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According to my dead Grandpa, I’m 1/16 Cherokee.
“Yeah, I’m Cherokee,” she said to me from the passenger seat. We were young and driving and looking for a place to sin in the dark.
“Come on, how would you know that?” I ask, skeptical of White people claiming more than what was already theirs. As if we need more.
“My grandma was a quarter.”
I look out the window away from her to the hanging streetlights. Then back.
“I mean, all of us in the west, aren’t we all a little part native? Like, in a bad way?”
But now she looks away irritated, her arms crossed over, her legs straight in front of her in the car, not Indian-style.
“I guess I’m just saying, are you really Cherokee?” She’s not listening, but I need to say this. “Do you identify as Cherokee? Do you live the life of a Cherokee? Do you understand anything about what it’s like to live like that? To have people hate you because of who you are? To wish you didn’t exist?”
She sighed and shook her head.
“Because I don’t.”
I kept driving.
He was born on an Oklahoma Indian Reservation. Leighton Cleo Halpain. Son of Solon Tilden Halpain and an unknown woman. Born on the same year as the state itself: 1907. 1/2 Cherokee.
According to my dead Great Grandmother, I’m 1/32 Cherokee.
She tried to research her husband, Leighton, but it was always a dead end. “She traced her parents to BC,” my mom told me, but she couldn’t get past that reservation in Oklahoma.
Leighton’s father murdered Leighton’s mother. My great great grandmother. Maybe she was half Cherokee, or full Cherokee, but I can’t think of anything besides alcohol that would have caused that. I imagine her face and her cheekbones look like they’d cut through her skin they’re that sharp. She couldn’t have smiled a lot, not with being married to a drunk cowboy who would have beat her every night. Just like his son Leighton would beat his children, my Papa, my Great Aunts.
I want to write that how he killed her was cowardly. I imagine he just shot her, no dramatic confrontation, no nose to nose anger at their tough land in a tough state. Just a shot. A trigger. Him just sitting there with a half-emptied bottle of something brown and cheap and her walking into his drunken world.
I want to write that that’s not how it happened. That actually, the old man had hit his son with an open palm and it was the last time he’d do it.
“Oh yeah?” he would say, standing from some rickety wooden chair, creaking with release, “You sure ‘bout that?”
And she would stand there, over her son, her dark hands covering his white face, and she’d say, “Yeah. That’s right.” Then she’d run from the two-room shack of their home and out to the small barn covering the horses and tackle and guns. She’d fling open the wooden box and grab it, place the butt against her thigh, and slide two shells into the cracked barrels. She’d snap the shotgun close and walk back into the house, but Leighton would already have his pistol out in a shaking hand, his face mean and red.
She’d look down to her son sitting on the floor crying, and she’d look up at her husband standing there with a trembling barrel pointed at her. And she’d raise the barrel up, her straight black strands hanging over her face like tiny icicles, and he’d shoot her. The shot would tear him out of his glaze and his eyes would open wide staring at the blood darkening her bosom, the cries of their son on deaf ears in the wake of the gunshot.
“There’s going to be a race war up on the Res,” he said nodding. “I’m telling you, people aren’t going to put up with this.”
I shook my head and shot the basketball. “You really think so, huh?”
He passed it back to me. “Yeah, seriously.”
I shot it again.
We switched positions and I passed it to him. I thought of Dudds and how he was always cool to me, but how he had that side. I remembered that kid who moved schools because Dudds overheard him talking shit and said he’d kill him. But he only smiled at me, whenever he showed up for class, broad and tall and lumbering. Always smiling, but always with that smile that hid something, or maybe I’m just imagining it.
I pass the ball back to him and think of what he said. “Dudds chopped him up in pieces and burned him in his car. Like a psychopath.”
It was true. They found burned remains in a car, but the news never said if he chopped him up like a serial killer. I wonder if he did, Dudds, with that big smile hiding something.
I wondered if he cut him up in 32 pieces.
According to my Great Aunt, none of us are Cherokee.
It’s a relief. It’s a relief to think that I don’t need to claim anything more than I have already, than my blood has. It’s a relief that I won’t be able to swindle myself into free health care or casino money from people my other people had murdered and thieved and silenced.
It’s a relief that that murder didn’t happen. That it was just an old legend of Cowboys vs. Indians, even if they were married. She died in California, not Oklahoma. And her hair wasn’t black, it was blonde.
I’m glad I can’t even feign ownership of this land, my lineage going back to serfs under Czars and peasants under lords. Or maybe they were lords in Hillmorton, England in the 1350s. Maybe they were Viking Chieftains crossing the Atlantic with Erik the Red.
But they weren’t Cherokee.
Or maybe they were.
Jake Zawlacki lives and writes in the swamps of Louisiana. His work has appeared or will soon appear in Two Hawks Quarterly, Abstract Magazine, and The Citron Review.