|Issue 3:1 | Non-Fiction | Robert Yardley|
The Last Medicine Man in Cherokee
He was one of the very few: an honest man and a trickster, a full-blooded Cherokee who spoke two languages: Appalachian English and that of Nature— the wind in the trees; a natural and true believer who could talk of Jesus Christ and even talk to trees and what's more I believe they answered. He had seen the ages roll in his visions. He had driven a Cadillac and met 3 presidents. He had been on TV and in movies and lived on food stamp commodities when he "couldn't hunt" anymore. He was a true healer who had been accused by the American Medical professionals of practicing medicine without a license. (They were wrong; he practiced HEALING.) and so he couldn't call himself more than an herbalist. He showed me the universe, and I drew his wrath by cleaning out pork covered with blue mold. He smoked with anyone from a big red white and blue peace pipe and handed out herbal cures (free to Indians;$18 to anyone else— money back guarantee) to anyone who else who asked. He died without a successor and said that no more medicine leaders would come from the Eastern Cherokee until the end of this world. He said that the Cherokee race was all but ended. They had turned to whites. He believed that Christ would waken the sleeping Cherokee and the souls of the nation would reclaim their world.
I had come from Central Tennessee by hitchhiking to find this Indian shaman that the Tennessee Indian Council was interested in documenting but who was not been as cooperative as they wished. I was an occasional TIC volunteer who has been called "difficult" often enough. I went on my own to see for myself. I met friends in Knoxville but left Gatlinburg on foot to walk to Cherokee. It was a summer day and the park sparked with life. I longed to see the woods close-up, but I stayed on the road. Toward dark, a storm blew up. Lightning crackled and I jumped as a tree near the summit of the road was struck by lightning and burned briefly as a fierce squall hit too. Fear had picked up my pace; then a double cab truck with four long-haired musicians picked me up and gave me a ride to downtown Cherokee, N.C.
I walked into the city hall to the bathroom to dry out. A policeman who looked like he had Indian blood asked me if I needed help, and I told him about seeking Amoneeta Sequoya. He replied that Amoneeta was stricken that very day and in the hospital, prognosis unknown. Strangely, he said that Amoneeta had said the week before that he wanted to see anyone who asked for him and that maybe I should visit the hospital. It was more than a chill that hit me as I changed into my best rags.
At the hospital I was taken right in by a long-haired MD who said that they had done what they could and maybe I could help. I stated that I had studied herbs, but I was out of my league there. The doctor said that maybe Amoneeta could trust me in a way that he did not doctors and medical professionals.
So they sent me in to see the small man sleeping, brown against white sheets, the lights blinding at first. As I stared into his face, he opened one eye, looked slyly and in a weak voice said, "Help me ! Lay your hands on me and cure me or send me to God." I had no idea what to do, but I took both his hands and made a cross as the early Christians were reputed to do as a cure and a sign. I uttered a quiet prayer, and he opened his eyes winked and said :"THANK YE!" in his hillbilly English and asked me to come back the next day. His grandson and daughter came in were introduced and I left.
I went to a bridge over a creek out of the rain and replayed the day's memories again and again. As the creek rose and the rain continued, I began to worry that a flood might wash me off my perch, so I focused on the immediate situation. Suddenly, the rain quit and my inner turmoil passed. I watched the creek rise and listened to its fierce but beautiful song. I lost all sense of time and space; I was the smallest drop in a vast ocean of life, and I felt no burden of self, no hunger, fear, loneliness or vanity. And yet without me no creek, no ocean, no world, would be complete. And seventeen years later, it is still as clear as yesterday’s mundane deeds. Perhaps more. I walked a trail up a mountain and waited for first light.
It came glorious and beautiful as night birds' songs gave way to day songs. Sun-up brought a day that found me back at the hospital, talking again with Amoneeta and the doctor. Amoneeta asked me to get him out of that hospital and home "cause I ain't dyin here." He attributed the attack to water polluted by "government men." The doctor said it was due to a ruptured esophagus muscle due to a lesion possibly caused by a toxic agent, character unknown.
I walked up to the reservation, and to my horror I saw 3 men spraying weeds along a creek bed. They refused to talk to me but I saw a US govt. tag on the truck. Outraged, I went to the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office but they would not speak with me; I was not and Indian and even if I had been, I doubt I would have been treated any more warmly.
I told the doctor what I had found, but I doubt that he gave it credibility. Nonetheless, he continued to give me free access and asked me to see if Amoneeta himself could find an herb or natural element to help himself.
