“Dead I say? There is no death, I say, only a change of worlds.” – Chief Seattle
The Great Chief’s speech goes on to talk poetically about how those intent on destroying Native American lands (in Seattle) …”when the last Red Man shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the white man, these shores will swarm with the invisble dead of my tribe, and when your children’s children think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone…at night when the streets of your cities and villages are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them and still love this beautiful land….Be just and deal kindly with my people…to us the ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their resting place is hallowed ground.” There is some dispute as to whether the great Indian chief wrote this inspiring speech, but, as in art, truth is not always the same as fact.
Charleston, as a place, has its own voice. Have you ever felt that in a place? When I visited Venice, and stepped out onto that earth and water, I felt the palpable presence of the stories of those who had walked there before me. And some years ago I discovered the principles of Chinese feng shui and dusted every corner of my house, and yes, it feels truly different than before I took the time to respect this place, this house.
So many cultures blended together to make Charleston a creole, from its beginning: the English, the Barbadians, the French Huguenot. The native Americans, and the African American cultures certainly revere the ancestors. This photograph is of a Gullah ‘bottle tree’ which reminds us of the spiritual world and is part of the great vernacular yard art tradition of Sea Island African American people.
My own mostly English family told historical stories, and collected the data to rattle off, about who, what and when. It was more of a left brain catalog of historical facts, I felt, growing up. Thinking the ancestors actually lived here now was too close to the superstitious for us, as respectable Episcopalians and Presbyterians. But we knew the stories and the legacy was important. My mother valued that old cedar chest passed down from her Aunt Caroline Martin Arnold, more than most anything in the house. And Charleston had an unusual population that early in her history recognized her value and insisted upon her preservation. The city began the historic preservation movement in the United States in 1920 when they formed the Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings.
But there is even more reason I think. There is that spirit that Chief Seattle speaks of, and the one the Africans brought with them. An old song sung in church whose words recognize the Spirit, has a refrain that says “there’s a sweet, sweet spirit in this place.” I think I feel like part of that whole creole mix now, the mix that Charleston always was, and is today, and more and more what America is. There is a spirit in this place.