Part One – Walking in Three Worlds
Chapter 4 – Growing Up in the Alabama Mountains
By James Johnson
My father, James Johnson, lost his own father when he was fourteen years old. One of a large farm family, he had to work to help his family survive so he never had much opportunity for a formal education. Dad was a hustler though and a worker. He was an astute trader and always had a good sense of business, not trying to get rich, but to do better. As I was growing up, my dad and I didn’t always see eye to eye. We had our conflicts, but it didn’t stop us from having our good times and learning together.
When I was young and went to stay with my dad in Alabama, all my dad’s family wanted me to learn my heritage from his side, and of course, this was intriguing to me. Dad was proud of his Muscogee Creek heritage, and always tried to help me understand the importance of who I was. He told me some about his father, but I wanted to learn much more, so he made sure I had the chance to meet my great aunts, great uncles as well as my Grandmother, of course. I loved learning what they had to tell me, walking on the old lands, going to places that most people have never even heard of.
My Grandma Mary Clemence Doty Johnson was a big part of my life. She was a very tall, large woman for back then. She was considerably younger than my Grandfather, Elish Hedley Johnson, and was still a young woman when he crossed over, leaving her with young children to raise on the family homeplace.
Grandma Johnson was always ready to talk with me, and I loved when she told about my Grandpa. She wanted me to know my Creek heritage on his side of the family and the stories of my people. She told me how a family had taken in his grandpa and adopted him as one of their own and hid him from the militias from Georgia and Alabama. My dad and his sisters, Inez and Mary always told me these stories about my great-great grandfather too, so I would never forget. Grandma and my aunt, Inez could write all the names in the old language. I remember Grandma telling my dad how important it was for him to take me to see all my relatives and all these places.
What I most want to relay about my grandma is that she was all about us all knowing our Native blood, history, and our family ties. She was doing exactly what a clan mother would do in the old days. She made sure I knew my Grandpa Johnson and who all his family were and her side of the family as well. She reminded us all that we are Native and our roots are here in the land. Our ancestors and their blood are still deeply centered right here in Alabama. Grandma instilled in me the honor and respect we must keep flowing throughout each generation.
I vowed to her as I vowed to my Grandpa Beavers that never would I forget; never would I stop learning, so I could bring all these old ways back to our people and all my family as well. Why she picked me out of all her grandkids I have no clue. All my cousins and everyone else were just as capable as me, but maybe she also saw what my Grandpa Beavers did, someone who truly was mule-headed enough not to quit no matter what. I always rebelled when someone told me I couldn’t do something. I don’t know why, I’m just that way. I love to learn and I love pushing myself to always do better. Been a wolf all my life. Love my freedom, more at home in a wilderness than in any home. Would rather sleep on the ground than any bed and I can adjust to any environment. My grandparents both told me that is what our people do – adjust and survive, make use of what is available.
I was in prison when my grandmother passed in 1978. My family members all gave the law their word that I would not be a problem if they brought me to the funeral and I gave my word too. They had me chained head to toe; surrounded by police with guns. I came dressed in a black denim shirt and pants, boots, hair long, and all those shiny chains everywhere. I thanked the police for all the jewelry. When I asked them about taking the chains off – I had given my word – they said no way. Some of the new kids didn’t know who I was, but they were told. Everyone hugged me at the funeral. That was the last time I saw so many of them. Most are gone now. That night, I saw Grandma in my dream walks and we had a long talk.
Dad took me to see my Grandma Johnson’s sister, Great Aunt Leathee, Lethia Emley Doty Horton. Boy, what a joy this was for me. Here was another tall, large woman who lived the old way and knew so many stories and history of our family and our people. She was always loving and took time to make sure that I remembered our history as it was passed down to her. She lived with her husband, Oscar Horton, near Sugar Creek in Blount Co. Alabama. Aunt Leathee, my dad and Uncle Oscar took me to my grandparent’s old homestead.
The chimney and fireplace, and a few other stone walls were still standing. The peaches, plums, pears, and apple trees were all still growing. From the homestead we walked down the mountain side to the Mulberry River, walking through all the corn fields and then down through the cane thicket. As cane cutter rabbits took off in front of us, my dad and Great Aunt told me all the stories they knew of this area. We spent the day fishing while I learned all about my Grandfather and our people’s history. As we walked back, Great Aunt Leathee thanked my dad for bringing me and said she wanted him to leave me there for a couple of weeks because we had lots to talk about, and he did.
Great Uncle Oscar was short and slender, but a strong man. My great aunt was twice his size in height and bone structure, but they were a pair. Up before 4:00 AM every morning, there was work to be done, teaching me different things, such as how to catch those cane-cutter rabbits which she loved cooking. She made gravy and biscuits to go with it. Aunt Leathee also wanted me to meet others of my family, so Uncle Oscar took us around introducing me. Many were very distant related, but to us, as Aunt Leathee said, family is family no matter how distant.
