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If I ask my students to write about someone they admire, chances are they'll write about their mothers, grandmothers, or great-grandmothers. They tell stories of life and death, and they often comment upon how these women sacrificed for children and grandchildren. But if I had the same assignment, I don't know if my grandmother and great-grandmother would be my enemies or heroes. Over the years, I've come to accept them as heroic, since they kept our culture alive ... in secret.

I count myself lucky to have had two great-grandmothers on my father's side who lived until I was nearly twenty years old; my paternal grandmother lived until I was thirty-six. Although I grew up far away from them, we spent more time together when I moved back to the east coast in the mid-70s. My paternal grandmother, Eva, and I were closest, living together for six weeks each summer. She told me about our family's history and of the odd parallels between her and my grandfather's families. Ironically, there had been the same number of childrenwith two dying as toddlers at the same agesand their parents worked first as sharecroppers then later in cotton mills in north Georgia.

When I was about ten I realized my great grandmother was different from the rest of us. I asked my grandmother about her behavior, and Eva told me stories of her mother-in-law Maud, a tall, stocky woman with a broad, round face. Later in her life, Maud was unable to walk, but in her younger days, she was a powerful figure in my family. She had grown up in the mountains of Hall County in a farming family, until marrying my great grandfather and raising a family. She kept to herself, rarely speaking to anyone except family members. Her best-known skill was baking cakesyellow with seven or more layers, fudgy icing resting between them or coconut, tall on their plates and fuzzy with freshly-grated coconut. She was bedridden during my lifetime, but I never knew why.

Maud, dark-skinnedunlike mehad black hair greying with age and "plaited" way down into a tiny pigtail. When I asked Eva about Maud, she whispered to me "She's an indian." It was the first time in my ten years that I'd heard anyone in my family utter that word in that wayso disdainfully, nearly contemptuous. It was clear Eva would say no more. Later, I asked my mother if I was an indian, too; she said it was "too far off to count." That idea stopped my questions until I was in my late teens, when Maud died.

After Maud's death, my interest redoubled in my Cherokee heritage. No one in my family would discuss it with me, especially my grandmother. I turned to books and other Cherokee wholike mesought knowledge and acceptance. I learned I could claim my ancestry legally if I could find Maud's name on the Dawes Roll. But, other than newspaper references to my great, great grandfather and his parents, I found nothing. For a long timeyears, perhapsI was angry. At a dead end, I felt Maud and Eva betrayed me. They were the enemies who had hidden my heritage, so they could pass as "white." I stopped asking about my ancestors.

Three years after Eva died, I found Maud's name on the Dawes Roll. Previously, I looked for Maud's married name. Serendipitously, I looked under her maiden name rather than her married one. Directly below Maud, I found Eva. After Eva's obvious disdain for indians, she was one, too. I was stunned. At first, I felt my anger rise. I couldn't move. I couldn't speak. The heat rose to my face. For a long time, I sat in my chair.

Maturity has given me a different perspective. Now I realize that Maud and Eva gave up their "indianness," in a way, to help their children. They wanted more for us than dirt farming or factory work. They wanted us to prosper in ways they could not. And while they may have purged us of public association with Cherokee traditional practice, they taught us Cherokee ways. The more I learn now, the more I realize that Maud and Eva sacrificed their public practice to instill private practice in their children. Among other things, we were taught to respect the land, value our elders, and think of those who walk with usand follow usin this world.

April 7, 2010