The next day I went back to Knoxville to rest and research, to do what I could. Word reached me that Amoneeta was to be released after 3 more days, and from then to my last visit, he was not a feeble dying old man nearly 100 years old. (He had memories of Teddy Roosevelt's reputation as president from his youth.). He was someone who was going to fight death at home. I made arrangements to return to Cherokee with a Tennessee Indian Council friend, Steve Lohrey, a man of noble and gentle nature who gave freely of himself to help the downtrodden with adult illiteracy and Indian council programs. What was more, he and Amoneeta knew and liked each other. At the rundown trailer he called his home, Amoneeta smiled to see Steve and me and asked us to smoke with him. Both of us were concerned about its effect on his health, but at Steve's offer he brightened and said, "Many people come here. Some of ‘em even bring something or trade me for thangs. But so few bring what ye need to keep the soul alive." With that he took his huge red white and blue American peace pipe, filled it and lit it with a safety match and took a huge pull on it. He smiled widely and passed the pipe to Steve and then to me and then back before he even exhaled. Not another word while we smoked, and when it was gone, he looked at us with a birdlike look and went into a little rap similar to many backwoods whites, and we both felt his sincere kindness— "y’all are welcome to come by any time, and in Cherokee even if we don t treat you right at least we'll feed you." This strange little man with the long black hair and wispy skin talked just like the big-hearted farm folk who live in the backwoods along backroads in little houses whose hard-scrabble times have hardened their muscles and softened their hearts.
We talked a little about mutual friends and acquaintances and business: could we help with a problem? He had spoken at a rally in Soddy Daisy against the nuclear power plant named for his maternal grandfather, Sequoya, the father of Cherokee literacy and the greatest chief of all the Cherokee nations, one of the towering figures of all human history. He likened this act to naming a sewage treatment plant after Nixon: another of the long list of indignities heaped on the nation. To make matters worse it was built on Cherokee burial grounds. He had gone at his own expense on a promise by the commune at Stephen's Farm who had organized the protest that he would be paid his usual fee of $18 and they had not given it, instead sending people to work on his ramshackle mobile home's leaky roof. He was irritated that they didn't give him the money since he had borrowed it to give his grandson for gas to go over and back. Work on the roof was a neighborly thing to do but a deal was a deal and he wanted his money. Steve said he had to go back to Knoxville and his Maryville home and would contact them or tell Art of “No Image Peshawah” about it and try to straighten it out in Amoneeta's favor.
Then he asked if Amoneeta wanted some help and if so, “Bob here would like to stick around.” Amoneeta said that he could use some more help and maybe he'd tell me “some learnin cause God made me a healer,” and nobody in Cherokee had come forward to be his successor. He later called himself the last medicine man in Cherokee and a sudden mantle of weight and sorrow descended over him, and Steve left. He went to take a nap and said I could have anything, but I couldn't go in his medicine room which had a padlock unlocked on a hasp.
Later I got a brief look at it on his invitation after a cure: I was to hear and see many things that seem miraculous to tell but to him it was just a matter of fact and not mysterious at all. He was as close to a natural man as I am ever likely to see. And in fact, it is about that simple: you give faith and truth and God gives it back tenfold. That was the formula, the prescription for cure and the rest comes naturally from nature. Ask and ye shall receive; seek and ye shall find. A heart full of greed is not in need and has only gain in mind .That’s why it will never find a cure.
He did tell me secrets but the greatest secret of man resides in plain sight, pearls before swine. Secrets given came with a promise: tell only one person and then only before a likely impending demise. Before secrets can be told, trust must be built. For me, it was simple: I did as he asked .Wash his feet? I did. Go up the creek to a certain place for water? Done. Shave him? A little nervously. I didn’t know the straight razor. All this and more; for days, I did his bidding.
Then one morning, he began to talk intimately and from then on our bond grew. He began by showing me mementoes of his life. A letter from President Roosevelt (Franklin) about a Bureau of Indian Affairs problems mentioning that Mr. Harold Ickes would be looking into his complaints. A picture of Amoneeta with a finned Cadillac from about 1955. An old business card with his name over "medicine man" and another that said "herbalist". Before and after his actions vs. the AMA. Tales of being in the movies and on TV. “They even put me in Lil Abner,” he said, and I later looked it all up— the Cherokees played with Fess Parker and Buddy Ebsen in Daniel Boone, and there he was on a rerun of that show and in Lil Abner with Kickapoo joy juice and hardly any change in his looks in all of the pictures.
An amazing life, but as we went on together all of his "normal" life became almost common and ordinary, compared to what he called his life in the Spirit. When he sang his hymns he was transformed— no transfigured— and it was easy to believe that he had seen the visions of the beginning, and especially the end. And more: he could somehow impart a personalized version of that to me and probably many others and make us feel that same feeling.
