On February 25th Tara and I attended the monthly meeting of the Mount Hood Cherokees, who hosted cultural specialist JP Johnson and COTTA Technical Assistant Ryan Sierra, both visiting from the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.
The Community Organization Training and Technical Assistance (COTTA) Program was formed under the request of former Chief Chad Smith when it was becoming evident that many groups claiming to be able to teach Cherokee culture were not authentic and were misrepresenting true Cherokee culture. The Cherokee diaspora was paying careful attention to the wrong information! Now COTTA maintains a center to assist satellite groups such as the Mt. Hood Cherokees, and also offers assistance to anyone who contacts the group on their website.
Recently we’ve been able to learn from storyteller Robert Lewis, and stickball players Ryan Sierra and Jessica Harkreader. This time we had the privilege to listen to JP Johnson talk without pause on history, traditions, language, and religion of Cherokees. JP said that once he began researching, he could not get enough knowledge. To our great benefit, he is now employed by the Nation as a Cultural Specialist. He is a veritable encyclopedia of Cherokee facts, as well as an embodiment of knowledge, since he lives as authentically he can by speaking the language, participating in stomp dances, and other activities of Cherokee traditional life.
JP’s command of this body of knowledge is so profound that he simply began talking and allowed himself to wander through all the digressions that came to mind. When MHC members asked questions, he was able to answer in depth. JP revealed his motivation to keep the culture alive, and why he feels so strongly about it. When he talked about the original homeland of Cherokees, in North Carolina, he told us with tears in his eyes that there are only 332 people left who can speak the language there. “That’s terrible,” he said. He did not say what a devastating loss it would be if there were no more speakers in North Carolina, but told it clearly to us nonetheless.
We learned details of stomp dancing, and the importance of keeping the home fires lit (because we can go to the fires for medicine), typical traditional garb for stomp dancing and how men and women have different roles when they dance (women wearing turtle shell rattles on their legs). He also talked about the violent tradition of stickball, how several tribes played it, borrowed each other’s rules, and how modern Cherokees have had to adopt safety rules to avoid accidental serious injury and even death. We all faced East and JP sang a prayer for us at the conclusion of his talk.
We ate a potluck meal then, and as always I am warmed by this tradition of eating together. It reminds me of the potlatches from my early childhood along the Umpqua River. All cultures have eating traditions, and it makes sense to bring food to a single table and then share it amongst everyone. We are symbolically ingesting the companionship, the traditions, the learning. We are gaining sustenance from the gathering.
As we wrapped up our meal, Ryan Sierra took the floor and talked business. He explained the mission of COTTA, and described some of the basic steps toward becoming a chartered satellite group. He explained taxes, steps toward voting in Nation elections, financial expectations from the Nation, and that kind of thing. He insisted that he is always available for questions and happy to help.
Tara and I left before he was completely finished. I had only planned for 4 hours, and it was time to go. The time went by quickly, as always. One of the senior members of the group came up to me this time and thanked me for coming. I haven’t been active with the board, and so they recognize me, but don’t know me. His thanks seemed very genuine and it made me glad that I continue to make the effort to show up, even if infrequently.