Author Archives: Woody

Cherokee Teacher Gains National Notice as Novelist

Annette Bird Saunooke Clapsaddle’s novel came out in September, and it’s already in its second printing.

Her book, Even as We Breathe, has received rave reviews. Publishers Weekly called it “a lush debut, and “an astonishing addition to World War II and Native American literature.”

Since her novel came out, she has been doing virtual readings – at least three a week — at bookstores in New York and across the country. And she was interviewed recently by National Public Radio correspondent Neda Ulaby at her home in the mountains of western North Carolina. Click here to listen to the interview.

Annette Bird Saunooke Clapsaddle

Honored While at Yale

We honored Ms. Clapsaddle with a scholarship in 2003 when she was an undergraduate at Yale. She earned a master’s degree at William & Mary and then returned to her hometown to work for her tribe, first as assistant to the principal chief and later as executive director of the Cherokee Preservation Foundation. She has taught English and Cherokee Studies for 10 years at Swain County High School, whose student population is 30 percent Native American.

She lives in Cherokee, N.C., the main town within the Qualla Boundary, home to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, to which she belongs. The Eastern Band was formed by the Cherokees who escaped being displaced by the Indian Removal Act of 1830. When the federal government forced the Cherokees off their land and drove them west in what became known as the Trail of Tears, some hid in the mountains and remained. Later they reclaimed some of their land and reconstituted themselves as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

“My Cherokee ancestors have been here, we would say, since the beginning of time,” she told NPR. “Other people would say over ten thousand years.”

A World War II Mystery

The novel is a mystery set at an upscale resort in nearby Asheville during World War II. The resort served as an internment camp for valuable prisoners of war, such as diplomats and their families. The main character is a teenage boy named Cowney, a Cherokee who is accused in the disappearance of a diplomat’s daughter. While Cowney tries to prove his innocence, he also attempts to unravel his complicated family history.

You can order the book here.

The Impact on Her Students

In writing her novel, Ms. Clapsaddle was determined to create characters her students might know in real life.

“For me, that’s what I set out to do, is give my students a story,” she told NPR. One of her students reported he never thought he’d see so much of himself in a character as he did with Cowney. She was deeply moved when he sent her text saying, “People just don’t write about people like us.”

That review is her favorite.

But here’s one of my own. Having just finished the book, I would say that it is more of a love story than a mystery. It’s a compelling love story that ends with an intense emotional impact. The story touched me in a personal way. I think this was not only because of the compelling characters and their fate, but also because of the author’s deeply felt connection with the locale of the story in the ancestral homeland of the Cherokees.

Hearty congratulations, Annette.

  • Woody Exley

Street Mural in Windsor Targets Racism

Sacha Kelly, a mathematics teacher and artist who helped create Black Lives Matter murals in Hartford and Bloomfield, is still spreading the word. She is one of the artists who converged on Windsor recently to paint a colorful mural that spells out “End Racism Now.”

Ms. Kelly, whom we honored in 2009, teaches at the Academy of Science and Innovation, a magnet high school in New Britain run by the Capitol Region Education Council (CREC).

Sacha Kelly

The mural is on the pavement between the public library and the Eagle Green. Each of the 12 letters conveys a message of its own. Ms. Kelly, the lead artist of the project, painted the letter ‘I.’

“It has different hues of skin colors just to symbolize all the different tones and complexions of the human race, and it says ‘I am a human’,” she told Fox61 in an on-camera interview. Her letter features a geometric design showing the spectrum of skin colors, from chocolate brown to creamy white.

TV News Report

Thanks to the Hartford Courant and Fox61 for covering this story. Click here to view the Fox61 report, which features Sacha and Khaiim Kelly.

Levey Kardulis of Hartford, the project manager, said the mural was intended to emphasize unity. “I did not want chains and handcuffs,” he told the Courant. “I want to bring people together, not create lines of separation. This isn’t done for protest. It’s about community, about bridging the gap.”

