In a remote part of County Sligo, Ireland I parked the car on the side of a lonely single-track road. I had been searching for this place for many years through both genealogy and family lore. My wife Andrea and I walked silently along taking in the tranquil beauty of the place, remembering its tragic history. The grass strip down the center of the single-track had grown long from little use. Pothole puddles from a passing rain reflected puffs of white clouds that floated lazily by. The soft blue of the sky and the long shadows cast by the late day’s golden sun intensified the vibrancy of the freshly showered green meadows. In the distance golden brown hills crowned with patches of tall trees gave an air of magic and majesty to the scene. Perhaps the Tuatha de Danann with their god-like powers once roamed these hills and maybe still do. It took little imagination to envision the spirits of the land, fairies and leprechauns going about their business. This was Knockbreenagh, which in the Irish means, drifting water hill. An appropriate name I thought as I watched the clouds drift on the gentle breeze.
Knockbreenagh was the place where, in the early 1800’s my ancestors lived and in 1846, one of them emigrated from. Poor dirt farmers, they scraped a living from the land as best they could, struggling under English oppression. Trapped in a system designed to keep them subjugated or drive them off the land entirely. It was a hard life.
Having recently visited so many ancient sites across Ireland I began to wonder, and to appreciate just how deeply my roots ran into the heart of the Emerald Isle. While in County Sligo we visited with a local historian in nearby Riverstown who was able to confirm much of what I had learned about my family and their life in Knockbreenagh. He expanded greatly upon my understanding the place as he spoke about its history both distant and more recent. If not related in some way, our ancestors would have walked the same paths and most likely known one another. At one point in our conversation he looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and said in his wonderful Irish brogue, “Welcome home Lad. Welcome home”. His sincerity touched me to my very core and I truly felt welcome and that this was indeed home. Knockbreenagh was the place where, for me at least, the depth of my people’s story began. It is the place of my ancestors and from here I could begin to know my story as a part of theirs.
This experience in Ireland opened my eyes and took me to deeper level of understanding about my many Native American friends in South Carolina, who are the subject of the documentary film I am currently working on. Over the years I have come to know and admire so many of them as they stand so boldly for their people. Undeterred by the racial bias and barriers against them, they fight for their rights and freedoms as a people; the Waccamaw, Pee-Dee, Eastern Cherokee, Edisto, Santee, and Catawba to name only a few. When I speak of this project to friends one of the most common things I hear is, “I didn’t know there were any Native Americans in South Carolina”. It was from this that the idea for the film grew, yet I struggled with the question the film needs to answer, why should anyone care? Why is it important to know about these people, their lives and their struggles?
An answer came to me while walking that lonely single-track in County Sligo. I somehow felt the depths of my roots and a spirit-filled connection to my people, my ancestors. It occurred to me that this must be the same for the Native Americans who had so much taken from them, including their identity. They have suffered for so long, wrestling with the question of who they are as a people and as individuals. The efforts to regain their identity is not about the things we see, feel and touch. It is about a deep, often subconscious, calling from their ancestors and the land. It is about knowing and having a profound spiritual sense of place. We of European decent will never fully understand the depth of an American Indians’ connection to his or her land. It is sacred, resonating back thousands of years and carried forward with each new generation to today. It will be passed on to the children of tomorrow. Sure, there are some of European decent, who by virtue of being close to the land for several generations, may feel it to a degree. I’m not sure that it will be to quite the same depth as the Native American whose connection goes back 25,000 years, to ancestors who crossed the land bridge or were the first people to sail along this continent’s western shores. In the same vein, a Native American, finding himself on a lonely single track road in Ireland, will not feel the connection to the place as I experienced it.
The Native Americans I have come to know in South Carolina are an incredible people who share a sad and difficult story and yet, potentially have and extremely bright future. They are the lost people of South Carolina who, ironically, never left their homes. Their land, their culture and their stories have been brutally taken from them. They have been enslaved and sold off to Caribbean plantations. They have been infected with disease both knowingly and unknowingly. They have marched the Trail of Tears and been marginalized to the point of shame and forced to hide their heritage to survive. In recent years the warrior in them has arisen and they are boldly working to regain that which was taken. With a brave heart they are reassembling their story through rediscovering their ancestors, their culture and their spirit. The drums of the Eastern Tribes are no longer silent, and the ancient songs of their people are being sung once again while new ones are being dreamed into reality. No longer hiding from their ancestors they are once again hearing them and healing through them. The artisans practicing and exploring their art of pottery, basketry, music and dance, along with the storytellers and healers, are creating a renaissance of the Eastern Tribes.
In a world where our attachment to material things rules, the answer to the question “Why anyone should care?” is a difficult one to realize. Abstract answers and spiritual concepts are often lost on those whose self-centered focus is only on more stuff. It is only when we take the time to silence our clinging desire for worldly things and turn off the constant assault on our hearts from electronic wizardry and media-fed gossip, that we can begin to understand the reasons for why we should care.
Without knowing its deep roots and the earth that nourishes them, a tree will not grow and experience its fullness of life. So it is also with we as a people and each of us as individuals. We can never hope to know ourselves without knowing where we came from, who our ancestors were, and who our people were. The history of our people and our ancestors’ lives is ingrained deeply into our DNA. We are the sum total of their existence passed on to us though spirit and manifesting in the physical. They are the spirit guides who lead us through each lifetime. They are the voices in our head whispering truth and guiding us toward knowing. We need only a bit of silence, perhaps a lonely single-track road, and the desire to hear them.
William C. Judge 2018