I grew up on the atomic frontier, the seventh generation of a Cherokee-Appalachian family rooted in the mountains of East Tennessee. I was born in Knoxville. In 1945, when I was nine, we moved to nearby Oak Ridge, a federal “reservation.” At that point, the culture of the atom — and the atom itself — became entwined in my life forever.
Oak Ridge was a secret city of 75,000 with a mysterious industry. Its purpose was known only to a few at the top of government. Employees like my father knew only that their jobs were urgent.
The city was locked down with a perimeter fence. Each plant where people worked was inside a fence, inside a fence, inside a fence. Absolute secrecy. No one could speak of what they did, even to their families. It was as if my father disappeared into a mystery and came home from a mystery.
To me, it was very adventurous. It was the frontier! The streets were made of mud. There were no sidewalks. Everybody was trying to get the city in hand and civilize it — very much like Memphis in 1833.
I grew up like my Cherokee and pioneer ancestors in a self-sustaining family, with miles of woods, ridges, creeks, and rivers to roam.
We had a radio, record player, and telephone. Some people had cars. We used our imaginations. We’d walk logs, swing on grapevines, and make up games and stories.
But there were armed guards at every gate with machine guns. We learned that you don’t play pranks with the government in a secret city.
We lived in a four-room house that looked like a mountain cabin made of sheetrock. You received your house based on the number of children in the family — not by income or profession. There were no “sides of town,” private schools, or clubs. A frontier is a very egalitarian place.
My parents read to me from the time I was born. Fairy tales, mythology, history, Bible stories, Shakespeare — mixed in with Beatrix Potter, Hans Christian Andersen. Little Golden Books didn’t play a part in my life. I got used to hearing, listening, and concentrating — all these grooves were laid down in my mind of patterns and rhythms of words, songs.
Oak Ridgers also highly valued education and innovation, with emphasis on science.
So the whole community had one mysterious industry until Hiroshima — horrifying destruction. It came as a great shock to learn that we lived where they had split the atom. Also stunning to realize that a new era was beginning: the Atomic Age.
From here, Oak Ridge intensified research for peaceful use of the atom, including therapy for cancer.
I met my husband, Paul Thompson — a flatlander from West Tennessee — the first night at the University of Tennessee. My mother had told me, “When you go into a strange environment, go directly to the church center, and you’ll find a good beginning.” Paul’s mother had told him the same thing!
I have a double major in English and French. I worked extra hard to earn a scholarship so I could study in France. In spring 1957, I won it.
At the same time, Paul asked me to marry him, which meant a 10-year commitment in Memphis while Paul finished medical school.
So the partnership Paul and I had was that his dream as a doctor would come first; my dream as a writer and going to France would come second.
We married at Christmastime in 1957, then moved to a tiny apartment on South Parkway East in Memphis with four pieces of furniture. I taught English and French while Paul went through medical school. We soon had two daughters, Aleex and Drey.
Three months from finishing his medical specialty, Paul joined the Air Force. It was still the time of compulsory military service, and there were three Air Force bases in France. What were the odds?
We were stationed in Laon, France. Everybody lived in tin, rounded government trailers. But we were fortunate! We had a lean-to on the side for a living room. Everything is relative!
So there I was with two children, 4 and 2, and no space in the trailer to write. I talked to the chaplain of the church — a Quonset hut with a steeple that looked like an upside-down ice cream cone — and every morning, I took my typewriter to a tiny storeroom where they kept the hymnbooks.
We settled back in Memphis in 1967, and Paul finished his residency and went into practice. Our son, Andrew, was born. Memphis has such great diversity of people, music, and nature, and the oral tradition is very strong here. In 1978, I published my first mature book, Abiding Appalachia: Where Mountain and Atom Meet.
I consider all the work I did in the community over the years to also be a part of my poetry: co-founding the Far Away Cherokee Association in the early ’80s, now the Native American Intertribal Association; working with the Arts-In-Schools program; forming poetry workshops in the women’s prison; authoring books, essays, poetry, and other projects; and winning the Distinguished Tennessee Writer Award in 1989. My books are still taught in colleges.
It all answers the question my mother asked when, as a child, I told her I wanted to be a poet. “That’s good,” she said, “but what will you do for the people?” That has guided me and the way I’ve worked my entire life.
I first knew I wanted to be a poet when they washed the birth fluid off of me! It was always a deep, gentle knowing that that’s what I would do.
As a storyteller, I always wear this shawl. It’s been on thousands of miles of journeys and talks. The shawl signifies that I’m carrying on a long Cherokee Appalachian tradition. I’m not just by myself telling stories; I’m expressing respect for storytellers before me.
As children in Oak Ridge, we’d play “Who’s the FBI Man?” The agents came around every month — in pairs — and asked if we were hearing anything about the mystery plants where our fathers worked. So who was working undercover? We decided that the best covers would be the school custodian or the guy at the soda fountain!