Like my dad and many of my family, Aunt Leathee strongly cautioned me that I must hide what I was. The fear and prejudice was still strong as it had been in the southern states since the removal. Laws were still on the books that made it illegal for a Native American to own land, have a job or anything else. She warned me that it would be really easy to wind up dead because of who I was; practicing Native religion or just being Native at all, was putting a target on my back since there were still laws that make it legal to kill an Indian in some places. My problem was, and still is, I don’t like bullies and I refuse to let them scare me.
Great Uncle Warren Doty was a peach farmer. He lived on a beautiful farm and grew some mighty tasty peaches. He had a garden in the back of the house and huge orchards spread out all around. He loved for my dad and me to come and we all hunted together. He sure loved to rabbit hunt. I asked him once why so much rabbit hunting. He said because they are so much harder to see and hit. Then he laughed. That laugh was a joy to hear. Like several of my great uncles, he loved to whittle and he had a favorite spot up under a big oak tree near the barn. Uncle Warren didn’t talk a whole lot; he expected you to watch him if you wanted to learn something. He said the only true way to learn something was to jump right in and do it. I asked, what if I make a mistake or did something bad wrong? He answered, “Well you learned from that didn’t you? And I know you won’t make that mistake again.”
Uncle Warren had a way of looking at you to let you know that you weren’t thinking straight. One day he asked me if I had ever sneaked up on a deer and touched it before it knew I was there. I told him I knew how to kill one with a knife. He looked at me sideways then; said he had never seen or known how to do that. I said, well we are even, because I haven’t been able yet to pet the deer before it knew I was there. I had come close, but not actually touched the deer while it was standing there. I had touched one while it was sleeping, but that doesn’t count.
Then I explained to Uncle Warren: See if you pet a deer while it is feeding, it will be so surprised it will jump straight up in the air, and like the road runner, when its hooves hit the ground it is gone. The only reason I don’t tell you how to kill the deer with a knife is that I don’t want people trying this without knowing exactly what they are doing. Deer can tear you up pretty bad if you don’t do this right. But this is the old way a young warrior proved their skill and patience at hunting. This was the deer whose heart and a choice piece of meat would be offered to the fire for a good hunting season and bring honor to the deer people. During certain moons, the whole deer would be offered.
Uncle warren asked who had taught me those old ways. I looked down because I didn’t know if he would understand that I had been shown these things in my spirit traveling. He reached out and smiled saying, “I know, don’t worry, it is okay. Some may not understand this about us and many of our own family do not have these gifts, only because it is buried too deep inside of them. They have taken on new beliefs. Never be ashamed of your gifts and how you believe.”
Uncle went on to tell me that I honor all the family by being myself. He said that even though he didn’t live or believe as I did, he respected that in me. He said my dad had talked to him and explained how headstrong I was. Then he asked me to listen to him and gave me the same warning, that there are many who would hurt or even kill me if I openly say things about my beliefs or the abilities I had – up here in the mountains, or in this whole state. His advice was for me to do what I believe, follow my path, but don’t broadcast this out to others. He told me that many of our family still practice the old ways, but none of their neighbors would ever even know it. We keep these things private. He looked at me and asked if I understood why. I told him, yes, I knew why. Then he said he thought it is wonderful to be so proud and loving all our ancestral ways, and he encouraged me to always do so. And I always have. Uncle Warren’s words were wise and I have tried to do just that.
I have been blessed with many people who have helped shape and guide my life. None as much as Alma Jacobs, known to everyone as Maw-Maw Jaybird. When I first met her, she was already ancient – at least in my young eyes – and yet so full of life still. I have no clue as to her age, but she was blind and had been for years. She was a widow and lived in the mountains of northern Alabama. Two of her daughters were still living at home with her, but some of her children were married and gone.
One of her daughters, Jewel, was my stepmother. She had married my dad and they spent a lot of time at her family home place, so this mountain-top farm became my second Alabama home when I was with my dad. I will always remember the first time my dad took me to Maw-Maw’s old homestead. There was no road so to speak; we drove there in a pickup and it was still rough getting there. When I first saw Maw-Maw, I couldn’t believe it. Here was a woman I was told was already old and blind, but she was out working in the gardens and I could see no sign that she could not see. She was working and pulling weeds with her hands faster than the two ladies also working in the garden.
When I got out of the back of the pickup, they waved at me. I waved back and they all started coming up the hill towards us. I didn’t know what to expect, but I surely wasn’t ready for what I saw. Here was a woman still limber, and walking like a panther – fluid, effortlessly – and without help where she was going. She was a very small woman; no more than maybe 4′ 8” or so. I was a boy and was already taller than she was. Her hair was braided and wrapped around her waist several times.
