Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 637
In the three-part story “Homeland,” eleven-year-old Gloria St. Clair travels the path cleared by her great-grandmother, Great Mam, an elder of the Cherokee Bird Clan. Young Gloria is destined to grow up and become a Beloved Woman, the one who stores her family history and her tribe’s myths and legends in memory. The youngster worries about the weight of this responsibility: How will she ever be able to remember Great Mam’s immense knowledge of family, nature, and Cherokee myth? In the end, she succeeds brilliantly.
The first part begins with a brief overview of the tribal history of Great Mam, a member of the Bird Clan, which resisted General Winfield Scott’s attempts to move the Cherokee westward. In the second part of the story, the first-person narrator interjects herself into the narrative by providing her American name, Gloria St. Clair, followed by her other name, Waterbug, which Great Mam gave to the eleven-year-old Gloria, promising someday to explain its significance to the girl. Gloria and her great-grandmother spend their evenings on the porch, apart from the rest of the family: Gloria’s mother, Florence Ann; her coal-miner father, known throughout as Papa; and her brothers, Nathan and Jack.
Although Great Mam rarely speaks of her own life, preferring instead to talk of family history and tribal legend, Gloria has heard her great-grandmother’s story from her mother. Florence Ann is not a Beloved Woman as Gloria will be but rather a Baptist and therefore is mired in guilt over her family history. It seems Great Mam was brought, on a stolen horse, from her tribal home in the Hiwassee Valley of Tennessee to Kentucky, to live without the benefit of a Christian marriage with a coal miner, Gloria’s great-grandfather Murray. Although Great Mam was originally named Green-Leaf, everyone in Kentucky called her the more “respectable” name of Ruth.
The family lives in Morning Glory, a small town nestled in the coal-mining region of eastern Kentucky. Like many other town families, dependent on the whims of the mine owners, they live in poverty, constantly in need of staples such as meat, and often go without new shoes. When Gloria’s father is laid off, the family takes its first trip ever, to visit Great Mam’s homeland, the Hiwassee Valley of Tennessee. The trip proves to be a disaster. After two days of traveling in a truck without stopping overnight, they reach their destination. The parents bicker, and the children fall asleep, exhausted, in the back of the truck under a tarp. All they find left of Great Mam’s homeland is a town named Cherokee, filled with one souvenir shop after another, selling tomahawks and garish plastic dolls. The only people Great Mam ever sees are Native Americans performing rain dances wearing war-bonnets on the main street and tourists taking pictures. The young narrator feels ashamed and saddened that her great-grandmother witnesses this travesty.
The dejected family returns home to Kentucky, and Great Mam dies soon after, but not before imparting the story of the waterbug to Gloria, her descendant whom she charges with keeping her memories alive.
The third part presents the waterbug creation myth that details the beginning of the Cherokee people. According to the legend, when those who inhabit the stars become curious about the ocean, they send a waterbug to explore it. The waterbug brings back a piece of mud from the ocean’s bottom, and this mud becomes Earth.
“Homeland” ends with Great Mam’s death. Although Florence Ann has placed cut flowers on her grave—a practice that goes against Great Mam’s tribal beliefs—Gloria is not disturbed because she knows the little people will pick up the flowers. The young girl has successfully incorporated the dead woman’s mythic knowledge and made it her own.