The Dallas gas station was deserted. It was dark and I was too tired from travelling to register anything unusual. Gary filled up the tank and walked inside the shop to pay, but almost immediately hurried back to the car. ‘There’s been a hold up,’ he said. ‘The teller is hiding behind the counter and she screamed at me to get out. I asked her if she wanted me to stay till the cops arrive but she kept yelling at me to go away.’ He turned the key and pulled out onto the street.
I had come to the US to research a picturebook called The Long March. It would tell the story of the aid the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma had sent to Ireland during the worst year of the Great Famine. Gary Whitedeer and his wife Sarah had kindly driven to Dallas airport to pick me up and bring me to my hotel in Oklahoma. As we crossed the vast state of Texas I nodded off in the back seat. An hour later, I woke with a start. The car had pulled over; through the side window I made out a pair of hips, a gun in a holster. Gary had been stopped for speeding. It was 1995; I was only a few hours into my first ever trip to the USA and so far the USA was doing its damnedest to live up to my Irish preconceptions. But in the following week, as I gathered the information for my book, I would see an America most Irish tourists never see.
The spark for The Long March began with hearing Don Mullan on the radio speaking about the money the Choctaw sent to Ireland in 1847. I’d never heard the story before but I immediately figured it would make a great picturebook, and contacted Don. He gave me all the information he had and some names and addresses in Oklahoma. The World Wide Web was in its infancy then so my first attempts at research were by fax, letter and phone. After a year or so of trying to gather information from a distance I came to realise I needed to travel to Oklahoma and do some proper research on the ground. At the time Aer Lingus offered free flights to writers and artists who could show they had an artistic need to fly. (I know! Imagine! That was actually a thing!) With Don’s help I put out feelers and the office of the Chief of the Choctaw Nation extended me an invitation to stay in their hotel at Arrowhead. Gary and Sarah dropped me there in the wee hours. I was shown to a suite(!) and fell exhausted onto my first ever king-sized bed. Next morning I woke up to find myself in a huge space with gigantic glass windows, looking out over Lake Eufaula.
I had a week to find out everything I could about the Choctaw – what they wore, how they lived back in 1847. I intended to illustrate this book in a realistic style so I also needed to find models for the main characters and take photos of them. I had no idea how was I going to do any of this. As an Irish person used to being near bus and train stops, I hadn’t understood how isolated things in the US can be. Without a car I was basically marooned in a big hotel. I was still an L driver in 1995 but even if I’d been able to hire a car I hadn’t the first clue where I needed to go or who I needed to see. I really hadn’t thought this through…
Gary and Sarah (who is Kiowa) came to my rescue. One or both arrived every day and drove me to meet people they thought could help me: Marshall Gettys, historian and collector, showed me around his own personal collection of First Nation baskets, tools and implements, pointing out the Choctaw items; an archaeologist called Butch talked me through the type of houses the Choctaw lived in, mid 19th century. Both men agreed to send me photocopies of photos, drawings and articles.
Sarah brought me to an old meeting-house one day and Gary brought me to meet his aunts and cousins, folk who had grown up using Choctaw as their first language. Gary’s aunt, Lena Noah, had an incredibly beautiful face and I instantly knew that I would replace the old man character of my first draft with a grandmother figure, just as I knew when I met Gary and Sarah’s son Quanah that I would change my main character from a ten-year-old to an early teen.
On long car journeys I asked questions and listened carefully to the answers. In the evening back in my suite I wrote copious notes while stunning electrical storms flashed over the lake outside. The more I learned, the more obvious it was how little I knew and what a daft, naïve and downright arrogant idea doing this book about another culture was. But it seemed too late to pull out now when the Choctaw Nation offices and so many people – Gary and Sarah in particular – were giving so generously of their time, knowledge and energy.
I only spent a week in Oklahoma but it felt like a month because it was packed with new experiences. With the help of the Choctaw Nation offices I met a gang of Choctaw teenagers at their youth club and I went to a craft show in the Choctaw Community Centre. I spent time hanging out at Gary and Sarah’s, taking photos of their kids and of the traditional arbour Gary had built in their yard. I saw some lovely scenery and miles and miles of highway as people drove me long distances across Oklahoma. There was a sign near the state penitentiary which I particularly liked; it said: Motorists, Beware! Hitchhikers May Be Escaping Convicts. One night I stayed in a motel right out of film noir – The Indian Hillside.
‘Don’t know why they call it that,’ Gary said. ‘No Indians; no hillside.’ As he dropped me at the office, he laughed. ‘Oh look,’ he said. ‘Real Indians.’ The guys in the office were from Delhi.
The rain poured down and an old man in flowery boxer shorts stood in the doorway of his room shouting, Hello! Hello! Hello! as I struggled to unlock my door. The motel room was brown, grimy and 100% nylon. Thunder and lightning raged all night while I wondered about the dark stains on the carpet and walls. I was glad to return to my pristine suite! I had by now realised that Arrowhead Hotel was a casino specialising in high stakes bingo, which explained why there were so many old folks staying there.
By the end of the week I’d shot a couple of hundred photos (rolls of film), catching faces and places I thought I might use in my book. When I left Oklahoma I travelled on to stay with friends in Philly and New York and took a Greyhound bus to visit the Smithsonian museums in Washington – The Long March would be named a Smithsonian Notable Book in 1998 – but my best memories, my strongest memories, come from that first week with the Choctaw. And my favourite memory of all is of the night Gary and Sarah and their kids brought me to a dance at the Kulli Homa dance grounds.
A small number of Choctaw and Chickasaw families gathered in a clearing in the woods. We ate cornbread and chicken, and dumplings in grape juice. A fire cackled in the middle of the circle and the women and girls sat to the right of it, men and boys to the left. Gary, drumming on an Irish bodhrán, walked into the centre to call the dances. The men formed a line behind him. As they approached our side of the circle the women rose and threaded themselves between the men.
I didn’t join in right away; I waited to be invited. I danced Duck Dance and Snake Dance and Friendship Dance. I tried to stay towards the back of the line and watch and learn. I noticed that when a dance ended, the dancers made sure to finish the anti-clockwise revolution of the fire, never backtracking to return to their seats. I did the same. Some of the Chickasaw girls were wearing shell-shakers on their legs which made noise as they stomped. The modern ones were cylinders formed from cans filled with dried beans but one girl was wearing an old pair made of many turtle shells. She put them on my legs so I could feel how heavy they were.
The racket of the cicadas in the woods was incredible. The sky was full of stars. I heard my first whippoorwill that night, saw my first fireflies. A child caught some of the little insects in a jar so I could see them up close. I remember thinking to myself, ‘be here now. Don’t think forwards or backwards; be in this moment,’ and today I can still conjure that far-off hot July evening, if I close my eyes.
This is the first of three blogs on making of my picture book, The Long March. It was published in 1998. The Long March tells the story of the gift of money which the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma sent to Ireland as aid during the worst year of the Great Famine –1847. The next blog will be about the pitfalls, mistakes and discoveries which may occur when researching a book set in another time and place. The third will look at the visual sources needed to create a single image.
This blog is written especially for the students in MIE. I am writer-in-residence at Marino Institute of Education. (MIE) is an associated college of Trinity College, Dublin, the University of Dublin.