An Interview with Lalita Tademy
- February 6, 2015
The author of the acclaimed Red River and Cane River is back with her third historical novel.
In her latest novel, Citizens Creek, Lalita Tademy examines an often overlooked part of our history: the fact that many people of color were held in bondage by Native American tribes before the Civil War. Her story is set in the sweet spot of a turbulent period in American history between Native Americans, African Americans, and Europeans. Cow Tom, the main character, begins this tale in bondage and — thanks to his facility with languages, along with his wit, spirit, perseverance, and plain good sense — ends it as a successful land owner. Even more importantly, he has engineered his own freedom and that of his entire family.
Citizens Creek is an amazing story which makes the reader long for more: more of the time period, more of the history, more of the mix of humanity. Will more come from you?
I've written three historical novels so far, each taking three to four years to write. I'm thinking long and hard about whether to tackle a fourth. But I do have a contemporary novel almost finished that I may polish up as a next writing project. Time will tell.
You’ve picked an extraordinary period in U.S. history in which to set this story. Did the research yield some information you felt you must share? Some truth? What about information you refused to share?
The 1800s in America before, during, and after the Civil War intrigue me, especially the legacies of bondage. In the case of Citizens Creek, the ingenuity, strength, and resilience of the characters based on real people drew me into the story. What kept me interested were all the things I didn't know about these moments in history — that Indians owned slaves; that tribes chose whether to side and fight with the Confederacy or the Union; that some blacks in the tribe were a part of tribal politics, serving in the Creek House of Kings or the Creek House of Warriors; that freedmen, as citizens of the tribe, were entitled to land from the U.S. Government, which became the single largest land distribution to blacks in the history of this country. I don't think I refused to share any information. More likely, I just ran out of space. There are physical and mental limitations to what a reader can bear.
Are some truths best coated in fiction?
I totally believe that, in many cases, fiction comes at truth in a way that fosters greater understanding than the drumbeat of fact.
The scene outside the American Army’s Fort Gibson was like the Tower of Babel in the Old Testament. God destroys this togetherness, which is difficult to understand. In your story, it implodes. Why is this kind of togetherness so difficult? Why were the Cherokees treated better than the other tribes at Fort Gibson?
When Indians were removed to Indian Territory, they were geographically separated by tribe. Fort Gibson was situated in Cherokee Territory, and Cherokees had the advantage of substantially larger numbers and representation. As for togetherness, mankind has demonstrated again and again that we are tribal people, often drawn to those most like us and intolerant of those who are not.
Cow Tom’s speech to the U.S. Senate — making the case for the treaty violation — is well received in the book, but the reader doesn't hear any of it. Why not?
Cow Tom's speech to the Senate was not preserved, and although documented that he made the trip to Washington, with excellent results, I didn't want to make a speech up for him.
What would $17.57, the family’s share of the Creek Tribe allotment, be in today’s money?
This can't be a literal calculation. The significance of the money was in currency, but more importantly, in the recognition that, as a citizen of the tribe, [Cow Tom] and his family were entitled to that money.
You do let the reader know that “Negroes” were definitely better off in Indian Territory, an additional layer of protection. Thin, but still better. Is there documentation of what percentage of mixed-blood Negro Indians lived in Indian Territory? Were these numbers manipulated by the government to lower Indian populations?
I don't have these numbers off the top of my head. Tangentially, it is fascinating that an article in the New York Times late last year shows initial results from 23andMe, a DNA-testing organization, that puts the number of African Americans with Native American ancestry at one in five.
Rose, Cow Tom's granddaughter, says "her heart was an alien enemy" when she takes in Kindred, her husband's illegitimate son. Is it because her heart loves even when she doesn't want to?
Rose loved her husband's illegitimate son, but he was a reminder of her husband's betrayal. Her feelings were understandably complex.
Eugene, one of Rose's many sons, explains that he does not want to keep using up his prayers on things he doesn't really care about, like weather and land. He doesn't want to be a farmer. The funny thing is that it sounds as if he believed he had the freedom to be whatever he wanted. Do you believe this was true for a mixed Negro, white, Native American at this time in American history?
Eugene didn't necessarily believe he could be whatever he wanted, the times certainly wouldn't allow for that, but he did believe it might be possible to escape from something he knew he didn't want. This characteristic was more bound up in his personality than his ethnicity.
Cow Tom seems to suffer from depression, but you don’t quite call it that. Why not?
Depression wasn't diagnosed or called out by that name during the time of this story, but people who would carry certain clinical diagnoses today or who suffered major traumas, as most enslaved people did, could still be extremely high functioning. Cow Tom had the benefit of a strong support system, in both family and friends, although he struggled with his "moods" to the end of his life.
How did Cow Tom become a slave to Chief Yargee?
Although not depicted in Citizens Creek, Cow Tom was sold from one buyer to another, as often happened. The first master was white, McIntosh, the second Creek, Yargee.
How did a slave boy acquire so many languages? Miccosukee, Mvskoke, English, Hitchiti, Seminole?
Cow Tom had a natural predilection with languages, and exposure early to English and other Indian dialects.
Clearly, Cow Tom was incredibly talented and would have been a leader in any setting. What do you see as his essential ingredients?
Curiosity, determination, the discipline of practicing every chance with different languages, willingness to take risks, and the ability to learn and change his behavior to fit the person and the circumstance.
Old Turtle, Cow Tom’s mentor, says that he and Cow Tom are still slaves, but Chief Yargee is far less troublesome than McIntosh, their former owner. Sounds like they went from white to Native-American ownership. Is there evidence of this being a common transaction?
Not necessarily common, but it happened.
Very early in the story, a free Negro and a white man come to Chief Yargee's home. Tom recognizes the Cherokee style on the visitor and discovers that the Negro is free. Is this the first time Tom realizes there is a whole world out there and he could find a place for himself outside of someone else's plantation? What did freedom really mean to Tom as a young man?
Cow Tom has seen two different plantations, but before meeting the free man, he doesn't realize the enormity of the concept of traveling on his own. Freedom isn't just "not belonging" to someone else. It means independence, and exploration, seeing new things, and surprises, and going as far as your own abilities will allow.