Donna Meredith interviews Mitzi Dorton, author of “Chief Corn Tassel”

Mitzi Dorton grew up in the southern Appalachian foothills in a town where tribes met since ancient times and smoked pipes of peace, and where Chief Corn Tassel spoke at one of the treaty meetings. There, she often walked between two time periods on the swinging bridge across the Holston River in Kingsport, Tennessee to the monument of the seven Cherokee clans. A multi-genre author and a reviewer for NUNUM literary journal, Mitzi Dorton now lives in upstate New York. She is the author of the book Chief Corn Tassel (Finishing Line Press, 2022). She has work featured in SEMO Press, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Sheila-Na-Gig/Women of Appalachia Project, Rattle, Rise, Northern Colorado Writers (2020 Colorado Book Award in anthology), Esoterica, and many others.

DM: Tell us a little about your background and what got you started as a writer.

MD: I wrote for the literary magazine in high school, belonged to Quill and Scroll, and received the PTA Literary Arts Award my senior year. My history teacher took me aside and told me I could be a writer after a paper I submitted. Funny, I do remember a scenario he proposed for a debate in class. It involved finding undiscovered land, an imaginary island, and whether we would advocate for taking it over and claiming it for our country or not. I was the only one on the one side against it and too shy to debate the whole class. Somehow, now I think that related to what I ended up writing about in this first book.

I went on, however, to a career in education. While I was teaching, I took a graduate class in Historical Methods of Research through an extension class with the University of Virginia. The instructors were involved with archaeological excavations at Monticello, and they led us to engage in historical research for classroom usage. We delved into examining antique collections, engage in gravestone rubbings and visited related historical locations. I always had an interest in local histories, so I found it exciting.

DM: Writing any book is a big undertaking that takes many months if not years. How long did you work on this book? What motivated or inspired you to write this particular story?

MD: After I started the rough draft through summer classes at the University of Tennessee, I executed more polished drafts within two or three years. Then, it was tucked away in a drawer over a period of several years. (The manuscript was later a finalist for a “Best of the Bottom Drawer Writing Prize.”)

I was working in education, and the job consumed much of my time. When I left the field and moved to the northeast, I joined a writing group, planning to work on the final stages of this manuscript.

Initially, the idea of writing a biography of Chief Corn Tassel took root after I had read local histories around the area where I grew up containing a litany of misdeeds by the Cherokees, what some of the writers indicated seemed without cause. Since Sequoyah hadn’t established a method of communicating yet, the history was from a pioneer’s point of view. I wanted to know the native politics behind it. In reading, I found the shadow behind some of these warriors was really a peacekeeper, Chief Corn Tassel. I was further motivated when I read Samuel Cole Williams, historian, in William Tathum, Wataugan, who stated that “other than Mooney, no other account has been written of this able chief.”

DM: Did any particular character really speak to you as you worked on this story?  

MD: Chief Corn Tassel spoke the loudest, because much of the story was told around a collection in his own words, as his speeches were translated by the interpreters who attended the treaty meetings. He was the voice of the politics of the times. People asked me if Chief Corn Tassel was really that eloquent, or if it depended upon the way the interpreters translated it, especially in the one speech translated by William Tatham. This interpreter insisted, though, that even as he transcribed, the speech lost much of the original native beauty.

By collecting the speeches of Chief Corn Tassel, and building the story chronologically around them, the reader gets a firsthand account right out of the eighteenth century the politics of the day from an indigenous point of view. I think what impressed me about Chief Corn Tassel was his commitment to nonviolence and how hard he worked for peace during a time when an avalanche of land hungry newcomers moved over the treaty line as soon as it was marked. The warrior faction of the Chickamaugans couldn’t be fully understood without the background of the peace chief.

Another character who spoke to me was Nancy Ward, deemed Beloved Woman. Corn Tassel called on her to speak to the white pioneers at The Treaty of Hopewell in South Carolina. She was probably one of the first women to speak in public, unheard of for that period in history. Her speech was short and simple, yet quite profound. The pioneer men were moved by it, and it affected the outcome of the treaty.

