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Child of the Eastern Cherokees

Luther Wilson’s introduction to Wil Usdi states that “If there were such a position as Official Cherokee Historian, Robert J. Conley would be the logical choice to hold that position.” Before Conley’s death last year, he had published The Cherokee Nation: A History, a twelve volume cycle of novels about the Cherokees, as well as “several fictionalized biographies of key individuals important to Cherokee history.” Wil Usdi falls into the latter category—a biography of William Holland Thomas (1805-1893)—narrated as if it were a novel, mostly from Thomas’s point-of view.

Thomas was a vital figure in the survival of the Eastern Branch of the Cherokee Indians, the band of roughly a thousand who were not moved to Oklahoma as part of the “Trail of Tears” but remained and flourished in North Carolina where they reside to this day. At a time when Native Americans could not own land in America (yes, you read that correctly), Thomas purchased vast tracts of land, which he held for them, until they could later be legitimized as Cherokee property. All this came about because of a fluke happenstance. When Thomas was still twelve, he was apprenticed to the owner of a trading store with the promise of being paid $100 at the end of three years.

Two important things events happened to alter this plan. First, the store also employed a Cherokee Indian, who taught Thomas the thoughtsasylumlanguage, which was vital because most of the clientele was Cherokee. Second, at the end of the three years, the owner of the story had no money to pay Thomas the promised amount. What he left him, instead, was a set of law books that led to Thomas’s subsequent career as a lawyer—mostly, defending the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians against the Federal government. Thomas had already been adopted by an important Cherokee elder, named Yonaguska, who treated him as his son and raised him as an Indian. He was given his new name, Wil Usdi, or little Will, and often nicknamed “little chief.” It was Wil Usdi who organized the Cherokee to defend the Confederates during
the Civil War, playing a major role in North Carolina and Tennessee, resulting in two attempts to court martial him, though both were overturned. He was, in short, an important and controversial character.

Virtually the entire story is related from a mental institution (the novella’s sub-title is “Thoughts from the Asylum”), where Wil Usdi lived for much of his life after the end of the Civil War. A date, 1890, is frequently cited as the focus of the story’s attention, when Wil is old and confused, constantly trying to grapple with his memories of the past. He loops back to those incidents: his success as a trader, when he established his own trading stores; his ownership of fifty slaves; his multiple relationships with women, including his one legitimate marriage; his loving memory of his wife—plus all the legal activities dealing with the Federal government and the very, very positive memories of his life as a Cherokee. He was certain, for example, that “Indians were more human than were the whites.”

The nostalgia that Wil captures is most revealing when he thinks of his years in the mountains, with his Cherokee companions or by himself in the wild, a stark juxtaposition to the time he has spent in the mental institution. In these memories, his love for his environment leaps from the earlier pedestrian prose he has used to describe many of his activities: “He loved the cooling shade of the many giant trees that lined the stream and grew above the falls, crawling up the mountain clear to the top. Their leaves rattled in a strong wind, and in lighter breezes, they would sway in unison. He loved picking and eating the berries that grew in the woods there.”

And soon after, the most revealing passage about his character: “He was a mountain boy, and he knew himself as such. He had been born to these mountains and had grown up with them and in them. He was a part of them and they a part of him. He knew that if anyone should forcibly remove him from these mountains, he would die.”

We never learn the cause of Wil’s mental instability—his paranoia, his passivity that quickly changes to violent threats against others. Perhaps it was simply a matter of premature dementia, but the early narrative of living among the Cherokee (his life as a Cherokee) becomes the core of his story and his importance—not the years of rotting in a mental institution, which ironically (after the Civil War) he was instrumental in having constructed.

Robert J. Conley: Wil Usdi: Thoughts from the Asylum

Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 160 pp., $14.95

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. His many books include American Indian Fiction (Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1978).