Interview: Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle

Interview: Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle

When it is published later this year, Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle’s debut novel will mark a milestone in American and Appalachian literature. Even As We Breathe, which tells the story of a young Cherokee man struggling with the limitations of his community and the prejudice of the outside world, will be the first novel authored by an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and published by a major press. 

The story had been bubbling inside Clapsaddle for some time after her first manuscript was a finalist for the prestigious PEN/Bellwether Prize but ultimately went unpublished. Onstage at Berea College’s third biennial Appalachian Symposium in mid-September, she recounted her shock when she received the offer of publication from Fireside Industries, the new literary imprint and joint venture of the University Press of Kentucky and Hindman Settlement School. It took a while for the news to settle in with Clapsaddle, who teaches English and Cherokee Studies at Swain County High School in North Carolina. But when it did, she celebrated with Mexican food and champagne, then immediately set to work on revising the manuscript with her editor, Silas House.

When it came time to give her reading, Clapsaddle’s lyrical, image-driven prose, delivered in a steady voice, held the audience of students, professors, community members, and fellow writers captive—no small feat when considering she was featured alongside bestselling novelist Charles Frazier and acclaimed Americana singer-songwriter Dori Freeman. Later, Clapsaddle participated in a public conversation with House that examined the intersections of Cherokee and Appalachian identity, erasure, native and rural bias, and media representation. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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SILAS HOUSE: Great writing, especially [in] novels, must begin with a balance of mystery and emotion. [The opening to Even As We Breathe] is just packed with emotion, packed with mystery, and it makes you want to keep reading the book. What is the book about?

ANNETTE SAUNOOKE CLAPSADDLE: Even As We Breathe is half set at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville and half in Cherokee, North Carolina. During World War II, the Grove Park Inn held access diplomats and foreign nationals as prisoners of war for just a couple of months one summer. And so that’s the backdrop for the story when the main character, Cowney, a Cherokee nineteen-year-old boy or man—depending on if you ask him or someone else—goes to work [in maintenance] at the Grove Park Inn. And along with him, a young Cherokee woman named Essie travels with him to go work at the inn as well. While he is there, he’s accused of being involved in the disappearance of a diplomat’s young daughter and so, while he’s trying to exonerate himself, he’s also working through issues of his own personal identity back home [in Cherokee] within his own family structure and [he] finds his way.

SH: Erasure is a big theme in the book. [When I teach Appalachian literature], we always focus on displacement, [which is] a kind of erasure, of course, and we start with the Cherokee and we look, in particular, at the Cherokee Removal. That informs the whole rest of the class and we keep coming back to the Removal and all those other displacements that have happened in the region. When you live in a place where an attempted genocide has occurred, like the Qualla Boundary [in North Carolina]…it gets in your blood and bones even if you don’t know it— even if it’s in your subconscious.

ASC: I absolutely agree with that, and I think it is important to connect our Cherokee experience with our Appalachian experience. Specifically in Swain County where I teach, we have the famous “Road to Nowhere,” which is a road that was never completed after a community, Fontana, was flooded by the TVA. There was an agreement that the federal government would finish the road so folks could visit road sites. So we have a long history of broken promises, unfortunately, in our area and I think that, in some way, connects us to even non-Cherokee folks that live in far western North Carolina. 

With that history of genocide comes a sense of distrust with the federal government and it influences everything we do, and it also influences, specifically for Cherokee, how we protect who we are and our identity and what we’ve worked to regain from that attempted genocide. I think some people get frustrated when they come to visit and we don’t welcome everyone with open arms and we hold back some critical cultural knowledge and things like that, but it is out of sense of protection for that long history of knowing it can be lost really easily and also taken advantage of. That’s kind of the darker side of that history.

