“It was very important to me that I didn’t tell the Trail of Tears as a victim story. It’s a very defining point of who we are as Cherokee people, but it doesn’t define us as Cherokee people.” @Oregonian
Last month, DeLanna Studi came to the Moss Arts Center to perform her one-woman show, And So We Walked: An Artist’s Journey Along the Trail of Tears. Studi traveled the Trail of Tears with her father as a way to connect with her ancestors’ legacy. While her story is featured on a web site and Instagram site, and elements of her story were highlighted on Facebook and Twitter, her primary focus has been on communicating through her theater project. Through the efforts of several groups at Virginia Tech, Studi brought her show to the Moss Arts Center for four performances over four days. I went to the first of the performances, on Indigenous People’s Day.
The Trail of Tears is the path of forced removal for Cherokee and other Native American tribes. It stretches from the southeastern United States to the Oklahoma territory, over 900 miles. In actuality, it isn’t a single trail but an assortment of paths from desirable expansion areas in growing states like North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee to far less desirable areas in the unsettled Oklahoma territory. For more information about the Trail of Tears, Studi recommends (and I agree) that you read Steve Inskeep’s JacksonLand: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab.
Studi and her father traveled what is known as the northern route–the path that many Cherokee, including ancestors of the Studi family, were forced to traverse. She drove and walked with her father, along with a documentary artist and other team members, in 2015. She visited homesteads, towns, parks, museums, trails, and memorials along the way, and she and her team conducted lots of interviews as they went. She posted to Facebook and Twitter, mainly short updates with links to places, articles, and other information.
For many years, DeLanna described her dream project as this journey with her father along the trail–from her original family homestead in North Carolina to the Cherokee reservation in Oklahoma. She had visions of walking the entire trail, though funds to make that happen didn’t come through. But a friend and colleague, Cory Madden, learned about her dream and called her months later to help craft the project. It was Madden who asked Studi to focus her story on her relationship with her father–her original telling of the story was over 30,000 words and over 6 hours long. Clearly this was a good choice, as it highlighted the tensions with her father, who is a full-blooded Cherokee old speaker (his first language is Cherokee) who experienced great prejudice and trauma because of who he is. In an interview with Jill Ditmire, Studi noted that the journey lacked the epiphany she was expecting–there was no singular moment of connection. Indeed, toward the end Studi and her father had a fight, and they didn’t speak for months afterward. But the trail started a healing process, and the subsequent time has brought them closer together than ever before.
From a Tech on the Trail perspective, Studi clearly has the skills (and the team) to establish an online presence. She leveraged Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and a web site to tell aspects of her story and to promote her performances. But it is the one-woman stage performance that is at the heart of her storytelling–a medium that allows the audience to get close to her, to connect with her emotions, to watch her interact with physical objects, to experience her re-creating the interactions that she had with her father and others along the trail.
The performance is a testament to Studi’s skills as a performer. It lasted over 2 hours, with only a brief 15-minute intermission. In the first half, she provided background on herself, her family, and the Cherokee people. The second half delved more deeply into her journey–certainly the physical journey along and around the Trail of Tears, but even more so her personal journey toward discovering who she is, the nature of her relationship to her father and her family, and possibilities regarding a potential love interest who disappears and reappears along the trail. She seemed to feed off of the audience reactions, connecting through smiles, laughs, tears, thoughts. By the end of the performance, DeLanna seemed emotionally drained. She waved her thanks to the standing ovation from the audience and made a quick exit. We lingered a bit afterward, but she didn’t return.
Studi has described her theater performance as the tip of the iceberg with regard to telling the story of her journey. It is certainly an impressive statement, and it will be interesting to see what next steps emerge. Even with four shows in four nights, there were only a limited number of people who could connect with her shows in Blacksburg. I suspect that, next up, there will be a technological microphone to spread her important story more broadly.