Maw-Maw Jay Bird walked up to me and said, “Let me see you child!” She reached out her hands to touch my face. She saw me through her touch. She felt across my shoulders, chest, back and arms. She held my hands and she just glowed in my eyes. When she finished, she introduced me to her daughters, and this began a learning time, a truly amazing life and meaningful experience for me.
Maw-Maw loved having me there. She taught me all kinds of things, and I was all eyes and ears. The garden was made in tiers around one side of the mountain; the other side was all planted in corn. At the top, the homestead was all flat. She had guineas, pheasants, peacocks, and all kinds of chickens on her property. She had a mule, hogs, a milk cow, and some beef cows. Working with animals and birds came natural to me and all of them knew it too, because I loved them all.
The chickens roamed free and ate a lot of bugs. They served as our pest control in the gardens around both sides of the mountain. We raised them for the eggs and for more chicks. My dad also raised gamecocks, fighting roosters, for selling or trading.
There were all kinds of wildlife too: deer, turkey, mink, raccoons, and groundhogs all over that mountain. Poke salad grew everywhere, and we had apple trees, muscodines, peaches, plums and pear trees.
Maw-Maw had the meanest, biggest dog I have ever seen in my life. That dog guarded the chicken house and the smoke house, and never left that area unless she called him. No one could go near that dog but her and it was bigger than the black bears that roamed around the area. Every animal and bird knew her. She loved them all and they all loved her too.
We had no electricity, no plumbing, no modern anything. Everything was like in the old days – a wood stove, outhouse and water well. We climbed down in the well to place our butter and such to stay cool beside the spring water. There was a crank with a rope to bring water up from the well. Our clothes were cooked and scrubbed clean in a big iron kettle in the yard. Then they were rinsed in a wash tub and run through a wringer that we turned by hand.
We had a wagon, corn crib, tack shed, and plenty of hard work to go around. Protecting the garden became my responsibility. My job was to make sure the rabbits, deer, bears, or anything else didn’t eat the garden up. There was good fishing in a creek and a small spring-fed lake on the backside of the mountain, so we had everything we needed to live. It wasn’t just the work or responsibilities or knowledge about these things that was so special.
What I loved most were the stories and all the things Maw-Maw taught me about the old ways. I learned about all the different plants she made poultices and medicines from, how to prepare them and when to gather them. Her nose was like a radar; she could smell plants and roots. She would test me, asking what I could see and had me describe them to her. Then she would tell me what each was good for. She also taught me about the moons and how they affect all things. With the help of her daughters, Maw-Maw was a college of knowledge for me to learn from.
Going to town in the wagon was a journey, and I learned to never think that because she was blind she didn’t know everything around her. The only time I knew she was nervous was if a bunch of people were around and she had to move through them. I asked her about it and she said, “I don’t have a problem moving through, I know where I’m going; problem is they don’t know where they are going!” I laughed till I cried.
Night time was story-telling time when Maw-Maw and her daughters schooled me in the old stories and ways. In bad weather, we stayed in and did things that needed being done, and my schooling continued. They loved me as if I were their own.
Even when I was grown up, they still lived that same way. I will cherish their love, teaching, and all the knowledge they gave me. I pray I can always live up to what they believed in me and all that was given for me to do.
Like all her family, my stepmother, Jewel was very much a country girl. She loved all the animals and birds on the farm, and I loved her. I remember she would go fishing with Dad and me, walking all day long down in the creeks and rivers fishing, and cat-fishing at night and her having a thrill of excitement every time she caught a fish.
Jewel always made me laugh, never intentionally, it was just her way. She was Doris Day and Lucy combined. Jewel was always very watchful over me; trying to keep me tamed down and civilized. Yes, she tried. I remember one evening about midnight, I was outside the house in town, talking with three young ladies. Now, I admit we weren’t talking about any school work, but Jewel didn’t even ask. She came out with a broom and went to chasing those girls around calling them young hussies. Then she grabbed me by the ear saying, you are way too young to be seeing those type of “young ladies.” I didn’t think so, but my ear needed saving, so I followed where she led me; back inside the house.
Jewel loved to cook, and we always had plenty to eat from the farm and vegetables from our big garden. Jewel loved all of us as if we were her own. My mom loved Jewel too. She knew Jewel would do all she could to look after us.
Later, when I was in jail, each week, no matter what kind of weather, Jewel used to walk to come see me on visiting day. Like her mother, Maw-Maw Jaybird, and so many others, Jewel was a big part of my life. Her laughter, her innocence, and her incredible will power made a big difference in teaching me about life. No matter what, Jewel was always willing to believe in me. She never let what the government or police said ever sway her. I remember, she always said, “I believe in you because I know you and your heart.”
