A young writer remembers three great-grandmothers, from three different Native American tribes
By Laney Burrell
There are around 80,000 Creek Indians in the United States today . Most of them have relocated to Oklahoma, but they used to live in the woodlands of the Southeast, in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. The Creek tribes follow matrilineal succession, meaning a person takes the name and clan of their mother. My grandfather’s mother, Alaphae Ruis, was born in Coffee County, Georgia, on May 27th, 1923. She was seventy-one years old when I was born in 1994. True to tradition, she was the matriarch in our family’s eyes. We all started with her.
She was ninety-two, but her mind and will were strong. She was tough, opinionated. A survivor of the Great Depression, she knew what it meant to have and have not. She saved newspapers and bread ties. She reused napkins and paper plates when she could. If you ever go to my mother’s kitchen, you’ll find bread ties stashed in the drawers. If you’re eating dinner at my Grampa’s house, you’ll see him rinse off a paper or plastic plate.
Ma was short and little all around. Her hair was curly, long, and gray. It was always soft. Sometimes, she would pin it up with what must have been one million bobby-pins. She couldn’t see very well, but her eyes still lit up whenever she smiled. Her skin was soft too, and wrinkly, a little bit like a tissue. When she spoke, her voice shook just a little. It always reminded me of a baby bird. I suppose Ma was just as fragile as a baby bird, but she’d be mad if she knew I thought so.
She lived with my grandparents for a long time when she couldn’t live by herself anymore. I was there one night with her and my grandmother, “Meme”, and Ma had a terrible fall. We all watched her carefully after that.
“Ma, let me help you,” I said one afternoon.
She was trying to go up a step, into my grandparents’ kitchen. It was time for another cup of coffee. I placed my hand underneath her little elbow, hoping to help her steady herself on the small step-up. As hard as she could, she shook me off.
“Get off me,” she said in her bird-voice. “I’m fine.”
I took a step back, placing my hands on my hips. “Okay, Ma.”
After she got up the step, she paused for a minute. “Hey, baby,” she said. “Will you come press the button on the coffee-maker for me?”
She couldn’t see the little button. “Yes, ma’am,” I said.
In my mother’s words, Ma could be a stubborn little turd. If Ma were to hear me say that, she’d laugh because she knew it was true. Sometimes, though, Ma conceded.
When my Aunt Barbara passed away, my dad lifted Ma out of a car and carried her so she wouldn’t have to struggle stepping down from the car to the ground. She didn’t complain once. She just wrapped her arms around him as best as she could, and they walked toward the green tent in the rain.
I’m still not used to the idea that Ma is gone. I repeat her mantra to all of us, her family: “Remember how much I love you, baby.” I repeat it so I don’t forget her voice. I wonder how long I’ll be able to keep it with me.
There is another Southeastern tribe of Native Americans: the Cherokee. They, too, have relocated to Oklahoma, but they used to call Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina home. Presently, there are over 317,000 Cherokee in the United States . They are the largest tribe of Native Americans, having the most recognized tribe members. They’re very proud of that. They also follow matrilineal succession. My grandmother’s mother, Charlotte Myrtle Smith, was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on January 1st, 1925. She was sixty-nine when I was born. She passed away when I was nine months old. We call her “Nannie.” One thing I’ve always been told about Nannie is how tall she was, and she’s always smirking a little in pictures.
I remember her holding me, but those memories stem from countless photos I’ve seen. When I was a child, maybe about three years old, I took a photo from my mother’s room. The photo was of my mother and Nannie when my mother was pregnant with me. I placed the photo under my bed. I’m not sure how, and maybe it was just my imagination, but Nannie told me to put the photo under my bed because she’d keep the monsters away. Eventually, my mom asked about the picture, so I told her where I put it and why. It was the strangest thing, but none of us question it.
I’m named after Nannie; I am Laney Charlotte. She had dark hair, dark eyes, and olive skin just like I do. Meme calls her “Mother” without fail, and she always remembers how beautiful Nannie was. Mom and Meme say Nannie was funny. Nannie lost her hair after cancer treatments, so she wore a wig. She named it, but no one can remember the name. I would love to know what she called that thing. I know that when her hair grew back, it was still dark, and she was disappointed it wasn’t gray.
