them or Keetoowah people in them. So, in Tlanua, the one about the giant falcon, I put in a Freedman who is part Shawnee in it. I'm trying to expand a little bit.
CT: Some white folks in there too, sometimes.
SG: Yeah, some white folks.
CT: Do you have any idea of the age groups that are interested in your writing?
SG: It's been interesting to me. The selection of people that read my books I always figured would be older people, like my age on up. And I've come to find that there are kids that love my books. (Laughs) In fact, I was storytelling at a school in Kansas, Oklahoma, where I live, and this little girl come up to me and she was probably about eleven years old. She came up to me and said, "Are you the one who writes those books?" And I said, "Yeah." And she said, "I've got Something in the Light. I wish I would have brought it! I would have had you sign it. I just loved it." And I thought, "Wow, that's one of the more grittier books!" (Laughs) But, you know, that was surprising to me. And I guess the oldest one who has read my books, I think she was like, upper sixties. She was one of the more elderly people back home. She said she liked Kholvn the best. After that, there's a couple in their mid-sixties that stopped me on the street and asked me if I had any more because they wanted the whole collection. They said, "As soon as you come up with another one let us know." It just surprises me, how young or how old they are. You never know how the world's going to look on your creations. I kind of wish I could bring them back and tweak them a little bit and try to improve on them some. I think Kholvn is as good as it's going to get. I think the one I would probably really want to mess with is Red Eye. I skipped some things that I wanted to put in there, and mainly because, naturally, we make the books ourselves, and we come to find out that, as thick as Red Eye is, that's about the max on how many pages we can put together. It was a question of length.
CT: You are the publisher of Kholvn Books?
SG: Yeah. And I have a cousin that helps me. A friend, Woody Hansen, helps me. Sammy helps me sometimes. He does some of the layouts for the covers.
CT: How many do you do in a run? How many have you sold?
SG: I don't know how many I've sold, but each time we make a run we try to make ten apiece. When I go to a book signing, I think the most I've ever taken to a book signing is twenty apiece. I sold out. It was during the Cherokee Holiday weekend. They had me in a tent and everything, and I sold out Saturday evening and I still had two days to go. So, me and my cousin had to work all night long just to make ten more apiece. Those lasted the rest of the Holiday. That's the most we've ever made.
CT: How do you make them?
SG: It takes us between twenty and thirty minutes to make one, from printing it out to doing the whole thing. I print them out, my cousin cuts them, and Woody puts them together. It's just a continuous cycle. I laugh at my cousin because he's the cutter and just when he thinks he's caught up we bring him some more. (Laughs) It took about a year and a half of experimenting before we knew how to do them. And, of course, it's cost effective. And so, this was the easiest and cheapest way to do them.
CT: It sounds like a lot of work. Did you ever consider publishing them by a press?
SG: No. I have friends who told me it's better to do it yourself because if you get somebody else to do it, a book company or whatever, even a movie, that they would change it. They would change the whole thing. So, that's why I decided to do it myself. Luckily, I've got good friends and cousins that help me do that.
CT: Anyone else around here doing anything like that? Did you have a model for it?
SG: No. No. The most anyone has done around here has had their papers folded and stapled. A lot of people who see my books want to know my secret. I tell them, pay me to do it for you. But I told some kids, if they ever wrote any books to bring them to me and I will help them get them done like this. Not only do I want to get these books out, but I want to help other aspiring Native writers that have a book they want out. I always let it be known when I'm talking somewhere that if anybody's written something, let me know and I'll help them out as much as I can. Which is more than was done for me, actually. (Laughs) I wrote Kholvn back in 1991, and after that was U'ktan in 1994. And for about two or three years there were all these books coming out, one every six months or so. Right now I'm sort of in a slump. Right now I'm working on three at one time. One of them is the third part to Kholvn and Blood Law. It's called Chaz, and it's about the character Cody Clearwater's boy. Blood Law is about the boy, too. This one is more an internal look into Chaz. Hopefully that will be the last one. I'm also working on Tlanua, which is about the Cherokee mythical creature, which is a giant falcon. And the third one right now is called Warriors of Turtle Island and it's a book about the end of the world, where the last few people who are still alive are Indians.