~ ~ ~
My dad most loved raising hunting dogs which he kept at Maw Maw’s homeplace. We had all types, and we worked together to train them to be their best. Mostly he had 18-inch and 24-inch beagles, but also, he had blue tick, redbone, walker and feist. Now, the beagles we trained for rabbit, squirrel, and deer. The blue tick and walker we trained for deer and raccoons. The redbone and feist, mostly for squirrels. I never helped him train dogs for hunting birds, though. When I was very small I had a dream about the birds who were led by the eagle. In my dream I was told they would always be my helpers; they would protect and teach me, but I must never hurt a bird or eat any of its flesh. As long as I listened to them and honored them, they would always be my helpers. To this day I have kept that covenant.
Mostly we trained the hunting dogs during the spring, starting them as pups, and then later during the hunting season. When training dogs, it is important to always make sure you get the pups to understand what you want then to do or what to hunt for. Usually we used an older dog to help them along when we worked them.
When Dad had a serious buyer for some of his young dogs, he would usually take them along on a hunt to see how they performed. I remember one time when I was about ten, we had some young coon dogs my dad was selling to some people out of state. We took the dogs out at night to show the buyers what they could do. My uncles, Ellie and Curly came with us to hunt coon on my Great Uncle Oscar’s and Great Aunt Leathee’s place in Blount county. Uncle Oscar went with us too. We hadn’t turned the dogs loose more than five minutes when Blue, our old lead dog, caught a scent and bawled out and we sent the other young dogs to him. After a good run and hunt, the old boar coon had made it to the river and was in a tree out over the river. The dogs were in a frenzy, and the buyers were very happy.
My uncle Ellie told me, “Go up that there tree and shake that coon out.” I looked at my dad and he nodded for me to do just that. So up that tree I went like a squirrel. The coon just kept getting farther and farther out over the river on that limb. I started shaking the limb and then stomping on it with my feet. That old boar got tired of that and he came at me like a true warrior. He jumped straight at me and we went to fighting. Out of the tree I fell with coon biting and clawing me right into the river and the dogs just going crazy. The dogs jumped in the water and started biting my clothes and pulling me in all directions while the coon sat on my head hissing at the dogs and scratching my head with his claws. I went under to get the coon and the dogs to let go. The coon did and swam away, but the dogs didn’t. They had me stretched out in every direction.
I could hear my uncles encouraging, calling the dogs to hang on and my dad hollering, “Don’t let the coon get away!” The buyers were all laughing, and I was just trying to keep from hurting any of the dogs and not get them drowned. Finally, I pulled all the dogs under with me and went to the bottom. Most of the dogs let go except old Blue. He had his teeth locked into my shirt, so I surfaced and pulled him to shore with me.
Soon as the dogs spotted me, here they came again. I had had enough of this, so I let out a real loud panther scream. That stopped them dead in their tracks and they went to whimpering. Most folks don’t know this anymore, but a panther’s scream is quite awesome, and will send chills up grown folk’s spines even.
Old Blue went limp. So, I had to help him. Everybody was busy gathering the dogs up and all laughing, not even knowing poor old Blue was half drowned. I blew my breath slowly into his nose and began pushing on his stomach to get the water out. Kept this up for a minute or two till he puked up all the water he had swallowed. He laid there all tuckered out for a few minutes, getting his breath back before he got up and began walking around. My dad came over and asked me was I okay. Told him I’m alright, just these clothes are pretty tore up and soaked. He laughed and said, “Hey it was a good fight; I knew you could take him, I just didn’t think the dogs would take his side and jump on you too.” He was laughing and so were my uncles. The buyers bought all the dogs except old Blue. He wasn’t for sale.
Dad always made sure I learned as much as I could about living off the land. He taught me how to hunt; how to use a rifle, shotgun, and pistol; how to respect these weapons; to carry and handle them carefully. He also taught me about fishing, farming, preparing meats, preserving meats and vegetables and many other skills. He loved baseball and understood the intrigues of the game and from the time I very young he was teaching me to pitch like a pro. We listened to games at night on the radio and the play-by=play descriptions given by the announcer. My dad really wanted me to become a professional player, but that was never my goal.
My dad was proud that he was Native, but kept it hidden from anyone outside of family. Like all my relatives, he told me we were not supposed to still be alive and living here; that it was illegal for a Native to work or own property, so they all kept it quiet. As I got older and more vocal, he tried very hard to keep me quiet. He was frightened and always told me what they would do to me, but I was hardheaded and determined to make it known who and what I was. I would surely be tested for this and would pay dearly. I wish I could hug my dad and tell him I love him.