Fourteen years ago, when my husband was still my fiance, he took me to visit The Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s house in Nashville, Tennessee. Joseph was a soldier stationed at nearby Fort Campbell, Kentucky. We had been friends for many years by the time of our visit, and he knew it was something I would want to see.
I’m Muscogee (Creek), and Joseph is not, but he was born and raised in a rural community near Eufaula, Oklahoma, right in the heart of what is now the Creek Nation. (There’s a Eufaula, Alabama too, where our ancestors lived before Andrew Jackson forced the tribes to move to Indian Territory.) Growing up, his babysitters and classmates were Muscogee. His uncles married Muscogee women. He assumed he would grow up and do the same, and he was right.
When we told my mother where we were going, she said, “You ought to plant kudzu in his yard!” We laughed at the idea of the Hermitage caretakers fighting the invasive vines that cover whole buildings and trees in the South. And I actually considered trying, but I never figured out how to manage it, so I had to settle for digging my bootheels into the dirt of his yard, knowingly tracking mud into his house. Signs at The Hermitage warned visitors not to take flowers, leaves, or any other thing from the house or grounds. My pockets were full of sticks and acorns by the time I left.
Dutifully, we followed the docent through the house, learning about Jackson’s decorating tastes and where different events had happened in his life. We heard about his love for his wife, Rachel. We heard how he defended her when high society and his political opponents shunned her for having been divorced. We heard how he blamed himself for her early death and how he visited her grave every day once he moved back to Nashville. We saw the room where he died of tuberculosis, and I asked, “Was it a very painful death?” The docent assured us that it was.
She went on to tell us about the graves we would find on the grounds, especially that of Alfred, one of Jackson’s many slaves, who had lived to the age of 99 and asked to be buried near Andrew and Rachel in exchange for the Ladies Hermitage Association being allowed to buy some of the home’s original furnishings from him. The docent’s explanation was that Alfred considered it an honor, but Alfred’s reasoning is not recorded. I do wonder if he realized his humble stone situated next to the Jacksons’ elaborate tomb would call attention to the stark difference between the Jacksons’ lives and those of the men and women they bought to work their 1,120 acres.
The docent explained that Jackson’s family members were all buried on the grounds. He never fathered children, but he was the guardian of several, including a “Native American child who was found on the battlefield with his dead mother,” according to The Hermitage website. The child wasn’t “Native American.” He was Muscogee (Creek), like me. His family was killed by Jackson’s soldiers at the Battle of Tallushatchee. He was called Lyncoya (sometimes spelled “Lincoyer”).
In a letter to Rachel, Jackson wrote that he was sending, “ a little Indian boy for Andrew to Huntsville—with a request to Colo. Pope to take care of him untill he is sent on—all his family is destroyed.” Andrew was one of Jackson’s adopted sons, Rachel’s nephew, whom Jackson took as a protege. It is surmised from the letter that the “little Indian boy” was to be a companion for him at military school, but Lyncoya didn’t end up accompanying him there. Instead, he was sent to become a saddlemaker, but he died young of tuberculosis.
I asked the docent about him. She spoke of how Jackson so kindly took him into the family (after he “destroyed” Lyncoya’s actual family), but when I asked where he was buried, she didn’t know. I’ve since looked it up. It seems that nobody knows, though a historical marker does commemorate the place where he was found with the dead body of his mother.
And with that, our tour ended, and we set out to see his tomb.
Though he has been the villain of my life for as long as I can remember, I wanted to feel sorry for the broken-hearted old man, struggling for breath through his pain, his skin weeping with edema. Despite my joking around, despite my defiant acts of tiny vandalism, I had come to The Hermitage because I wanted to find out that he was a human being who made a terrible, cruel mistake in judgment.
I was tired of being bitter. I was tired of hating him. I was educated, newly crowned with a master’s degree in English that involved belief in the complex inner lives of even the most opaquely sinister people. I wanted to see Andrew Jackson’s choice of wallpaper, his boots, the place he had breakfast. I wanted to stand where he stood and feel his ghost tell me he was sorry. I wanted to find his house haunted by a tortured soul who only after death realized the pain he had caused and is still causing.
