My Uncle, The Cherokee National Treasure

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This story started out as a podcast for the show “Within The Realm,” (withinpodcast.com and in Facebook, iTunes, Stitcher and SoundCloud under Within The Realm!) but taking a cue from the “powers that be,” I will write about it instead.

Vyrl Keeter (rhymes with pearl) of Muskogee, Oklahoma has been an educator, a political operative, a heavy equipment operator, a renown coon dog trainer among other things. He also happens to be my uncle, married to my aunt Bobbie, whom I have quoted in my writings before. Add one more title to his list: Cherokee Nation Treasure.

The Cherokee Nation annually bestows the honor of being named a Treasure to tribal members who are doing something to keep Cherokee arts and culture alive. Vyrl’s particular art is flint knapping, the making of arrowheads and other points.

Vyrl was raised in the Stoney Point community, just west of Stilwell, Oklahoma.  The family was active in public service, his father was a County Commissioner and the family produced teachers and school administrators. He is a fluent Cherokee speaker. Growing up in the rural setting, farming and hunting were a major part of his growing up experience. He learned the rudiments of the craft of flint knapping there in the Caney Creek valley.

I had not seen Vyrl since my Aunt Bobbie’s funeral some years ago, but I decided to get together with him, catch up on a little political gossip and get some good sound for a podcast featuring him.

Vyrl still lives in the same house I have always known as his residence. Even though some of the area in Muskogee have changed dramatically over the years, I was able to drive instinctively to his place off York Street. It had been the place where me and my two other cousins, all boys and all within a year in age, spent a week or so with Bobby and Vyrl. Muskogee, at least to me, was one of the biggest cities I had ever been in, so that week with my cousins may as well have been in New York City.

I knocked but no one answered the door. I sat on the front steps for a few minutes, checked my phone, I was a few minutes early after all. I decided to call to make sure my Uncle remembered our appointment. I discovered he had been in the back when I arrived and he was now in the house. When he opened the door, he asked “Why didn’t you come on in or come around back?” I realized that rustic, backwoodsy way of life had worn off of me than it had on him.

As expected, we spent the first few minutes exchanging some political information and he handicapped the upcoming Governor’s race for me, but then we got down to business.

I tried to explain a little bit about what a podcast was. I think a radio documentary might be close, but Vyrl readily agreed to being recorded and we went out back to his shops.

He first showed me his wide collection of rocks, different kinds of flint and other stone from wide spread areas across the continent.

He picked up a rock and examined it. “This comes from Kay County, Oklahoma…out by Ponca City.” He gave me the scientific name for it and the term commonly used for the stone.  “Now this one here,” he said grabbing a darker, shinier stone, “comes from Oregon, east Oregon. I dug this myself.”

It turns out that most of his material is mined by him. It is one of the reasons I haven’t seen him much in the past several years; he’s constantly on a trip looking for good material. He goes and gets it himself rather than buying it, because he said he can determine the quality of the rock on the spot…and it’s a lot cheaper if he fetches it himself.

We went through a couple of shops containing stone. They had nicknames; usually pertaining to the location or geography in which it’s found. One collection of thin, yellowish stone looked like thick peanut brittle to me. “That comes from Texas. They call it Keeter’s Candy!”

Leaving that shop building, the neighbor’s dog began barking in our general direction, not menacing, just loud. He spoke to the dog, a Cherokee phrase I immediately could translate to “Settle down, dog!” The dog did settle down.

He looked at me, I don’t know if he could tell I just don’t get to hear the Cherokee language interspersed with English like I did when I was growing up, but it felt warm and familiar, but he smiled a sly grin and reported “Dogs speak Cherokee!”

We finally made it into his workshop. I learned that over the past many years, he has taught the craft of flint knapping, not only here in this little shed, but also at the Cherokee National Holiday and the Smithsonian Institution.