CT: One of the things I'm fascinated by is the role of writing today in Cherokee communities. For example, just to see the Cherokee landscape represented in your books is nice. When I'm reading, I'll think, "Oh, yeah, I've been there. I know what corner he's talking about." (Laughs) Reading your stories makes me feel a sense of pride in Cherokee culture and Cherokee place today, and I imagine other Cherokee readers may feel the same way when they see their communities and home territories represented. But do some of the messier issues concerning tribal politics ever come up in your writings?
SG: A lot of the background stories have to do with the real things that have happened today. In some of the books there is sort of a conflict between the Keetoowahs and the Cherokees. I explain in the books that a lot of times it's more of a governmental conflict because the people, you know, they don't care. (Laughs) As long as they get their services they don't care. And in Tlanua there is a major clash between Keetoowahs and Cherokees, but it's at the administrative level where everyday Cherokees and Keetoowahs turn on the administrations. In Something in the Light one of the main characters is Keetoowah and one is Cherokee, but they grew up together. In school one was a jock, the other a brain, and they've kind of been at odds all their lives. And it's not because they are Keetoowah or Cherokee but because they have different personalities. At the end they wind up working together. That's sort of my dream. To get the Keetoowahs and Cherokees working together no matter what the administrations do. I'd like to see the administrations get together. That's sort of the underlying current of my books, to see that happen. Where the administrations on both sides forget about their differences and start working to help the people.
CT: But while the Cherokee present is a part of your work, you also incorporate ancient stories into your novels. Could you speak about how you use Cherokee myths in your novels? Are you going to draw on other Cherokee monster stories, like Stone Coat or ...
SG: Oh yeah! I've got a list at the house. Spearfinger, Stone Coat.
SG: Yeah, except Robert Conley's done Brass, so he beat me to that one. (Laughs) People keep asking me to do one about the Little People. According to my teaching from the elders, Little People don't like to be talked about too much. So, I don't even tell stories about them, unless it's about this one who was my friend when I was younger. And that's the only one I will talk about. There's an almost endless supply of story ideas within the Cherokee myths and legends.
CT: It seems people are really craving to have those stories told.
SG: Yeah, and that's another thing, too. Like I said, I was looking for these kinds of books, but I could never find any. And finally, I decided to write my own. And sure enough people had been looking for the same things, stories and myths of these kind about the Cherokee people, and Indians in general. I kind of like to think I'm fulfilling a need and I do know that's true for people back home. I often tell people I take old myths and legends and bring them up to date and write about how people would react to them today. I'm no historian or anything. I couldn't sit down and write down something that happened in the Civil War. I might mention it in a book, but I wouldn't be able to sit down and write a whole book about things happening here in the Civil War because my mind doesn't go that way. But I write about what I know. I know legends and myths of the Cherokee and Keetoowah people, and Indians in general, and I know them today. I kind of know the thoughts or lifestyles of today's people. I was thinking about this the other day driving down the road. In order to be a writer the way I am you kind of have to be crazy because you have to be able to change your personality and write from one person's perspective and then turn around and write from the other person's. So you have to kind of be split personality in order to write something like that. It kind of scared me when writing U'ktan. Even though the woman character is a strong character, mentally and spiritually, after I got through writing it I thought, "Golly, you got in touch with your feminine side." (Laughs)
CT: In your books, the characters seem to run the gamut in the way Cherokee folks do in real life. You've got all the varieties of Cherokees--full-bloods that are traditional, mixed-blood folks that are something else, and everything in between. Christians. People who attend the stomp grounds. All these different people. And it seems like you often are putting them in contact with one another to see what kind of conflicts may arise.
