Monday, January 24, 2011

The Father of the French

Catoctin Mountain
May, 1831

The morning sun was finally starting to burn off the fog when Jean-Baptiste and Felix arrived in Lone Fox's tent. The chief -- one of several important Cherokee chiefs who had come to the gathering -- was sitting on matted reeds and repairing a spear. He was an older man, his hair streaked with white, his face creased with old scars. He nodded as the Frenchmen were shown in, and gestured for them to have a seat on the mats next to him. "Welcome," he said in French.

"Thank you for meeting with us this morning," said Jean-Baptiste.

Lone Fox smiled. "This is why we have all come, isn't it? To meet. You are welcome."

Jean-Baptiste decided to plunge right in. "When you arrived a few days ago, Lone Fox, we spoke briefly of why we had all gathered here. We spoke of the armies of the Great Sun, and how they were moving further and further west."

Lone Fox nodded. "Yes."

"There is more news this morning," said Jean-Baptiste. "A Seneca warrior has arrived in the Haudenosaunee camp. He was recently captured by soldiers of the Great Sun two days hard ride from here, and subjected to torture. Red Sky spoke with us about it. I talked with her about what the French can offer -- weapons, advice, even the protection of our army. I think -- " he glanced at Felix -- "I think she is close to agreeing to our terms."

Lone Fox looked at Jean-Baptiste from under his gray eyebrows. "I hear the words you are not saying," he said. "To the east of the Cherokee is the Great Sun. To the north is an alliance of the French and the Haudenosaunee. It would be wise, Lone Fox, to join this alliance also."

"The decision is yours, of course," said Jean-Baptiste. "But I think you put the situation well."

Lone Fox took his knife to the spear shaft, whittling the end into a new shape. As the pause stretched on, Jean-Baptiste strained against the desire to fill the silence with something, anything. Felix began to fidget.

"A strange thing happens when white men speak," said Lone Fox at last. "You speak, and create chiefs."

"What?" said Jean-Baptiste.

"I am not the chief of all the Cherokee," said Lone Fox. "There never has been such a chief. I am chief of a village. Chiefs of other villages are my friends; many of them say they respect my judgement. And so I was sent, among others, to this conference with the French and the Haudenosaunee."

"But they gave you the power to sign treaties, to enter into agreements," said Jean-Baptiste. "Didn't they?"

"Yes," said Lone Fox. "And if I do so, suddenly the other chiefs will look with more respect on myself and the other Cherokee negotiators here. We few have become the mouthpiece of all the Cherokee. We have never had such a mouth before."

Lone Fox fell silent again, whittling. Jean-Baptiste said, "This is good, isn't it? Unity among the tribe?..."

"The French," said Lone Fox, "have one mouth, one pair of hands, one pair of ears, and one mind. You have an Emperor."

"Yes," said Jean-Baptiste slowly. "In a way. What are you driving at?"

"The French Emperor desires to make a treaty with the Cherokee. But he cannot speak to all the Cherokee one at a time. So he asks the Cherokee to become one people, under one government, so that he can have one treaty."

"I think that -- that's not how it is," began Jean-Baptiste.

Lone Fox laughed. "Before the French and Spanish came, we Cherokee did not even know we were one tribe," he said. "It was not so long ago; we remember." He touched a necklace he was wearing, and Jean-Baptiste noticed for the first time that, unlike the rest of his jewelry, it was gold: a cross, wound round with writhing filaments, with what looked like a golden flower in the center. "We had our village; we often visited with other villages nearby, and many of them spoke our language. Some of us traveled far, to villages where they spoke strangely." He shrugged. "And then the white men come, and ask, 'Where is your chief?'"

He fell silent again.

Jean-Baptiste said, "But it is good to have chiefs over more than one village. Look. What happens if there is an argument between villages? What happens if there is a disagreement about trade? Or fishing or hunting rights? What if there is a famine in one village, who coerces the other villages to help?"

Lone Fox did not answer. Jean-Baptiste waited a while, then decided to press on.

"Look how strong the Haudenosaunee are, Lone Fox. They are not one tribe, but six, and more tribes want to join, for mutual protection and aid. Look how strong the people of the Great Sun are: hundreds of tribes all up and down the Great River, all united and ready to help each other. The same with us, with the French."

Again, Jean-Baptiste paused, watching Lone Fox's face for some hint of his thoughts. The old man continued whittling.

"Separate, the individual villages of the Cherokee are weak, Lone Fox. But together, they could be strong. Strong enough to defend themselves from the Great Sun, strong enough to be a valuable friend to the Haudenosaunee and the French. Strength brings security. Join together, and the Cherokee would be like one great family."

Lone Fox paused a moment and looked at Jean-Baptiste, holding the white man's gaze. Then he returned to his whittling.

"Lone Fox, I will speak from the heart," said Jean-Baptiste, borrowing a phrase Red Sky had used that morning. "When I was young, there were many troubles in France. For hundreds of years, the French had been one great family, and the king was the father. But he was an unkind father; he betrayed his children. And so there was war, and revolution, and many people died, including my parents. I was six years old when I went to the orphanage, the house for children with no parents."

"Did you have no grandparents?" asked Lone Fox. "No aunts or uncles? No friends?... Excuse me if these are rude questions."

"No," said Jean-Baptiste. "My parents had moved from the country, where their family lived, into the city, and had few friends there, I think. I know very little about it. But when the wars ended, the French were still a great family. Now we have our Emperor, and he is the father of the French. And because he is the father of all the French, he is my father, as well. France -- France is my father, my mother, my sisters and brothers. Do you see?"

Lone Fox slowly nodded. He put down his spear and folded his hands.

"You have spoken from the heart," he said. "So I will also. Jean-Baptiste, I was also an orphan. My parents were killed when the Spanish and French fought in the far south, in the Natchez territory. That was part of the Great Sun lands, and there was a great battle, in which my father fought. He was Cherokee, but he fought for the Great Sun; as you know, sometimes the Great Sun buys warriors. He was wounded and came home to his wife, and she nursed him, but he died. Soon after he died, my mother died as well. There is little left of them now, except my memory, and this." Lone Fox pointed to the cross at his chest.

"I was wondering about that," said Jean-Baptiste. "It is beautiful. Is it Cherokee make? It looks Spanish."

"I think it is Spanish," said Lone Fox, "but I'm not sure. My grandmother told me it had been in the family for generations. I lived with her and my grandfather for a short time before they died, and then went to live with cousins I barely knew, and from there to other distant relatives... It was not like living in a house of orphans, it was not bad. But a family, it was not."

Lone Fox stopped and stared at his folded hands. Again Jean-Baptiste fought down the impulse to fill the silence.

"So I understand the need for family," said Lone Fox at last. "But can a nation be a family? Can one man, one Emperor, truly be a father to a whole nation? How can he be a father if you never see him, never hear his voice? Never touch his hand? How can he be a father if you cannot cry on his shoulder?"

Jean-Baptiste said quietly, "I cannot explain it. But he is my father. He is."

Lone Fox sighed. "I do not understand. Perhaps I cannot. I do see that you have a child's loyalty to his father; but I do not see that the Emperor has a father's loyalty to his child. Nevertheless" -- Lone Fox clapped his hands -- "I will think about it. Thank you, Jean-Baptiste, for speaking with me this morning."

Jean-Baptiste stood up. For once he had no words to say.

"Perhaps," said Lone Fox, "it is time for us together to meet with the Haudenosaunee, and see what wisdom will come from council."

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