“I’ve been up there two years now,“ he said. “I just do up there what I would be doing down here.” He has always seemed a little less than properly impressed with things that I find might be a big deal. This is just another one of those things, I suppose.

He picked up a good sized rock, kind of tossed it around in his palm. “You need to look ‘em over pretty good. You’re looking for the piece inside of it.” He said sounding a bit like a sculptor.

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“See this ridge right here?” he said drawing his hand across the stone. “That’s going to be a problem.” He cocked his head and inspected the rock further. Without looking up, he said, “See this discoloration? That’s moisture from when we washed it earlier.”

He explained how all rocks have moisture and the faults in them combined with moisture, through freezing and thawing, bust the rocks up. He struck the stone with his tool, basically a stick with a copper-covered head, and the blemish broke off in his hand. “I guess we took care of that,” he said.

He started to strike the rock, pieces flaking off and falling to the floor. Every once in a while, he might stop to retrieve a good sized, flat remnant from the floor and place it on the work bench. “That might make a good arrowhead,” he would say as he inspected it. “Maybe someone in the group tomorrow, could use that.”

He went back to work on the rock explaining to me that he was creating “platforms” from which to strike the stone and produce the cuts and edges he desired. He demonstrated how to hold the stone is it was being struck to direct that force through the rock to produce a long, flat flake.

He lifted his head, looking at me, “You’ve got to talk to your rocks.” I asked if they spoke back. “Oh, yeah. They’ll not flake off just so…or even just out and out break on you.”

I asked if the rocks also spoke Cherokee, like the dogs. Without looking at me, he held up the stone to see the best platform from which he could make his next strike. “Rocks are bi-lingual,” he said.

This is what I had hoped for. Being able to get some good sound from the quotable Vyrl Keeter in his natural habitat. I made mental notes how I might want to place some of these more homespun statements into the podcast.  I was pretty excited about the prospects.

I noticed a message on my phone: low battery. He had finished up the first blade and was doing some finer detail work on the small point he had started. I told him I needed to go to my car to recharge the battery and I would be back in a few minutes. During that recharge I discovered that instead of the roughly an hour of great raw audio, I had recorded over half of it and what I was left with was too distorted by the sound of the fan in the work shop. It sounded like we were in the middle of a wind storm.

I took a moment or two to soak up the reality of my goof. I returned to the shed to let Vyrl know that I didn’t have one darn thing that was going to be useful.  I suggested we would have to do again sometime soon because I really wanted to get the info for the podcast. “He made a final knaps at the point he was working on, held it up and blew off the dust. He presented it to me with absolutely no fanfare. “Let’s go eat. You like Mexican or Italian?”

Now, after some reflection, I can name that familiar feeling I felt while sitting with Vyrl in that shed, whacking and knapping. It was the same feeling I had felt years before sitting under the shade tree with my Cherokee grandmother, Emma Belle Adair Garrett, hulling peas and snapping beans. The work is steady, requires a little thought but mostly consist of time. Such a chore, pea hulling or arrowhead making, is best with company.

I don’t think the feeling is nostalgia. It’s more like community, but there another element. That element is that it’s inter-generational. They are very “in the moment.” A craft, an expertise -maybe just time is being shared between an elder and someone from another generation. Those afternoon under that shade tree, I knew my grandmother loved me. And that day in the workshop behind my Uncle Vyrl’s home, I felt a kinship that I frankly had not really felt with another person in a long time.

It made me wonder. What is the Cherokee Nation Treasure? Is it Vyrl, the craftsman with a tradition he carries on? Is the product, the points, an example of that tradition? Or could the real treasure be the moments of kinship, of connection, made during the exercise of that tradition?

I’ll leave you to ponder that.

In the thirty-six hours between then and now, I have been encouraged by two different people to go ahead and write about it, while the memory is fresh. I do plan on getting my technological act together and getting my raw sound, but I think this story does need to be told.

So, until you can hear the podcast, this will have to serve as the story of Cherokee Nation Treasure Vyrl Keeter.

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