It has also kind of separated us from our brothers and sisters, almost literally. There are three federally recognized Cherokee tribes. There’s us, the Eastern Band; there’s the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma; and the United Keetoowah band in Oklahoma. We are historically one tribe, but we function completely separate now and that’s a result of the Trail of Tears. However, I think that is also a testament to our strength and resilience; we can weather just about everything. When you beat off genocide, you can have a new perspective on the trials of life, politics, and history. We have, as a community, known the importance of holding on to our cultural values. Everything else will change, but we can maintain [who we are] if we hold onto our values. 

That’s become an important lesson for us, moving forward. And then also I would say…a sense of humor comes out of communities that continue to fight for their existence and try to find peace in life, what we call tohi, which is just a sense of peace with your existence. Sense of humor is such a big part of that.

SH: The whole time you’re talking, I’m thinking about how that is so similar to being Appalachian, right? That constant, attempted erasing. The Cherokee [were the first Appalachians and], to a large part, had their language taken from them. People weren’t allowed to speak the language, and we still see that happening today for Appalachians. I have students all the time who tell me that they were made to lose their accent so they could get a job, or [so] they could get in a certain class or a certain club at school. I love [considering] the Cherokee experience, especially because…that just keeps happening. It’s all these hundreds of years later and people are still attempting erasure. On one hand, we have this whole thing where everyone wants to be Native American, right? But at the same time, there’s still that erasure that happens. In what ways do you see that happening today?

ASC: There’s a systematic erasure. In terms of our sovereign identity, most people don’t understand that or where that comes from, and that can be confusing for people. On the other hand, there is this individual need to find community. Specifically, for Americans wanting to find their farthest link back to this land and a narrative that is very common, especially in Appalachia, the historical lands of the Cherokee, is that people have Cherokee ancestors. I understand the need to try to find that community through that. It’s a constant balance between—I hate to say people, that’s so general, [but] society not understanding why we operate as a sovereign government. At the same time, individuals want to identify as Cherokee, but not the complexities of [being] Cherokee. They just want that ancestry and maybe don’t understand all of the government responsibilities and all of the values of the community. So it is definitely—we’re a community that’s misunderstood. I don’t fault [that]—everyone should want to be Cherokee. I get it, we’re so cool! But there’s a lot more to it for us than researching history. 

SH: One thing Even As We Breathe does so beautifully is show Cherokee characters [as] human beings who happen to be Cherokee, instead of the other way around, right? What are the biggest misconceptions you encounter about Cherokees or native peoples?

ASC: Part of this, I always have to admit, is a little bit our fault because we had to make a living. So with our tourism industry there are stereotypes that have been perpetuated, and luckily in the last decade or so, we’re [doing] a really good job of trying to remove that from our public identity. The basics are around images in terms of colorful headdresses, and [that we] lived in teepees. None of that is true. We lived like probably your ancestors lived in Appalachia, in log cabins and [we made] use of the land. So any time you see [that] imagery, it doesn’t quite make sense, right? It doesn’t make sense for you to live in a teepee in Kentucky. It doesn’t. I don’t think there [were] buffalo herds. There are elk… 

We were a permanent settlement. So the imagery things are definitely a misconception. But I think—and this is true for natives and native literature—this idea that Indian people are somewhat magical. There are no magical qualities to being a native person. There are misconceptions that we are more in tune with nature and those are kind of like the good qualities, right? Those things that seem positive on the surface, but they can be very detrimental. And then there are also the negative stereotypes that come along. I like to think about literature a lot; [there is] the early literature stereotypes of very violent Indian men oversexualizing Indian women and then the more modern stereotype of the drunken Indian. We see—I think in Appalachia in general we see substance abuse becoming more and more of a stereotype of our people, and that’s something native communities deal with as well.

SH: You were educated at Yale and William & Mary, so I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you were received there as a rural person and as a native person.  