But as we approached the tomb, I felt none of that. Instead, I felt something so overwhelming that I still have no adequate words in English -- and don’t know enough words in Creek – to describe it. Physically, it felt like the chest-crushing weight of shocking terror followed by an aching hollowness. I saw my hands grasp the bars surrounding the tomb, and a separate part of my mind chastised them for being so dramatic and cliché. I felt tears rush from my throat to my eyes in hot floods, and they were the agonizing tears of loss. But I was angry, not sad.
I would rather have been sad. Sadness leads to comfort, and comfort leads to forgiveness. And forgiveness is what good, kind, educated people do when they have an enemy. I wanted to be good, kind, educated, as my great-grandfather wanted us all to be. He spoke only Creek. He was an educated man, but he didn’t go to school. He made sure his children did, even though it meant sending them far away to boarding schools. He wanted us all to be educated because he wanted us to be safe in America – a country that would not allow indigenous people to be citizens until his adulthood in 1924, at which point they were forced into it, as we are forced into so many other things.
In our family, we all do what our great-grandfather asked of us. We go to college and to our Creek church. We go to ceremonial grounds and hold onto the land we were allotted when Indian Territory became Oklahoma so America could move us somewhere more convenient again. It’s why I was in graduate school, and our great-grandfather was right: I was much safer in America than he had been. Than his parents had been when Andrew Jackson forced them from their home. Than his grandparents had been when Andrew Jackson was taking a Creek baby from the battleground at Tallushatchee. Than all our ancestors had been since the first time a European “discovered” them.
At Andrew Jackson’s grave, I wanted to be academic – sad, but open-minded about the difficult choices he had to make at a complicated time. Or I wanted to be analytical and witty, making arch comments about being a Creek woman standing over his grave. Instead, here I was, grasping the bars that surrounded him, locked out from spitting on his headstone or digging him up to confront his bones with my brown living flesh.
Here I was, ferocious and unforgiving. Because standing at his tomb, I realized that only Andrew Jackson’s body had died. His spirit lived on in boarding schools and urbanization, in poverty and suicide, in court cases and unsolved murders. In a Creek girl standing at his grave, unable to explain herself in a language her ancestors would understand.
Joseph didn’t try to comfort me, and he didn’t speak. He stood aside, and when I was back to myself, he spoke to me as he had before, with wit and respect. He didn’t apologize for his white skin or for bringing me to a place that made me cry. He didn’t explain why I should understand that it happened a long time ago or how much better I would feel if I could forgive. Silently, with a small motion, he kicked a rock in between the bars around the tomb, and then we walked across the grass to his truck and drove back to Fort Campbell.
Almost 14 years later, we are married, and he has had to watch me watch President Trump compare himself to Andrew Jackson and hang Jackson’s portrait in the Oval Office. He is just like he was at Jackson’s tomb: Graceful beyond imagining. Most people aren’t.
On the day President Trump laid a wreath at Jackson’s tomb, the New York Times ran a story with the headline A History of Presidents, Mostly Democrat, Paying Homage to Jackson. It felt like yet another person explaining why we should get over it, that we were blowing things out of proportion, being irrational, not understanding the complexity of the situation. I doubt they meant for it to sound that way to me, but I don’t think the New York Times imagines Creek people reading their paper. Sometimes it feels like the only people who remember we still exist are the ones trying to run a pipeline through a Native community or take a picture of the Washington monument without having it photobombed by a teepee.
But we do still exist. I still exist, and through me, my ancestors. We have long memories, and our memories go both directions – into the past and the future, as we understand those things. I’m still at Jackson’s grave, and my great-grandfather is with me. He’s still holding a letter in English from his son at boarding school, and his grandmother is with him. She is still looking one last time at her home as she is taken away from it forever, and her great-grandfather is with her. And as I write this, a descendant whose life I can’t even imagine is doing something I wouldn’t understand, and I am with her.
That’s why I’m not just sad or afraid or upset when I see President Trump honor Andrew Jackson with his words and actions. I am beyond those inadequate words. I see President Trump at Jackson’s tomb with the eternal eyes of my ancestors and descendants. We see all that has happened drawn into one man in a suit, leaning over a piece of marble with a wreath of dead leaves. President Trump is standing where I stood at the tomb, and the Earth records both our footprints there where it is displaced around Andrew Jackson’s body rotting in a coffin.
Stacy Pratt is a Muscogee (Creek) freelance writer and musician living in DeRidder, LA, where her husband is stationed at Fort Polk. She has a doctorate in creative writing from the University of Southern Mississippi. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hello Giggles, Catholic Digest, and The Indian River Review.