Monday, March 16, 2009

My experience with the Cherokees

I went to Cherokee Nation, North Carolina, land of the Eastern Band Cherokees, for my spring break as an alternative break. For those who don't know, at my school, alternative breaks are a wonderful opportunity for students to combine service with a chance to learn about a culture or situation (such as DC's education system) that we may not be familiar with. For Spring Break this year, trips were offered to El Salvador (to witness the elections), Northern Ireland (to learn about religious tolerance and peace building) and staying in DC (to learn about the educational system and the challenges it faces).

To be honest, I didn't intend to go away at first. I thought I would just stay and take the chance to work, make some more money than I normally would. I thought I would until I found out about the trip to Cherokee.

My main reason for going was the opportunity I would lose by not going. This opportunity was the chance to learn about the Cherokee people, their customs, their culture. You see, even though the Native Americans were the first people in this country, all I really learned about them was : a) they ate with the Pilgrims on Thanksgiving (that's what they told us in elementary school anyway), b) Said settlers then proceeded to kill them all, c) Andrew Jackson signed the Order of Indian Removal, forcing them to leave, d) something vague about mission schools, and e) they had a lot of casinos. Sadly, we never really learned about their government, culture, spirituality, or even that they were just like any of the rest of us (even in movies, all you really see of them are medicine men and chiefs, saying "How?" all the time and beating on drums).

They never told us that tribal governments were sovereign lands of their own, subject only to the US federal government. They never told us that they were never allowed to try non-natives in a tribal court. They told us about sweat lodges and vision quests, but they never told us about the significance of the two acts or even which tribes practiced them for which reasons (Cherokees for physical healing, Lakota for spiritual and physical). They never told us how our government had a hand in sterilizing Lakota women in South Dakota (at least this example, written in Lakota Woman by Mary Crow Dog), how they also had a hand in instituting mission schools, which further victimized Native Americans as children. They told us about George Gist, who came up with the Cherokee alphabet, but never told us the language was making a comeback through immersion schools. They told us how Andrew Jackson forced the Cherokees out but never about those who stayed behind. We heard about casinos, but never the fact that the money generated from that builds more industry and sends kids to college. Furthermore, we heard about all the problems faced on reservations, with alcoholism, diabetes, sexual assault, but we never heard about the overall strength and vitality of a people, determined to have their culture survive despite the generations of odds against them.

These are not a dying people. Sure, their rituals may be borrowed, to make up for the ones that were lost. Sure, many of them are not purely Cherokee anymore but are a mix of different backgrounds (as are we all. I may identify culturally as Italian American while ethnically, I'm only a quarter Italian). Sure, reservations and boundaries have their own problems (as do all states, cities, and towns), but we never hear about the successes (new businesses, immersion schools, opportunities for college grads to make a difference within their communities). We hear about tribes being victimized by the government, we never hear about the Native Americans rising to power in order to help change that.

These (and many others) were the first people here. They did not die out with the influx of smallpox and Europeans. These were a people that, despite every obstacle, survived and work to maintain their culture. Even today, they still fight for their rights, whether it's the right to ceremony or to govern their own lands. But they are not weak. They are not obselete, outdated, only good for a nice Thanksgiving story, gambling and feather headdresses (Eddie Izzard, "I love all this!). These are the people who had shown us the way when we first came here, who had given us things like a deep respect for women and nature and the necessity to always maintain peace and a sense of brotherhood, even in war. We do not honor them through pity. We honor them through memory and through acknowledging their dignity and rights as people, regardless of identity. They are a people, not just a chapter in a history book. It would serve us well to remember that, and to pass that along to our children.

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