Alice Murray was founding board president of the AJC Decatur Book Festival. After seven years as president, she remains on the board as secretary. She retired after 26 years with the AJC and now works as Student Media Adviser at Georgia Perimeter College where she attempts to help students navigate today’s media landscape.
Looking back at each festival since Labor Day 2006, memories surface like images reflected on water.
One such memory comes from 2007, when Charles Frazier brought Cherokee dancers to punctuate his keynote address.
Frazier had made the literary A List with his first novel, Cold Mountain, winning the National Book Award in 1997.
As a native of East Tennessee with deep roots in Appalachia, I was a fan of both Frazier and Cold Mountain. When Frazier’s long awaited second novel, Thirteen Moons, arrived in October 2006, I was first in line to buy it.
For the 2007 festival, Executive Director Daren Wang and Program Director Tom Bell scored when they convinced Frazier to give a keynote address.
We knew that Frazier was a somewhat reluctant media star, so we were not surprised when he wanted to do more than talk about his book. He agreed to speak only if the evening would focus on the Cherokees.
Frazier agreed to a conversation on stage with former AJC Book Editor Theresa Weaver if the evening also included an address by native Cherokee speaker Myrtle Driver Johnson and a performance by a troupe of Cherokee dancers. Johnson read from a chapter in Thirteen Moons that had been translated into Cherokee. Afterwards, the dancers performed outside on the Agnes Scott quadrangle.
Not only was I a fan of Cold Mountain, I was enthralled with Frazier’s story in Thirteen Moons. The North Carolina native dug deep into Cherokee history to create his fictionalized account of a real person — William Holland Thomas — who was the only white man to serve as chief of the Eastern Band of the Cherokees.
The book coincided with my research about my family’s Cherokee history. My mother’s maternal grandmother — whose picture hangs in my guest room — was a Cherokee whose family had assimilated into white culture in the mid 19th century.
Anticipating meeting Frazier, I arranged to be backstage before the keynote. That’s when I first met the Warriors of AniKituhwa.
I admit to gasping a bit when I encountered the traditionally (and scantily) attired male dancers backstage. As Cherokee historian Dr. Barbara Duncan describes their authentic 18th century attire, the dancers are “covered in red paint from head to toe, wearing only breechclouts fastened around their waists and moccasins on their feet.”
For this performance, the dancers also wore leggings, but their attire painted a dramatic picture of my Cherokee ancestors. The costumes, I learned later, were accurate reproductions of how Cherokee dancers were described in 1762 and lent authenticity to the traditional dances they performed by torchlight as the waning moon lit the night sky.
The dancers also imprinted a memory in my mind of one special evening among the hundreds of moments that have made working with the festival some of the best times of my life.