After we had had a chance to get to know each other and I gained his trust by little and bigger deeds, he began to show little by little his shamanistic side: a side that was full of the animal cunning and raw power of the natural world. We went to some herb stores in Knoxville and looked at herbs. He would smell them sometimes, touch a little, even bought two: goldenseal and echinacea. He seemed to take on a new voice with new knowledge at each stop: subtle changes that I put down to my own imagination until he showed me them in full at a later time when he assumed the mantle of prophet and predicted the future of myself, his tribe and the world at large. But at the herb stores he was a kindly weak old man with a craggy voice. Other times, he was like a ferret and talked in a clipped yes-no fashion and initiated no talk at all. Still other times, he was slow, ponderous, and deliberate like a bear coming out of hibernation. He was his normal self with me and Steve. But what he told and showed us and me later was this: at only one place were there any real human beings and they were duped. All of the expensive herbs were adulterated, "cut" with cheaper stuff and useless stems of wood. The goldenseal and echinacea did not match up with his knowledge of them. Textbook descriptions of the herbs in the ground state that the echinacea had little celluloid woodish stuff even though the jar said leaves and the goldenseal did not yield a yellow hue on cooking. His own plants gathered from the Smokeys fit the book descriptions perfectly. He swore me to secrecy saying that he suspected the government would only cause him trouble if he tried to fight it and that they did not like herbs and thus letting him be an "herbalist" was their way of branding him with an insulting title like naming a power plant built on ancestral burial grounds using the name Sequoya. "Anything that can really he'p people they keeps hid."
In the next couple of days, he seemed to get much stronger as if he had become strengthened by doing what he called the Lord's work: truth and healing. As if clockwork, the very next day an old farming couple from Soddy Daisy who lived near and disliked the power plant had come seeking a cure. This drama gave me a glimpse at what I can only yet marvel at a true bona fide cure for an apparently intractable medical problem: what seemed to me rheumatoid arthritis. This was a condition that had crippled my father since his days in the Marines in Nicaragua and Florida, so much so that he was bent over and unable to move his neck at all, having to pivot at the hip to look sideways. All my life, I had secretly dreamed of a cure, but that dream had ended with his death in 1979. This poor woman's hands were curled into a fist and could not be moved. She had sought medical advice from country doctors and university medical professors and faith healers. Amoneeta was their last hope. To which he replied" No ah haint. That would be the Lord." They had prayed but hadn't been answered. Amoneeta asked "Do ye believe that ah kin cure ye?" Yes she said. Well ah cain't; only the Lord kin but fer $18 ah kin try. Money back ifn it don't work. Ah kin ask the Lord to try ta help and give ya, a little herb to try fer it. Ifn it work, ye kin get more and if ye think ye was cheated ah'll give it back." The old man counted out 18 old bills and Amoneeta took her into the "healing room" for about 20 minutes asking me and the old man to talk low in the living room but not to listen through the door.
I spoke to the old man and asked him about his life and how they had come here to their last hope. He said he had given a hippie couple a ride to the rally against opening the plant, and they had told him to come and see the Cherokee medicine man and after asking around town someone had heard of a cure of a TB case by Amoneeta in the 1940s, and they decided to come over to Cherokee in their old jalopy of a truck and see for themselves. Then he asked me a question that I could not answer "Is you a curer TOO?" emphasizing the too. "I'm just here to help,” I replied. I veered the conversation away from that because even today I haven't found much use for what I have. Amoneeta's ethic was that God sends the patients and if anyone asks, you do all you can. But you should be paid, so rich or poor, except Indian, everyone had to pay $18 or its equivalent in food or goods, refundable if not satisfied. No one had ever asked for anything back he said later.
When they came out of the healing room, she was in good spirits, and he bagged up an herb for her and told her to come back in 2 or 3 weeks for more or just to visit. I only saw 4 people go in that room with him, and I only saw her and another old Cherokee afterwards.
When they returned in about 2 weeks she nearly leaped from the truck and held her ungnarled old hands to the sky shouting "Praise the Lord I s cured." They both had tears in their eyes, and soon I did too. Amoneeta just stood their beaming and repeating “Praise the Lord” and singing gospel hymns. When we sat down, she asked for some cure for her sister. Amoneeta said that she would have to come and ask herself, but the woman said she lay dying in a nursing home in Chattanooga. Amoneeta said he couldn't go into places like that. Then they asked him why he didn't sell the "rheummatiz medicine," and he said that medicine was for HER alone, and he didn't heal diseases, he healed each person by themselves not the same for any two. This was the greatest secret that medicine didn’t know. You can't cure a condition, only a person. Later I heard echoes of this in Chinese herbology.