ASC: One of my favorite stories to tell about Yale and one of my early experiences as a rural, southerner—I guess that’s part of it too—[is when] I was in a sectioned class. So, you have lecture and then you go to section with your [teaching assistant] in this small group setting. I was an American Studies major [and] we were having a discussion about folks like the Vanderbilts and Carnegie and all those guys. I don’t even remember what the question was, but I made a comment about one of them being rich and a young man, not from where I’m from, looked at me and said, “You do realize the difference between being rich and being wealthy, don’t you?” My freshman self, I looked at him and I said, “Nope. Because where I am from we are neither.” 

The discussion went on and I remember leaving—I was still embarrassed when I left—and I was walking back to my dorm. I was the manager for the women’s basketball team and one of the guys from the men’s basketball team caught up with me and he goes, “Don’t worry about that guy. He’s just trying to sound smart.” 

Yale is a wonderful, welcoming space, but you’ve got people from all over and the first thing…they hear is an accent and then they also have absolutely no idea who a real native person is. I was a part of the Native American Association at Yale and every year we put on a pow-wow, which is a contemporary celebration. This is not a traditional thing, but [a] festival that lots of cultures have and we [had] gone to meet with the dean at the time… about some particulars and funding and all that good stuff that student groups deal with, and my best friend in college [was] from Rosebud, South Dakota. And we’re walking into the dean’s office with these huge doors—just like you’d expect the dean’s office at Yale to look like, right? These huge doors open and we walk in and above the fireplace is this gigantic portrait of Andrew Jackson. So I looked at my friend and I said, “This is not gonna go well.” 

So you know, [there was] a lot of being in places where I was expecting to get an education, [but where] I did a lot of [the] educating, and so did my other peers from other tribes. William and Mary—within a year or two of getting my Masters there I served in kind of an advisory role because they changed some of their imagery of tribe and we had some conversations about that process too. 

To really understand people, it takes time and conversations, and when people are willing to do that then I found communities of acceptance. And people who aren’t willing to do that—I’m not sure I want to be part of their community anyway. It just takes open dialogue and, as I keep coming back to it, a sense of humor because people have not had the same experience I’ve had. I grew up in the tribal community and that’s really, really rare in this country. I keep trying to remind myself of that often too. 

SH: What are some of the worst representations in the media that you notice? 

ASC: I know this is always controversial but I’ll say sports mascots, number one, because they’re such caricatures of native people and because of the mentality of competition often times uses others for its teams’ mascots in violent ways. They hang mascots and you see someone who’s supposed to represent your people being hanged. That’s horrific and I can’t believe that still goes on. Names like “Redskins”—there’s no way for you to explain that one away to me. That’s something that’s still okay in 2019. 

I’ll say, probably the other one is the sexualization of native women through especially Halloween costumes. [Autumn] is really difficult because of Thanksgiving and Halloween and the images that get portrayed through both of those holidays. I’m sure most of you are aware of the real media push to acknowledge missing and endangered native women in this country. When I see a Halloween costume that like an oversexualized Pocahontas, short leather skirt, that—to me there’s no excuse for that. 

SH: Is there good representation out there?

ASC: Yeah, I think there is. Again, I think when media or Hollywood or society understands native cultures, then they understand the sense of humor. There are examples of shows that will have native characters and what I always look for is if that character has that sense of humor. Not everyone agrees with me on this one, so people will disagree—when Johnny Depp played Tonto in The Lone Ranger a lot of people didn’t like it. But I loved it because that was more real than anything. His sense of humor and the wit and the different world view on how to tackle a problem. There are problems with that movie; there are problems with Johnny Depp. [But] I think it’s a good representation of native culture when it’s a human representation of native culture—that it’s layered [and] unexpected in some way just like any other character.

Silas House is the nationally bestselling author of six novels, most recently Southernmost, as well as three plays and one book of creative nonfiction. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times and his writing has appeared in Time, The Atlantic, Oxford American, Narrative, and many others. House serves as the NEH Chair of Appalachian Studies at Berea College and on the fiction faculty at Spalding University’s MFA in creative writing program.

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