The Cherokee Nation Chief, Chuck Hoskin Jr., had not been in Oregon since before the pandemic. Previously, he was our Chief of State, but was elected Chief in 2019. In August we were pleased to host his visit to Oregon and to reconnect with so many of our friends and cousins from the Nation in Oklahoma. The event was hosted by the two official Oregon Cherokee Nation At-Large groups, Willamette Tsa-La-Gi and the Mt. Hood Cherokees. We met at a park in Keizer, Oregon.
I didn’t even make it over to the stickball games this year, and I do enjoy making a fool of myself trying to play that impossible game. You’re supposed to make the tiny ball hit the top of the pole, using the sticks – impossible for me. I heard there were Cherokee marbles too (sort of like the games of croquet & boules combined), but I didn’t spot them. To my astonishment, later in the day Pedro told me that HE had played stickball – and I missed it! Someone had asked him to help set up, and then afterward he played for a while. I’m so proud of my man for pitching in at a Cherokee event. Where the heck was I? Flitting around trying to find as many people as possible to say Hi to, while leaving him to fend for himself. Good thing he still loves me…
The arrangement of these Chief’s Events is similar every year, with official tables, craft tables, speakers, food, etc. I knew what to expect and we got there on time, but it was still not enough time to do everything and see everyone. I feel like it was over in a blink. I was still chatting with At-Large Councilmembers and spotted my Oregon friend Oweta in the last 5 minutes, when most people were gone already and Cherokee Nation folks were scrambling to pack up their vans and head north to prepare for the Seattle Cherokee Chief’s Event the next day.
We heard flute music from Cherokee National Treasure Tommy Wildcat, and some fascinating history from Dr. Julia Coates (tireless advocate on the Council but importantly, also a historian), and stories from National Treasure (and beloved friend for over a decade) Robert Lewis. A Cherokee Warrior was lauded by the Chief, and a Cherokee Elder was asked to speak, and gifted with a blanket. We heard from the 2021-2022 Miss Cherokee Chelbie Turtle. There was also an education table with coloring books and crayons and fun things for children that all helped teach the Cherokee language.
The August day was overcast at first, as low clouds hovered near the surface and were reluctant to burn off. The visitors from Oklahoma were grateful. They choose their mid-summer visits to be in Oregon and Washington on purpose, because of the weather. Eventually though, the fog and low clouds burned off and it became a hot and sunny day.
After most people were done with their presentations, we were all invited to eat. A month earlier, I had volunteered to serve people and it backfired, ha ha! In my entire experience with Cherokee meetings over all these years, it’s a potluck and people just bring stuff from home and after inviting and assisting elders to eat first, people charge the food table and figure it out. I saw the list of things to volunteer to help with, and assumed “serving food,” would end up not being a job at all, based on my past experience. You see how lazy I am? ha ha!! This year (I’m not on the Council so I don’t know how these things are decided) for some reason the event was catered. Attendees scanned a QR code with their smart phones to have access to the free lunch. The food was mind-blowingly awesome (decidedly non-Cherokee tamales, but maybe the best tamales I’ve ever had), and it was super organized. I took up a station at one of the food tables, and did not move from that spot for an hour and a half, because we had a record 450 people show up that day and all of them were hungry.
Come to think of it…this may explain why I didn’t get a chance to do everything I wanted to do that day.
After lunch I went over to the ID section, which is often the most popular part of these events. Cherokees can enroll with the tribe online or through the mail, but to get a photo ID, you need to visit the Nation in Tahlequah, or you need to attend one of these events. The awesome people from Registration set up their tables and computers and cameras and make it happen – right there in the park!!
Back behind the registration section, I spotted one of my best Cherokee friends, and went over to say hi. She was engaging in an Indian pastime: asking random strangers, “Hey, my family’s surnames are ____ and ___… are we cousins?” Sure enough, she had found cousins and right there, while waiting for their ID cards, they had friended each other on facebook. When your entire Nation is 400,000 people, it’s easy to find cousins. In fact, in Indian Country, it’s kind of a joke. When young people begin dating, the challenge is finding someone to date who is NOT your cousin.
Rev. Allen and his family came to us from Oklahoma a few years ago. When he spotted my Cherokee newsletter at a meeting one day, he begged me to do one for the church too. And that’s how it came to be that I edit the newsletter for the Great Spirit church in Portland, in addition to the Mt. Hood Cherokees newsletter.
One of my dear, dear friends from the Cherokee group, David Crawford, was able to hand over a very delayed gift from Cherokee Nation to recognize the newsletter work that I do with the help of others in our group. A couple of years ago, our newsletter was submitted for recognition, and the Nation chose to honor it in 2020. The newsletter received the “Best in Reporting” Award for At-Large communities during the Cherokee Community Organization’s annual conference. Our group didn’t meet in person for two years. David had been holding on to the award till he could pass it to me, so I unwrapped it and showed it to all the people sitting nearby.
Things had finally settled down a little and I could take Pedro to meet Robert, who had been asking to meet him for a year now. We walked past the Voting table and after being aggressively challenged, I assured them all that yes, I am registered and I vote in every election for our Council and Chief that I can vote in! It was all good-natured, but the pressure was real: voting (and what it represents, which is active participation in our community) is important. My reward was a new T-shirt that says, “I am ᏣᎳᎩ and I vote.” ᏣᎳᎩ is “Cherokee” written in the Cherokee language.
Past them I found yet another Cherokee Treasure. I keep using this phrase. It’s a modern idea created by Cherokee Nation to recognize and celebrate people who have contributed significantly to Cherokee culture. In a back corner, Pedro and I stopped to talk with Noel Grayson, who was flint knapping. I have watched his demonstrations of this at the Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah. Our friend Robert was nearby, and sat down to eat his lunch finally, after some storytelling. Noel had a piece of leather on his lap to protect himself from the sharp rock, and began explaining to us, and then demonstrating, how to create a stone tool. In anthropology class I had been surprised to learn that sometimes materials as soft as wood or bone are used to chip the stone and make a sharp edge. Noel confirmed this and picked up a piece of antler he had there for that purpose, and continued shaping the stone he held.
In our peripheral vision, we saw Robert struggling and struggling with his tamale, that had been wrapped in corn husk and tied. The ties were on so tight that he could not break them. The sturdy corn husks were between him and his very late lunch. I gave a suggestion but it didn’t help. Noel got up and went over to his demonstration table and grabbed a stone knife that he had made earlier. He tossed it to Robert, who knew what to do.
I laughed out loud and remarked that, while I had observed arrowheads my whole life, and studied stone toolmaking in college, it was the first time I had ever witnessed an indigenous person actually USING a stone tool in an ordinary daily life setting. In the days before steel tools, this kind of grabbing a handy stone knife for lunch must have happened every day.
Then Pedro and I went over to talk to Brad Wagnon, another leader and storyteller in the Cherokee community. But my question was about bonsai. Brad has recently been teaching himself to work with bonsai and man, you should have seen how animated he became while he talked about his plants. A few people stopped by to ask how to find his children’s books. He graciously answered and then went right back to bonsai. It was a delight to watch his joy.
I hope I haven’t been too obnoxious with my ulterior motive in this post. In addition to documenting a fun day, I wanted to document a group of modern American Indians fully integrated into 2022. I hope – for those of you who aren’t as lucky as me to see Natives all the time – that you are reassured that we are just like you in a lot of ways. We are modern while remembering our traditions and history. Just like you do, I imagine.