OPINION: Back home: Cherokee Nation secures ownership of Sequoyah’s Cabin
Cherokee Nation was the first tribe to adopt a written language, and the impact the syllabary has had on our people and the advancements of our tribe continue still today. Sequoyah, also known as George Gist, gave us one of the most significant gifts in our history. Sequoyah’s invention of the syllabary had an immeasurable impact on us as a tribe.
Recently, Cherokee Nation finalized the purchase of Sequoyah’s Cabin, near Sallisaw, from the state. We are so proud to assume ownership and management of the historical site and have the opportunity to give it the respect and reverence it deserves.
It’s unimaginable that sites, like Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello or George Washington’s Mt. Vernon, would be operated by anyone other than the United States government. Likewise, it is only fitting that Sequoyah’s Cabin site, which is a vital part of our story, would be operated by the Cherokee Nation.
In our tribe’s long and unique history, Sequoyah made an everlasting impact and truly changed the way our people communicate, share ideas and preserve history. He was a genius who advanced the Cherokee Nation and our rich culture. Sequoyah is one of our most well-known statesmen and historical figures, and his contributions to the Cherokee Nation are immeasurable. The Cherokee syllabary is the single most important contributor to the advancement of the Cherokee people and Cherokee society.
He reshaped the future of Cherokees and all Native people, not just seven generations but infinite generations.
Chief of Staff Chuck Hoskin, in his role as a state legislator, singlehandedly led the effort to secure Sequoyah’s Cabin for our people. We are so fortunate that his strong relationship with the Oklahoma Historical Society and its executive director, Dr. Bob Blackburn, helped pave the way for our purchase of this important piece of our history.
We commend the state for being such good stewards of the 200-acre site and former home, and now it is time for Cherokee Nation to lead the preservation effort. Our relationship with Dr. Blackburn and the state’s historical society is a true partnership and will allow this project to advance for the benefit of the Cherokee Nation, the state of Oklahoma and the thousands of tourists that visit this historic site each year. Yes, it is unfortunate that after 80 years the state no longer has the resources to manage and maintain the property. But that’s where our tribal government can step in and ensure the preservation meets the highest standards. Together, we will guarantee this beautiful and historic site thrives and continues operation forever.
It is a historic achievement to add this land and site back into the tribe’s land base and bring Sequoyah’s home back to the Cherokee Nation and place it under our cultural protection. Our operation of the cabin and the surrounding land will enable us, as Cherokees, to tell the story of Sequoyah through a uniquely Cherokee perspective. We will be able to do it in our own words and in our own language, which Sequoyah helped advance.
The Cherokee Nation is steadfastly committed to our military veterans, those men and women who have sacrificed so much for our tribe, our country and our collective freedoms. Recently, we established a formal partnership with the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma to help ensure these real-life heroes do not suffer from hunger and food instability. Nobody in Oklahoma, especially a military veteran, should go hungry.
This collaboration, which is the first time a tribal government has been involved with this local food bank program, means regular access to healthy and nutritious foods, and that will translate to better and fuller lives. It is a blessing that we are able to help, and it is the least we can do for those who have done so much for us.
This endeavor will create a quarterly mobile food pantry at the CN Veterans Center. Fresh produce, bakery items and nonperishable food items are available for about 125 veterans or widows of veterans through the collaboration. The first time we hosted the food pantry in late May, we distributed more than 10,000 pounds of food. The tribe will continue to help identify veterans in need, as well as provide volunteers to help staff the mobile pantry.
Today, the CN Veterans Center offers a wide array of activities for veterans. It serves as a place to sign up for benefits, play bingo or attend other activities, and now we have added the food pantry. It is just one more way we can meet the needs of our people.
The CN continues to look for ways to honor and serve our veteran warriors, and this partnership with the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma is another avenue to reach those in need. Food insecurity is a very real issue for families in northeast Oklahoma, and almost 20 percent of the households the Food Bank serves has a military veteran who resides there and utilizes the program. Additionally, national studies show veterans are affected more by hunger and food insecurity than the general population. Many struggle to put food on the table because of a myriad of issues, from employability after service to mental health and related trauma or an unwillingness to seek help.
Collaborating with the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma means we are increasing and expanding its coverage and furthering its mission. Just like CN, the food bank wants to provide for our veterans so that they have what they need to prosper.
The CN also offers a food distribution program, which some veterans may also qualify for. For more information on the CN Veterans Center and food pantry, call 918-772-4166.
