By JONAH LOSSIAH
One Feather Staff
You can meet a lot of people in a century.
Ethelyn Roberts, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians whose maiden name is Owle and is much better known as ‘Siss’, knows this as well as anyone could. April 10 marked 102 years of life. She celebrated with her family, with some of her children and grandchildren stopping by her residence at Tsali Manor.
People have been a focus for Siss for much of her life. Famous people, interesting people, family. Whoever she runs into, she likes a hearty conversation. Whether that be on plane, train, automobile, or other function – personality is a passion of hers.
“I always shared with people. I love people. That’s my most favorite thing in life is loving people. And I’ve met so, so many people. So many nice people,” said Roberts.
She has seen quite a bit of the world and managed to have casual interactions with some notable folks in history. Whether that be sharing a sentence or two with Frank Sinatra on a train or sitting down with Albert Einstein. These types of stories easily and happily flow from Ethelyn Roberts.
She was born and raised in Cherokee. She lived on No. 4 Road and went to Birdtown School when she was young. She distinctly remembers the two-mile walk to school each morning that she would make with her brothers
“I had to go across the swinging bridge. Down at Wolf’s campground, there used to be a swinging bridge there. It washed away three times, but the last time it washed away they didn’t replace it. A big storm come in and a tree could come down the river and take it down,” said Roberts.
“My brother and I, we used to pick the lowest part in the river, and we’d wade across. Or else we’d have to walk so far down, and they had someone with a boat that would take us across the river. But we didn’t want to walk way down to where the boat was, so we’d just wade the river.”
While she might often look back with fondness at this time, it wasn’t without struggle. Money was not of abundance in Cherokee. Her family didn’t have many amenities, but she says that she always was worried about those with even less.
“A lot of the children that came to school, they had nothing to eat. They had nothing at home to eat. They’d stay at school all day but had no food. Well, I was a little lucky. I had a piece of cornbread or some biscuits to take to school with me. We were poor. I’m not ashamed to admit it. It’s no crime to be poor,” said Roberts.
“Some of the little girls, they would be crying. I would say, ‘why are you crying?’. They’d say, ’cause I’m hungry, I have nothing to eat. I don’t have nothing at home to eat. I didn’t have no breakfast this morning’. So, I take my bread and I’d break it in two and I’d give them half. Sometimes I’d just give it all to them because I had breakfast and they didn’t. I always shared with people.”
These difficult times got more troubling when Siss finished at Birdtown School. After the sixth grade, she had to go to Cherokee Boarding School. She said that’s where they were treated like military. Rules were strict from your uniform to your schedule.
“Everywhere we went we had to march. Every night after we had dinner and everything, we got to play a little while, and then we had to get out and practice marching again until about 8 o’clock. Around 8:30, we had to stop marching and we had to get ready to go to bed. We had to be in bed at 9 o’clock,” said Roberts.
Despite not enjoying her time there, she still remembers many of the names. Ms. Saunders was a ninth-grade teacher. Emma Ratliff was her matron in seventh grade. Mr. Arkansas was in charge of many of the younger boys at the boarding school.
“They had a couple of guys that would come out and blow Taps at 9 o’clock. At 6 o’clock in the morning, he blew Reveille. They’d always say, ‘hit the floor’. We had about 10 minutes to get our bed made up and get dressed and get to our details. We got detailed to different places. We never knew where we were going to go when we finished one.”
She remembers when some children refused to go back during holiday breaks. Roberts said that the school would send men to gather the children for school, if they would find the homes they were looking for that is. Many houses and neighborhoods in Cherokee didn’t have roads in the 1930s.
Roberts didn’t finish at Cherokee Boarding School, though. She left after attending seventh through ninth grade. Not long after leaving the school, she received her GED. Part of the delay came because she had to take care of siblings as well. There were 11 children in her family; she had seven brothers and three sisters. With separated parents who couldn’t fully support them on their own, Siss and her siblings often stayed with their grandparents.
Following earning her GED and her 18th birthday, it was time for a shift. Siss had previously spent some time with family in Pennsylvania, and so eventually decided to go back when she was 18. In 1933, she went to visit her Uncle David, who helped manage a 500-acre farm in Eastern Pennsylvania. Across the way from her uncle’s house lived a woman from England. The woman would often spend time with an interesting man in his mid-50s that she called ‘Bo’. He had only recently moved to the United States and was working at Princeton University in the neighboring state of New Jersey.
“He was really a nice person. When he used to walk, he’d put his hands behind him, and he’d walk on his toes. I’d used to watch him when he was walking. His hair was bunched up in the front … he had a lot of hair then. He always wore a maroon sweater with a shawl collar.”
The woman asked if the 13-year-old would like to come serve tea for herself and her friends while she was visiting. She and her uncle obliged.
“I served tea and cookies every day at four o’clock except for Saturday and Sunday. Then he would come out and talk to me. Ask me what my name was. I told I’m my name is Ethelyn. He told me about a little girl that he knew over in England. He said her name was Thelena. He said, ‘you remind me of her. Do you mind if I call you Thelena?’ I said, ‘No. If you’d like to call me Thelena, then that’s ok,’”
Roberts has fun telling the story, but she said that she sees this as another interaction with a kind person. She didn’t think much of it for a while until she started telling the story.
“I didn’t even know. He was just a man I had met. So, later on people would ask, ‘how did you feel about meeting a genius?’ I said what? A genius, who’s a genius? ‘Albert Einstein’. He’s a genius? I didn’t know he was a genius. He was just Albert Einstein as far as I knew.”
Siss had an affinity for Pennsylvania and her family there, and they welcomed her back in 1938. After a while she applied for a job in a factory in nearby Trenton and was tasked with being a ‘material handler’. As time carried on, she became part of the process of building airplanes in Trenton. Bomber planes for World War II.
“My brothers Sam and John, they were already in the service. I was thinking, I’m helping all my brothers, all these young boys around here that are in the service. I said I’m helping them by working there. I worked there until they closed the place.”
She worked for General Motors for three years before meeting her husband. They soon had three children and she left her job to take care of them. Roberts made sure to stay home until she thought her kids were old enough.
Later, she went to work for Aberdeen Sportswear, a company that specialized in men’s clothing. She said she ended up working for them until she was 85 years old, when she officially retired. Prior to that, she left and came back whenever they really needed her.
“Whenever I retired, people asked me what years I liked the best. Everybody said they liked the ’60s. I said I liked the ’70s. They said, ‘why did you like the ’70s?’ I said because I felt free.”
Much of her life has been dedicated to being a good mother and grandmother. She said she spent several of those decades taking care of her grandchildren.
“I got to be with them when they were small, I took care of them while their parents worked. They just felt like my own.”
Once her grandchildren grew up, she wanted to see more of the world. After her husband passed, she would spend countless hours on planes. She loved traveling the country, especially visiting family in California and elsewhere. Planes always offered yet another fantastic way to meet people.
Ethelyn Roberts finally moved back to Cherokee in 2010. She is still full of energy and conversation. She now lives at Tsali Manor, where she has continued to make friends.