CT: In Blood Law, you have the full blood Keetoowah medicine man, James Autumn, and his half-Keetoowah niece as characters. One could expect some type of cultural conflict would arise between the two, but it doesn't happen. (Laughs)
SG: Yeah. Actually, most of my characters in all my books are based on people I know. You mention James Autumn and his niece. The niece is actually the daughter of one of my cousins, and she knows who she is. She's going to be a major part in the third novel, Chaz. In real life, I don't think I could have thought up a character who is half-white and half-Keetoowah that is trying to learn how to be traditional by living with her grandpa. I don't think I could have thought of something like that. Most of the characters, about eighty percent of the characters in all of the books are based upon people I really know. Some of them know who they are and some of them don't. Every character in Kholvn, they know who they are. They know because I wrote the short story and later on expanded on it. So every person in Kholvn is based on a true character, a real person. I think I mention it at the beginning of the book that some of the incidents in the book actually happened to me and some friends of mine and people in the family. And so the main character, of course, is patterned after me. But the others are my friends, cousins. "Ira Jammer" is really a cop. He knows who he is.
CT: This all complicates fiction and reality. (Laughs)
SG: Yeah, yeah. I know it's going to be thought of as fiction but most of the things from the book actually happened. The girl that gets killed in there who is a Navajo, she's a real person, too. The good medicine man is a real person. I think the only main character I made up was Dawn Reynolds, the non-Indian character. I just wanted to put somebody in that didn't know what the heck was going on. In the movie, when they have stopped and slept on their journey here from Memphis, she wakes up and looks around and says, "So, where are all the tipis anyway?" And that's kind of typical of the thoughts of people that haven't met Indians. They think that we're all living in tipis. It's fun in that sense, creating characters I can satirize or be sarcastic through. In Red Eye, the main characters that fight the Red Eye are based on real people. Most of them know who they are, and if you saw them you would recognize them. One of the characters has a limp, and if Sammy walked in, you'd know who he was. (Laughs)
CT: Sounds like several of the folks from Turtle Island Liars Club.
SG: Yeah. Hastings Shade is "Creek Dowdy" in Red Eye.
CT: How do your friends like being in your books?
SG: Oh, they love it.
CT: Do they ever say, "I wouldn't have done that!"
SG: No, the main thing they worry about is, "Why'd you kill me off?" (Laughs)
CT: What's the place of a writer within the Cherokee community? Are your novels primarily for entertainment, or are they a source of knowledge, too? Can these stories teach?
SG: Well, actually, that's one of my underlying goals in my books and in my storytelling, and in my filmmaking: whether through history, language, or culture, I want people to be learning something without really realizing they're learning something. Whether it's some Cherokee words, like in the movie Free Money when one of the characters is always trying to speak Cherokee, but he says the words wrong. The other two guys laugh at him and correct him. People watching the movie hear all these Cherokee words. And, in fact, one lady who works in the media and doesn't speak Cherokee remembered the words from Free Money. After talking to her, I thought, "All right. You got her." And so that's what I do with my books, too. I put in words or traditions or history hoping that it will stay with the reader, whatever it is that they pick up. In a way I am still trying to pass on pieces of our people to a new generation. In Red Eye, there's a whole section where I actually tell the migration of the Cherokees, the whole legend. It is actually the way it was told to me from my Gramma and, hopefully, when people read that they'll remember that legend because it is a true legend. I've always been involved with language, culture, and history and teaching it in one way or another. I'm also a Keetoowah language teacher. But here within the last couple of years I've been too much on the go between the books, the storytelling, and NAGPRA things that I'm usually gone.
CT: Have you gotten any support from the UKB [United Keetoowah Band] for your writing, or from the Cherokee Nation?
