A Conversation with Cherokee Young People

I just saw the movie Indian Horse, about a young man who was one of way too many Canadian children to be kidnapped, taken away from his family, and forced to attend a “boarding school” run by the Church and designed to remove all traces of indigenous traditions, language, and culture. It made me remember an experience I had in the town of Cherokee, NC that I want to share with you.

I realized I didn’t know what the word “Cherokee” meant. In fact, I still can’t find that answer. But I did discover that what the Cherokee called themselves was “Aniyvwiya” which means the “Real People.” Interestingly, that’s what “Lenape” means as well. “Dineh” is what the Navajo call themselves. It means “people.” The Pueblo Indians of New Mexico? That means “people,” too. Most native people when asked who they were said, simply, in their language, that they were people.

As I was traveling east from New Mexico, I decided to return to Sand Creek in Colorado to offer prayers and then head to Oklahoma. I felt drawn to go to Tahlequa, which is basically the capital of the Cherokee Nation–at least it was the capital of those who were forced to relocate by walking the Trail of Tears. That phrase is a rather poetic name for a horrendous ordeal thrust upon not just the Cherokee, but also the Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Ponca and Ho-Chunk/Winnebago nations. And there wasn’t one trail. There were many. And they all converged in eastern Oklahoma, which was part of what was then called “Indian Territory.” As one man said, it wasn’t just a trail of tears, it was a trail of death, of starvation.

Map showing the primary routes of the “Trail of Tears.”
If you want to walk part of the 5,000+ miles, through nine states, click HERE.

There were, however, Cherokee who ran into the mountains to hide from the soldiers, or who somehow escaped the forced march westward and made their way back home. These people eventually became the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. There are more than 141,000 Cherokee in northeast Oklahoma, and about a tenth of that in the Eastern Band, descended from the thousand that somehow managed to escape the forced removal.

Sign on display in Cherokee museum, Cherokee, NC

When I arrived in North Carolina, I stayed with a friend and her housemate who lived in the hamlet of Otto, just north of the Georgia border. They were still rather new to the area and had not yet visited the Cherokee Museum in Cherokee, and so one day we went there together. I didn’t stay with my friends as we went through the museum because part of it was a replication of what I had learned in Tahlequah. About 3/4 of the way through, I realized I had a couple questions for the staff out front. So after I went through the last exhibit, I made my way to the front desk.

This turned out to be a highlight for me, as I got the opportunity to spend about half an hour with three articulate young people who were clearly proud of their heritage. At one point the front desk guy asked me where I was from. When I replied “Pennsylvania,” he said, “Oh, my grandmother went to school there.” Intuiting that he was referring to the infamous Carlisle Boarding School, the first and also largest of the government’s “Indian boarding schools” in our country, I replied, “Oh, I’m sorry.” He said, “You know then.” I nodded. It was not a proud moment for this Pennsylvanian.

It’s such a disgraceful part of our history–forcibly removing children from their families and their communities. There is no excuse for this. None. That alone is a dispicable thing to do. But the fact that the children were stripped of their native clothes and made to wear “white men’s clothing,” forbidden to practice their own religion and traditions, fed atrocious and inadequate food, made to do hard manual labor, punished severely if they spoke their native tongue or used their given name, and often abused physically and/or sexually–all of this is beyond comprehension. Thus far, over 500 deaths have been documented/discovered at the “Indian boarding schools” of the U.S., but there is a strong suspicion that there are many, many, many more. The young woman working on an exhibit near the front desk had joined our conversation. She believes there are great numbers of unmarked graves. And sadly, I’m pretty sure she’s right.

(It’s so hard to write about that.)

I want to make sure I say that the Cherokee are so much more than the Trail of Tears. They are a proud and wonderful people. I need to write, for instance, about the Nikwasi Mound in Franklin, NC and the great council house that had once been standing on its summit. I want to share about the sacred fire they kept going for so very, very long and also about their tradition of “going to the waters.”

Please stay tuned.


Banner image: Original Cherokee territory, from a display in the Cherokee museum in Cherokee, NC.

About the Author

Cynthia Greb

Cynthia Greb is a writer, Nature lover, Dreamer, interfaith minister, and occasional artist. She has a great love for this beautiful planet and a deep connection to the ancient people who once lived so respectfully upon this Earth.
You can find her on Facebook, on YouTube, and occasionally on Instagram.

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