My culture has three heritages: Cherokee, Appalachian, and the atom.
The medallion I always wear symbolizes my life and work. It’s Little Deer, leaping in the center of atomic orbits. “Little Deer” is an ancient, traditional Cherokee story that teaches the law of respect. My hope is that if we, as people, treat everything from atom upwards with respect, we may create a new harmony, a new balance.
The difference between spirit and energy is that energy is a conduit for spirit in many cases. The atom is the closest thing I know to compare to spirit and energy because it’s absolutely invisible and it’s absolutely real.
My mother and father had great courage. My father worked in a very dangerous environment to help save America. My mother had the courage to move to a frontier and work with the other women to create community in this strange, challenging place.
As a child, I didn’t like dolls. Mother feared I wouldn’t be a good mother because I didn’t love dolls. She asked me why. I said, “Because they are cold and hard.” I liked warm and furry — living things, like our cats and my rabbit.
I get most discouraged when leaders don’t listen to the patterns of the past that are repeating.
The name Awiakta means “eye of the deer.” My grandfather gave it to me. He said, “You have the nature of a deer. You’re a keen listener, gentle, and very quick. But I don’t think you should use that name until you’ve grown to it.” At age 40, after talking it over with the elders and my family, I moved my work over to the name Awiakta. I was beginning my mature work, that weaving of the atom, the Cherokee, and the mountains that had been so long in coming.
Most people don’t realize that writing and thinking are work, because you appear to be sitting still, doing nothing.
The most difficult thing is crossing generations. My life at 18 was totally centered and imagined in my own mind. What couldn’t be paid for in cash was not bought. When you talked with someone, it was face to face. It was a responsible, connected society.
I’ve always wondered why do the wicked flourish? Evidently people have pondered this question throughout human history.
The French people don’t think like Americans do. I first noticed it in a sign. One said, “Forbidden.” Another sign said, “Absolutely Forbidden.” I asked what the difference was. “Oh, ‘forbidden’ means if no one is watching and if you won’t hurt anything, it’s okay. But if it says ‘absolutely forbidden,’ that means never, ever.” Things are not absolute. In a country where diplomacy is esteemed, the French need maneuverable room in their language and concepts to negotiate. Working as an interpreter for the base deepened my understanding of their skill.
My first memory is figuring how to open the back screen door of my house so I could get into the grass. I was still in diapers, but I took a broom handle and upped the latch. Mother said when she heard the broom hit the floor, she knew I was gone.
The time I was most afraid was in France during the NATO withdrawal in the mid ’60s. The Russian army was massed along Germany’s border. Ours was a recon base. I had three evacuation cards for the children and me. It really came home to me — the mother of two children, 6 and 4 — that when backs are to the wall, one of the ultimate charges of women is to save all life possible so that when the shooting stops, there will be life to go on.
If I could meet one person I’d like to meet Nancy Ward, the last Beloved Woman of the Cherokees before the Removal in 1838. I don’t know if I’d have the nerve to speak with her, but I’d like to be in her presence.
The Cherokee story of Corn Mother teaches democracy, strength, and cooperation. Each kernel of corn — red, white, black, yellow, brown — respects the space of the kernel next to it. The yellow kernel doesn’t say to the brown kernel, “Be yellow like me or I’ll kick you out.” They’re encircled, egalitarian, and have respect for one another’s space — a balanced way of living for people, too, I think.
A career as a poet means that you’re always listening, then singing what you hear. The sound of the words moves the heart.
Communing with nature means exchanging thoughts — for example, hearing what the trees have to say in the language the trees speak. Now that science is exploring intercellular communication, people may listen more seriously to nature.
I will never again go anywhere without my hoe! The last four lines of my poem “Trail Warning” are: “If you meet a copperhead — snake or person — give ‘em a wide berth. If you have to go in close, take a hoe!” That’s mountain survival philosophy!
Every morning I have a cup of coffee, look out the window, and let my mind roam.
The hardest part about writing is deciding what to remove. For me, the most important thing about shaping a piece is what is removed so that it leaves a space to think about inbetween. It’s like sculpting: Which part of the stone do you take away so that what you’re left with is what you want? It takes a long time. “Women Die Like Trees” took me four years to finish.
I’m a natural-born listener. I’m very aural and oral by tradition. I love listening to stories, trees, people and nature. At Oak Ridge, my big chore on Saturday mornings was the family ironing. That’s when I listened to the radio to all kinds of programs, from Let’s Pretend to the news.
Before I die I would like to spend time with my husband and family in the Great Smokies. “Lift up our eyes” and rejoice — look to the future.
My final 2 cents is a saying from the mountains, especially in harsh times: “The sun will come up tomorrow; the important thing is to be one of those who comes up with it."