SG: No, I've never asked them. If I go down in flames I don't want to drag anybody down with me. (Laughs) I realize that some of the background stories or elements in my books might be misconstrued or taken the wrong way by many people, the Keetoowah administration or the Cherokee Nation administration, and so I don't want to be tied to the tribes through my books. I'm also concerned that if either tribe did give me any kind of funding, they might want to change the stories around. This way, they are true to the way they were written. It's a matter of creativity. Anything happens, or any blame is laid, it's all on me. Especially in this new book, because in it this Keetoowah man kidnaps the Cherokee Nation Principal Chief! (Laughs) But, you know, the Cherokee Nation gift shop has asked for copies of my books for its store; the museum has carried them. The UKB says once they get a craft store going it wants to carry them. The website will link it to a homepage, should I get one. So, they try to help out as much as they can. Both tribes have asked me to tell stories. The books are thirty percent of my income and storytelling is another thirty percent and the NAGPRA thing takes up the rest of it. I have a lot of free time to go fishing when I want to. (Laughs) The best part is I can pick and choose where I want to go. I'm not stuck in an office. I'm a nocturnal person. I usually go to bed anywhere from five to seven in the morning and wake up around one o'clock in the afternoon.
CT: Do you ever get together with any writers around town? Do you ever share your writing with people?
SG: Not really share. Robert Conley and I get together once in a while, especially when we're up here gambling. (Laughs) You know, we're good friends. My son gives me story ideas, too. His latest one is about this river that people and animals keep disappearing in. He said you could have someone coming out of the river or the river itself is alive. So, I'm just surrounded by people who come up with great stuff. So I'm not the only one. (Laughs)
CT: Could you talk about your writing process?
SG: When I'm writing a book, especially with Red Eye, I never know how the ending is going to be. I don't outline the stories. I tried that before and it went totally crazy. I've heard that some writers do that. Me, I just start typing and it goes wherever it wants to go. I see the things playing out in my head and I just type what I'm seeing. When writing Red Eye I didn't know that all the major characters were going to die. That's just the way it played out in my head. The one person you thought wouldn't die, did die. In most of my books, it's kind of a reverse of what Hollywood used to do with Indians as always the bad guys, but I don't just reverse it and make all the white people the bad guys. In Red Eye, I show this white woman as not bad; she just doesn't know the culture and she's one of the only ones who turns out alive at the end. In Blood Law, there's a guy who's white with a little bit of Cherokee blood and he's not a bad guy. In fact, he's one of the heroes. But he's killed in the end. And they mourn him just as they would anybody else.
CT: That generosity towards all types of peoples seems to be one of the most important underlying themes in your novels. You show people getting along, getting to know each other, getting over their biases or prejudices against one another.
SG: Yeah. I don't think bigotry is really a mainstream thing with Keetoowahs or Cherokees. Every once in a while you might hear somebody say something derogatory about a person, but not as a race. And mainly it's a personality conflict or something like that. One of the teachings of Keetoowahs is that we are all extensions of each other, no matter what race you are. We're connected somewhere. In that way we shouldn't disgrace or discredit another human being for what they are. Most of the time, say ninety-nine percent of the time, there's no bigotry and it's not about race but about a single person. I try to show that in the books, that people can get along if they just try.
CT: Well, I think that really comes across. Oftentimes it seems one character will take issue with another because that person doesn't know what he's talking about, as if to say, "You don't know what you are saying; you're not from here; let me educate you." And then once the person knows, he straightens up.
SG: Yeah. The only planning I ever did in a book was in Kholvn. I put all the names on paper and put them in a can, shook it up, and decided "You're going to live," "You're going to die." (Laughs) In that way, even the main character Cody Clearwater was subject to death at any time. But that's the only book that I've done anything like that.
CT: You have an interesting way of dealing with life and death in your books, especially in Kholvn. The boundaries between life and death are not so clear cut. For example, Tom Trueblood is killed in Kholvn but he comes back from the dead and speaks in Blood Law. The line between life and death in your books is a kind of nebulous border, just like the borders between spiritual planes and the everyday physical reality in which we exist.