Chota, Tennessee, was the town of refuge. If people were accused of a crime and could reach within its boundaries, they were safe. Some excavations were done there, and Chief Oconostota was found buried in a dugout canoe.  By the time I arrived in Chota, it did seem as if I walked between two worlds, as if my favorite characters were seeing me along this path to the grave of their associate, another great chief, Oconostota, where stones, beads, shells, and tobacco lay deposited in respect at his grave.

DM: Please tell us more about the research required for writing this story.

Chief Corn Tassel

MD: The manuscript itself was built around the words of Corn Tassel in his recorded speeches. After these were placed in chronological order, the story developed from doing historical research around them. Since it was a biography, I had a timeline of birth to death and a bit afterward, so information was gathered and placed within the manuscript accordingly to make it chronological.

I did a lot of reading in the beginning. spent time in the history room at ETSU, in Johnson City, TN digging into old transcripts of the original speeches as translated, read turn of the century history books in the Emory and Henry Library, in Emory, Virginia, and made visits to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, NC, acquiring related journals by various authors.

When I learned where to go for more information and experience for the settings, I travelled to the old Cherokee towns of Toqua and Chota. I visited Fort Loudon, The Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, and took my sons on these little adventure trips. I was also a Melungeon Reunion groupie in southwestern Virginia and attended some Cherokee reenactments at Sycamore Shoals in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

DM: What details were most challenging to get right about the setting?

MD: Making trips to these sites gave more of a visual, but although there were present-day monuments and signs marking the treaty sites, the settings had to be pieced together from early observations. In addition, how the villages were situated with the longhouses, the gardening and the attire of the people had to be researched. Some of the available engravings

or illustrations were further back in time than the period I wanted to investigate. There were writings of the techniques used to build the longhouses and other structures, plus how they were utilized as far as gatherings and living space.

Although there may be interpretive illustrations, portraits, and sculptures, there were no known true portraits or illustrations of many of the characters, and the one of Attakullakulla and other members who went to England were in British costume. There was one true illustration of Sequoyah in native dress. Often, I found paintings that were portraits or scenes recreated in history, but these may not be true to the period, and simply based upon the artist’s rendition.

Chota, the holy town of refuge did not appear in real life as it was in the eighteenth century. It was partially flooded over now by TVA, leaving a small strip of land combined with a path to the gravesite of Oconostota the war chief, and a monument to the seven Cherokee clans, plus the original structures did not survive. Archaeologists continued to record findings.

DM: Tell us a little about your writing process.

MD: I did not use an outline in the beginning for this manuscript, but I did use a file folder with dividers and pocket folders. I built the story around the speeches, so I placed them chronologically and used these as placeholders for the time periods, starting from birth to death in writing the biography. As I read and found things related to Corn Tassel’s life, I xeroxed them along with the title page and began files to organize my work within this spacious folder.  I began to write ideas from the research in longhand and stored them in the notebook before transferring them electronically. Usually, my edits were done as I entered the information on the computer. I wrote at least three times a week using online groups for time on task as well, particularly for the editing process.

DM: How do you plan to promote this book?

MD: I’ve done some local readings, and I plan to make a trip to the southeast. I’m also doing a reading with Women of Appalachia Project headed by Kari Gunter-Seymour in Johnson City, Tennessee, and will set up some presentations in localities in that vicinity and beyond, related to areas mentioned in the book. I’m currently working on a visual presentation in preparation to assist with introducing the story.

DM: What are you working on next?

MD: I do have in the back of my mind that I would like to write Chief Corn Tassel into a screenplay. First though, the coming-of-age fiction mystery novel I began when I first came to the northeast. I sort of thought it would get finished before the historical narrative biography, but it didn’t happen that way.

DM: What questions do you wish interviewers would ask you?

MD: How does telling the story from the point of view of the invaded change the narrative?

(Second thought, the answer to this question may be found by reading the book.)

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