I didn’t get to grow up with Nannie, but I have my favorite things about her, and things I’ve carried on even though I never spoke to her. Nannie liked vibrant, colorful shoes. Since I was a little kid, I’ve gone down shoe aisles deeming pairs worthy of being “Nannie shoes.” And just like Nannie, when something goes wrong, I raise my left eyebrow and declare, “Shit, shit, shit.” I think about Nannie all the time.
I work at a doctor’s office with my mom. One day, we were coming down the hall, and there was a patient at the check-out counter. She had on bright colored sandals, bright matching pants, and a patterned black shirt. She was posed against the counter, long red nails against her face. Her dark hair curled just underneath her ears. I recognized her immediately.
She looked just like every photo I’ve seen. I stared at the woman as we walked by. I saw just the profile of her face. When we were past, I turned to look at my mother. She was already staring at me. I felt my eyes get hot; my mom was crying, too.
“That looked like Nannie,” I said.
My mom covered her mouth. “It looked just like her.”
We took a moment, and then we went back into our part of the office. But I stole a last glance at that woman through a window in the door. I’d been looking for Nannie all my life, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that she was standing right there.
According to history, the Comanche people were violent horse-thieves. However, most historians argue their violence was in response to stolen land. They used to roam the plains of New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, and Texas. The Comanche have also been moved to Oklahoma. There are currently 16,372 tribe members in the United States . The Comanche observe patrilineal succession, meaning a person takes their father’s name and clan. My paternal great-grandmother’s name was Tall Trees, and she was from San Luis Potosí, Mexico. I don’t know when she was born or what happened to her. I don’t think she’s alive anymore, but I don’t think she ever knew about me.
My paternal grandfather, “Welo” to me, did not have an easy life. He worked as a vaquero when he was a boy. One day, a man was taking workers to the United States. Welo was fourteen years old, but he got his things, went with the man, and never looked back. Welo later became a citizen of the United States. His siblings still live and work in Mexico, but that’s all I know about his family. I’m beginning to wonder if more things are lost when the men are in charge of the succession.
I think about Tall Trees, just like I think about Nannie and Ma, but it’s different. I think about what she must have been like. I imagine her with dark, tanned skin, with a pair of dark braids framing her face. Loose strands twist across her oval-shaped eyes. I picture her face until she starts to look a little like Welo or my biological father. She’s pretty.
Her name must have meant something about who she was. She had to be sturdy, resilient. Trees oversee everything around them, so I think she was probably wise. I wonder what her voice sounded like. Did it sound like a racing river, or a hawk’s call?
Sometimes, Tall Trees really keeps me up at night. Who was she? Am I like her?
To my knowledge, I no longer have any living great-grandparents. It’s said that Americans are living longer, so most people know at least one great-grandparent in modern times. I guess I was part of that statistic. Also, as best as I can tell, my blood quantum levels are high enough for me to become a member of the Creek, Cherokee, and Comanche tribes. I’ve never looked into becoming a member further than that. If I joined, I would follow Ma and Nannie in terms of clan. I wouldn’t be able to follow Tall Trees anywhere without knowing her father.
I wouldn’t have the blood I do without Ma, Nannie, and Tall Trees. I knew all of them at very different levels, but they all share Native American heritage as well as being my great-grandmothers. Knowing I am a part of each them makes me feel incredibly special, but I wonder what my life would have looked like if I’d known all of them as well as I knew Ma.
 The official website of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Updated 2016.
 The official website of the Cherokee Nation. Updated 2016.
 The official website of the Comanche Nation. Updated 2016.
Laney Burrell is an English major, minoring in creative writing at Flagler College. She is a writer and editor-in-chief at the Odyssey Online. Creative nonfiction has become one of her favorite genres. She enjoys writing portraits of her family as well as essays of place. In her free time, she also writes short stories, screenplays, and poetry.