SG: Yeah. See, that's one of the teachings. That's one of the more forgotten teachings of the Keetoowahs and Cherokees. Nobody really dies. I mean, there's no end to a person. In the book, after they kill the evil medicine man Henry Longbush, they say, "We didn't kill him; we just shortened his life." You can't really kill or destroy a person; you can only shorten their life here on Earth. And that was what was meant by that quote. According to the old teachings, this is just one heaven, this plane that we live on now. There is another heaven. And we come from the other heaven before that. I think I talk about that in Kholvn, the seven levels of heaven. So, in that sense, a person never really dies because the seventh level of heaven, when you get there is where the creator is, so you never really truly die. I was trying to get that across in Kholvn and Blood Law. Even though a person might not be seen in this plane, they still exist somewhere else. When George Autumn dies, Chaz visits him sitting by that lake fishing. That was his heaven. I think he explains it in the book, where he tells Chaz that your heaven will be something else. Heaven is what we make it, what we need for it to be. And his was to live a simple life. That's part of our culture that I don't think is really taught anymore. We don't really die. And that was a belief even before Christianity came around. There was only the next level that we go to. In fact, we didn't have a Hell until Christianity. So, those are the kind of things that I try to get across in my books. Like I said a while ago to you, that's my sneaky way of getting traditions and customs into the thoughts and minds of my readers.
CT: That's one of the main differences between your books and "horror" novels. In works by someone like Stephen King, it seems like the fear is ultimately the fear of death, but in your books it seems like the fear is the fear of evil and what it can do to the community and to others, to family members, and how it can cause disorder in the world.
SG: Yeah, exactly. A true Keetoowah who believes in the traditions and old ways, they are not afraid of death. That's just a part of living. The real fear comes in the evil of this plane, like the mean medicine person. In Red Eye, it was trying to get rid of the vampire beings. They weren't afraid of death; it was the evil the Red Eye could let loose in the world. In Sgili, again, it's evil that they're really afraid of; it's not the circumstances, not the men. It's the evil that takes place that they're afraid of. And it's not that Keetoowahs think they're immortal, you know; it's just life and there's nothing we can do to hinder or shorten it. Even if we leave this plane we still have another plane to go through until we reach the seventh heaven where Creator is.
CT: I'm glad you're talking about that because it seems to be one of the things your characters are working through, these competing belief systems or different ideas concerning metaphysical reality. Cody Clearwater in Kholvn seems to be working through that.
SG: Yeah. Cody was modeled after me and at the time I was kind of battling which way of life was right, the old ways or Christianity. I finally realized, like Cody did, that it's not about Christianity or the old ways; it's not whether Keetoowah beliefs are right or whether the Christian world was right. It's faith. Faith in what we believe, that's the ultimate reality, that's the ultimate truth. Cody finally comes to that realization, probably about the same time I did and that's why it came out in the book.
CT: At the end of Kholvn, the demon speaks to the group and says, "You Complete People, you've always been..."
CT: "Divided." And you've got to come together.
CT: That was a real statement about community and politics.
SG: It was. At the end Cody says that he's going to the councils on both sides and say that we can work together if we just try. I guess that was my cry out to the people and the administrations on both sides, "Hey, we need to get together and work this thing out." Because the people are the ones who suffer when administrations are fighting, and it seems that is all there has ever been. When you mention Keetoowahs and the Cherokee Nation, the first you'd think about are adversaries. I think really now it's more of a personality conflict rather than an administrative one, so, at least we're starting to whittle it down a little bit. Hopefully, one day we can all be one people again. At least that's a dream of mine.
University of Denver
(1) Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a US Federal law passed in 1990 requiring the return of human remains and religious artifacts to Federally recognized tribes.
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|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2006|
|Previous Article:||The strange case of Sequoyah Redivivus: achievement, personage, and perplexity.|
|Next Article:||Before the South became the South: pre-colonial and colonial geographies of contact in Robert J. Conley's Cherokee Historical Novels.|