Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D. & Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D.: About writing Jesse Smoke, you have said, "I would not have been able to write this story twenty years ago, even though I thought of doing such a novel more than once. I am glad that I waited." Why do you feel this way?
Joseph Bruchac: One of the things I've been taught by Native American elders is the importance of patience, of waiting to do things when the time is right. As an Onondaga friend put it to me, "you can't pick berries until the berries are ripe." Twenty years ago I knew many of the facts concerning the Trail of Tears. Knowledge, however, is easy to come by. Understanding what you know takes much longer. Through travel, meeting and spending time with Cherokee friends over the years, and thinking a great deal about what the Cherokee experience means in terms of larger issues, I was able to come to the sort of understanding that made me feel I was ready to do this book.
RFA & EST: The Journal of Jesse Smoke is your first book for the My Name Is America series. What challenges did you encounter writing a book in journal format?
JB: A journal is a very personal thing. As far as possible, to write this sort of book you need to know and feel your character as a person and then put yourself into that person's mind, place and time. Trying to stay in that person, place and time is a challenge when surrounded by this very different world of the 21st century. However, whenever I was finally deeply into the act of writing this book, I did not feel as if I was Joe Bruchac writing a book, but instead I was Joe Bruchac taking dictation from a very real person named Jesse Smoke.
RFA & EST: The character Jesse Smoke is strong, sensitive, and well educated. Was there a real person who was your inspiration for Jesse?
JB: I have to say that Jesse Smoke was inspired by the strength, sensitivity and intelligence of a number of very real contemporary Cherokee people I've been fortunate enough to know, as well as certain young men who were extremely well-educated Cherokees of the period when the fictitious Jesse "lived." Reading the things they wrote were an inspiration to me. No one person was Jesse Smoke, but there were elements of such 19th century Cherokee people as David Brown (mentioned in the October 14, 1837 entry), the young Elias Boudinot and other Brainerd students.
RFA & EST: You state that you walked the Trail of Tears, beginning at Kituwa in North Carolina. How far did you travel? Please tell us about your journey and what the whole experience meant to you.
JB: I did not walk every step of the Trail of Tears at one time. Instead, over the last 20 years I have walked various segments of it in Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. My most recent journey was two years ago when I was writing a book for The National Geographic Society called Trails of Tears, Paths of Beauty. I was able to spend a number of days in Cherokee, North Carolina and in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. In both places I walked parts of the Trail in the company of such Cherokee friends as Robert Conley and Tom Belt. It was deeply moving to stand, for example, at the top of Clingman's Dome in North Carolina with Tom Belt, a mountain where it is said the bear people held their council long ago and decided to allow themselves to be hunted by humans. As we stood there, Tom pointed out the valleys below where the trail passed, where certain forts were built to hold the people, as well as the place to the west where, he said, they could no longer see their beloved mountains when they looked back. Both of us had tears in our eyes. Although the Trail of Tears happened over 160 years ago, it is as if it happened yesterday when you stand in a place such as that with a Cherokee.
RFA & EST: You mention your own Native American ancestry. Would you tell us a little about it and how it has shaped your life as a writer?
JB: My family is Abenaki Indian on my mother's side. My father's side of the family is Slovak and we also have some English ancestry. I was not brought up in a native community or with even much mention about Indian heritage as a child. My mother's parents were the ones who raised me. That early lack of information about my Indian roots actually made me more curious about it, especially because my Grandfather Jesse Bowman looked so typically Abenaki and was so connected to the natural world —taking me into the forest and treating me with great love and respect. I think that connection to nature, the gentle strength of my grandfather, and that hidden heritage all led me to take the path I'm on. (Plus my grandmother loved to read and kept our house full of books!) From my teenage years on, I sought out Native elders from many tribal nations and listened to their words. I also started a small press, The Greenfield Review Press, and became very involved with publishing the work of other American Indian authors, especially books of poetry. I finally wrote an autobiography about my upbringing and about how I searched out and learned what I now know about our Abenaki background — as well as connecting with the modern Abenaki community in the United States and Canada. That book, Bowman's Store, was brought out in a paperback edition by Lee & Low Books.
RFA & EST: If your readers wish to learn more about the Trail of Tears, what book or books would you recommend?
JB: Let me suggest three books. Night of the Cruel Moon by Stanley Hoig is published by Facts on File Press. It is one of the most thorough books on the Trail of Tears and is especially good for junior high and young adult readers. The Cherokees by Grace Steele Woodward published by University of Oklahoma is still regarded by many Cherokees as one of the best books about their people. And finally there is Trails of Tears, Paths of Beauty by Joseph Bruchac and published by National Geographic. This is about both the Cherokees and the Navajos and features beautiful photos and illustrations.
RFA & EST: In Jesse's journal there is speculation on what the motivation was for some Cherokees to approve the Cherokee Removal. Why do you think the twenty Cherokee men signed the infamous Treaty of Echota?
JB: To be honest, I don't think those 20 men signed the Treaty for their own benefit. Most of them knew it was like signing their own death warrants. I think they felt it was the best deal the Cherokee could get. Some contemporary Cherokees have told me that they really sympathize with those men because of that. The problem, though, is that they had no right to do this. Other Cherokees tell me that they can never forgive those men for ignoring the laws of their own nation in that way.
RFA & EST: We know that in addition to being a writer and storyteller, you also perform and record music with a group known as the Dawn Land Singers who are trying to preserve the rich Native American heritage. If teachers or librarians wished to purchase your recordings to share with children, how could they go about doing that?
JB: A list of my books and recordings is on my website . You can find my recordings on the Native Authors website . They can also be ordered by calling the North American Native Authors Catalog at (518) 584-1728 or faxing to (518) 583-9741.
RFA & EST: What is one thing you would want your readers to take with them after reading The Journal of Jesse Smoke?
JB: The understanding that native people such as the Cherokees are just as human and complex and real as they are, and that our nation needs to respect American Indian cultures and traditions.
RFA & EST: If you could ask young readers of Jesse's journal one question after they finished reading your book, what would that question be?
JB: Perhaps something along the line of what lessons they learned from this story? Or, more personally, what would they have done if they were in Jesse's place? Or even, could something like the Trail of Tears happen today?
Interview conducted by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Assistant Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Houston, Texas.