Acts of Kindness

Khaiim Kelly, Sacha’s husband, the rapper known as Self Suffice, was also involved in the project. He pointed out that the project has inspired acts of kindness from passers-by, including a woman who was concerned about the artists’ comfort.

“She said ‘no, no no,’ and she walked across the street and got some knee pillows for the artists to lean on Mr. Kelly said. “Another couple came by and said, ‘How can we help?’ You know they started sweeping leaves out of the way.”

Participants from Three Schools

The project already is bringing people together, including students from three of the town’s schools, Windsor High School, Loomis-Chaffee High School and Medina Academy, a Muslim private school.

Said Kardulis, “These are three schools here in the town of Windsor that haven’t worked together before, and they were all working on social justice programs in school, but you know I brought them together to work on this one project.”

Tony Le, of East Hartford, painted the letter ‘S,’ which was centered around voting.

“It’s your right to vote,” he said. “You’ve earned it. They can’t stop you. It’s your vote, your voice. We have to promote that unification of many lives, of many cultures, because this is America.”

An Ongoing Mission

The artists hope that even though the painting is complete, their mission will continue.

Said Sacha Kelly, “I think that is the answer to ending racism. The more we work together, the more we realize that we have more in common than different.”

Desiree Primus of the Windsor Human Relations Commission said the mural reflects the town’s proactive social-justice stance. The town council declared racism a public health crisis in June, and the commission has sponsored a Zoom series on racial justice and community policing, a book club, food drives and a vigil on the green.

A Message of Joy from Justis

In a time of fear and uncertainty, Justis Lopez has found a way to become an ambassador for happiness.

Mr. Lopez and his partner in creativity, Ryan Parker, have built on the elements of hip hop to write a song to brighten children’s spirits while conveying a powerful message.

“Our song – ‘Happyvism’ – is centered on Black and Brown boy joy and the power and significance of self-love as a form of activism and radical resistance,” Mr. Lopez said.

                            Justis Lopez

Watch the music video performed by Lopez and Parker here.

Mr. Lopez received an Alma Exley Memorial Scholarship in 2015 when he was a student in the Neag School of Education at UConn.

Also a Happyvism Book

Lopez and Parker also have produced a children’s book on Happyvism. As Mr. Lopez said, “This book communicates the significance, necessity and power of embracing joy in the face of a world riddled with trauma and oppression specifically as it relates to Black and Brown bodies.

“Additionally, this book embraces the beauty and need for Black and Brown boy joy and emphasizes the fact that maintaining happiness about who you are and what you think, say and do in a world that consistently goes against the grain of your identity is a form of activism in itself. Hence: Happyvism.

“We expect to release the book in December,” he said. “The target audience is K-6 educators. We wanted to create a project for the little ones. It’s all new to us, but we are really excited to be working with Ivy (Horan) on this project.”

Music Video Goes to School

Ivy Horan, honored with an Alma Exley scholarship in 2018, used the music video in her second-grade class at Mayberry School in East Hartford.

“I had been thinking about ways to incorporate more music into my classroom,” she said. “The class was doing an activity about emotions when I remembered Justis’s Happyvism music video. I played it for the students once, and they were hooked. They loved the song. We played it three more times that day.

“After school, I reached out to Justis on Instagram to let him know that we loved his song and were excited for his book.

                            Ivy Horan

“I also wanted to thank him for just being such a positive force,” she added. “Justis said he’d like to send us some of their Happyvism books when they’re ready. I know my students are going to be super excited since they loved his song (and think he’s really cool for making a music video). I am excited to see how Justis’s project progresses, and I am looking for more ways to keep my students involved.”

When the books arrive, Ms. Horan can add them to her classroom library of multicultural books, which are helping her second-graders to affirm their diverse identities.

Congratulations to Ivy Horan and Justis Lopez on their creative collaboration.

  • Woody Exley