We chatted for a while, and they left a dusty trail away. I was utterly stunned but Amoneeta went down to work on his garden alone leaving me to contemplate this unshakable truth: he had cured her in 20 minutes with some herb(s) of a condition that she had said started maybe 30 years ago. Stunned by joy, I felt that the Holy Grail hid in the soul of the wiry little Amoneeta W. Sequoia.
Early one morning before first light (there were no clocks in the dumpy little trailer), he woke me and we went up the winding trail behind his dwelling past the waterfall, slowly but deliberately without any light and only "Follow me close boy. I know the way." By dawn we were near the road near Smokemont and looking at a large evergreen with red- and white-speckled mushrooms that I had read of in connection with Russian mystic shamans, the deadly agaric AMANITA MUSCARIA by scientific parlance, and suddenly AMONEETA gained meaning as a word. "When I go to sleep(his way of saying die),come here and remember me sometimes." I have but only once, leaving with an overwhelming sense of loss for me and the world at large.
From there the trail wound across a stream up to a promontory; we viewed a dawn that was so indescribably glorious that even to attempt a description would be futile. As we sat for a while he began to speak of his life. He said that I was to tell no one of the secret things he would show me and that if I ever used any of the knowledge he labeled secret that I could charge a little, but if I were to seek wealth with it, I would be poisoned in the soul and damned forever to hell. Then he pointed to another mountain to the left of the sunrise. A spot down that hill was slightly shadowed. Behind that shadow he said was cave full of gold. What would I do with it if he gave it to me? I remembered all the mines and all the history of the gold rushes and the ruination they brought. I told him that and said that I did not see any good from it, and I wished right then that he had never told me that. "Then take ye a good look causen ya'll never see it again.” I have never tried to return or to seek it. Maybe he was testing me and maybe not, but from that time on, he told me things that he called secrets to be passed to only one person and then only on probable impending death. But always he added that "when Christ wakes me up, you'll know it's me by these secrets."
Some of this knowledge is available from other sources and by other methods, but like perfectly cut gems, his knowledge was clean simple and beautiful. His words could bring pictures into my mind and my opinion is that he had very highly developed psychic powers. The greatest sin was greed. Get paid for your work for man but your work for God, you give back everything you make. Can't make a profit from grace was how he put it.
he seemed to be doing better than the spring day
that he had collapsed with a ruptured esophagus. When he ate or coughed, it caused trouble breathing. He would choke to death one day was the grim prognosis. He had maintained that it had started when he took a drink out of a certain creek. We went up that creek looking at misshappen and greasy looking dying plants. Around midsummer, I again saw 3 men spraying along a road nearby; they would not say who they were or what they were doing, but one had a cap that said DEA. The newspapers screamed about paraquat and the war on drugs. In the library, I was outraged to find that “Quat” operated by causing mutations and was likely carcinogenic, causing burn-like chemical lesions at the site of contact. It causes a chain-reaction genetic explosion in the plant that results in SLOW DEATH; unscrupulous pot farmers could harvest and sell paraquat laden pot causing havoc in the marijuana world, possibly even death. Thank you US government.
The doctor later agreed that ingesting water with paraquat in it could have caused his ulcer but urged me to stick to herbal cures. Amoneeta felt that the government had done it to him on purpose. I asked him what could we do. He said, “Nothing. The Lord has work for me yet, but I’m ready to go. Jesus will take care of them on Judgment day." Score another victory of the scum over the noble, an equation that all Indians know all too well. I wept bitterly and cried to God, “How long?” I heard thunder in the distance and prayed that it was Dylan's Hard Rain. It wasn't— I could hear Amoneeta add "YET." Amoneeta seemed resigned, almost calm most of the time but sometimes his eyes would flash, and he would sing the hymns like “I Have Seen the Ages Roll” Strangely he would become almost elemental, a force of nature like the wind in the trees or the lightning.
All through that summer and the next, he took his corn garden, ½ an acre, as his sign: as long as it grew under his tillage he said he'd live to see another winter through. That proved true. The third and last summer I knew him, no corn grew in his little plot. He mustered strength to go to a big powwow in Cherokee with a lot of food, and he even danced a little. Later he said that it was his farewell. He sent me to Oklahoma to find a medicine man and when I got back to Tennessee, I got word that Amoneeta had gone to sleep.
I have not been back to Qualla, to the reservation. I have been to Smokemont, to his tree, but I can't help thinking that the woods are degraded. I can't help but look at Cherokee and think that the Cherokee way of life sleeps with the old medicine man who left no apprentice. I don't know why it took me so many years to be able to write his story. I carry a few his secrets, but one I use all the time. Just tell the truth. The truth will set you free. That was the greatest legacy of the Last Medicine Man in Cherokee, Amoneeta Wolf Sequoyah.