I have spent entirely enough time in conference rooms lately. A Cherokee Leadership conference (CCO=Community & Cultural Outreach) is exciting, yes, but also such a change from my regular life. Those clucking hussies, the hummingbirds, and my evening deer and coyotes seem so far away from me right now. And what I wouldn’t give to have my kitty curl up on me at night in this hotel bed.
The exchange is worth it, however. I am learning as much in this weekend of workshops about my Cherokee people than in the years I’ve been attending Cherokee meetings. I was hoping this would happen when I had some immersion. For example, I walk the hallways between breakout sessions, and overhear groups of people talking in Cherokee. An unhesitating give-and-take the way people really speak a language (not the way they demonstrate, or practice a language, if that makes sense), with building or falling intensities and spontaneous laughter from everyone listening. (We’re Cherokee, and that means there are jokes being told.) It’s precious, you know, being able to hear your language spoken. I only realized that truth once I spent time in other countries, and then felt the relief of hearing recognizable sounds again, once I came back. Just imagine being a people whose language was dying out. It’s a scary thought. Luckily, the Cherokees are aggressively working to keep the language viable.
It’s hard to summarize what I’ve learned in a single blog post, because I’ve attended so many sessions on so many topics. What I have noticed, however, is that there are common lessons that come through over and over. That’s how I’m learning this culture. (My degrees are in anthropology, so that’s how I frame things in my mind.)
Every speaker is a Cherokee and/or Cherokee expert, and they keep saying things to reinforce our culture. Like I said above, “We’re Cherokee, and that means there are jokes being told.” I learned this to be true by spending time with Cherokees, and seeing it demonstrated, but also hearing people tell me the lesson over and over: Cherokees are always kidding around.
In this way, I’m also learning what a matriarchal society is. Of course, I studied it in my anthropology classes, so I know what it is. But book learning doesn’t lay out in real-world examples what it actually means to be a matriarchal culture. Traditionally Cherokee men moved in with their wives’ families, and the children and possessions and home belonged to the wife. At any point, for any reason, the wife could divorce the man by placing his belongings outside the home. Women had a lot of power, but a lot of responsibility, and the weight of keeping the family together rested on the shoulders of the women. One man told a story about trying to build a re-integration program for Arizona Indians, and met with failure until his female secretary berated him for not involving the women, and following their direction. Several people talked about going to Standing Rock, and talked about how women were/are instrumental in that movement. I hadn’t even thought of it before, unconsciously mentally erasing women from power and action, when it turns out they were the source of power.
One speaker explained that when treaties were being discussed, the Europeans didn’t trust the Cherokees who included women in their business talks, and the Cherokees didn’t trust the Europeans who never brought their women. They didn’t bring their women, they wondered, what are they trying to hide from us? I heard about the pensions offered to wounded Indians who fought in battles for the US Government, and how the Indians were confused about the idea of widows and orphans being offered pensions for men who died in battle. They did not grasp the concept of women being victims when a man died. They did not understand the concept of orphan, because the children belong to the mother’s clan. Even if both parents were not living, the child belonged to the clan, and was not an orphan. Thus, when the pensions were offered anyway, and women went to collect for themselves and the children of their clan, their petitions were often denied. US officials sometimes knew very well that the woman herself did not birth a particular child, so how could she be so audacious as to try and claim a pension for the child’s fallen father, a member of the clan? Likewise, a man would go to do his duty to his wife’s clan, and seek to collect a pension for a fallen brother, related by clan, not by blood, and the federal officials were again confused.
I am learning this culture through the repetition of so many speakers saying things like, “As Cherokees, we understand community ownership, not individual ownership. When my mother used to make dinner, she would cook enough for an army. I’d ask, ‘Why are you making so much food?’ and she would say, ‘Maybe someone will show up.’ And sure enough, by suppertime, the house would be full.”
Many speakers talk about water. “As Cherokees, we consider our water to be sacred. It’s not just what we use to clean ourselves, but we drink it, we grow crops with it, we cook with it. Water is in every part of our life and makes up who we are.” Now, these things are true for every human. But when it’s said to you like that: “As Cherokees, we value water…” then you can’t help but assign a greater significance to the things you’ve been doing with water since you were born.
I don’t think I’ve made my point as clearly as I wanted to, but I hope with these examples you get the idea. I am learning so much good stuff about this important part of who I am. I am sad that I wasn’t raised with this teaching, but I am so grateful to belong to a Nation that works so hard to provide me the opportunity to learn, now that I have decided to educate myself.
Today we are leaving Tulsa and heading off for some touring! We’ll visit museums, cultural centers, and points of significance for Cherokees. We’re finally heading to Tahlequah, and the center of Cherokee government. I finally get to see some of Oklahoma besides this city block in Tulsa. I promise to take photos and post when I can.