According to a recent Time magazine article, every day we check our smartphones about 47 times – about every 19 minutes – while spending approximately five hours on them.
It states there’s “no good consensus” about what that does to our “children’s brains” or “adolescents’ moods.” It also states the American Psychological Association has found that 65 percent of people believe “periodically unplugging would improve our mental health,” and a University of Texas study has found the “mere presence of our smartphones, face down on the desk in front of us, undercuts our ability to perform basic cognitive tasks.”
It further states that it’s not just us being weak for not getting away from our screens; our brains are being engineered to keep looking. Silicon Valley’s business model relies on us looking at their apps and products. The more “eyeball time” we give, the more money they make by selling our personal data. The article states we “are not customers of Facebook or Google, we are the product being sold.”
This is persuasive technology, the study of how computers are used to control our thoughts and actions. It “has fueled the creation of thousands of apps, interfaces and devices that deliberately encourage certain human behaviors (keep scrolling) while discouraging others (convey thoughtful, nuanced ideas),” the article states.
The article adds that Facebook “designers determine which videos, news stories and friends’ comments appear at the top of your feed, as well as how often you’re informed of new notifications.” The goal is to keep us looking longer, thus getting more personal info on us to their real customers – companies that buy this information.
It also states when our brains gets an “external cue, like the ding of a Facebook notification, that often precedes a reward,” there’s a burst of dopamine, a powerful neurotransmitter linked to the anticipation of pleasure.” This “trigger, action and reward” process strengthens the brain’s habit-forming loop.
“If you’re trying to get someone to establish a new behavior…computer engineers can draw on different kinds of positive feedback, like social approval or a sense of progress, to build on that loop,” the article states. “One simple trick is to offer users a reward, like points or a cascade of new likes from friends at unpredictable times. The human brain produces more dopamine when it anticipates a reward but doesn’t know when it will arrive…Most of the alluring apps and websites in wide use today were engineered to exploit this habit-forming loop.”
Pinterest works slightly different. It features pictures arranged so that users see partial images of what’s next. This piques the curiosity and has no “natural” stopping point, the article states, while offering endless content.
Not too many years ago, I could go most places without my cell. Nowadays I usually have it with me. Am I going to miss a call or text? What’s happening on Facebook? I need to text my buddy about the game I just saw, or that photo I just took needs posting.
Recently I read an article (again in Time) about a museum that annually holds an exhibit in which famous pieces of art are recreated with flowers. The museum considered banning cell phones because people would push and shove trying to get pictures. One woman said she felt guilty for simply looking at the art because she thought she was in the way of people trying to take pictures with their phones.
I don’t want to be one of those people who views life through a smartphone or tablet. Nor do I want my kids to be. But I can’t tell them to put down the screens if I can’t do it. I guess it’s time for a “tech detox” as Time magazine called it. I’ve decided to limit my screen time and start getting the bulk of my news again from print. (I can’t stand TV news.) I subscribe to Time, Runner’s World, Men’s Health and will most likely go back to a daily newspaper. I like the feel of pages between my fingers. I like how I can read it at any pace, set it down and come back to it. True, it’s delivered at a slower pace than digital news, but it’s usually more in-depth with better design.
I need to unplug for a while. I think my kids are at that point, too, and probably my wife. Maybe it’s time for a lot of us to re-evaluate our screen time and break those habit-forming loops.
The forthcoming American Indian Center and Cultural Museum in Oklahoma City will be a world-class facility and has tremendous potential for education, economic development and tourism purposes in Oklahoma. The Cherokee Nation is proud to support AICCM and pleased to see it moving closer to opening. The heart of Indian Country will be home to one of America’s finest museums.
Recently, I began serving a three-year term on the American Indian Cultural Center Foundation to help move this center of collective history and culture toward completion. It will be a unique destination, designed to tell the powerful and significant story of Native Americans in Oklahoma. The AICCM’s mission has always been to enhance what individual tribes, including the Cherokee Nation, do to share our heritage.
Art, history and contemporary culture will be all in one place, and if people want to dig deeper they can travel to Tahlequah or Ada or Anadarko or Lawton.
I am proud to be a part of this creative endeavor and a public-private venture with the state, city of Oklahoma City, AICCM Land Development LLC and private sector. Absolutely none of this would be possible without the cooperation of the 38 federally recognized tribes in Oklahoma today.
Construction will resume this summer and take about two years to complete, while exhibits and other interior finishes will take another year to install. The museum will open in the spring of 2021. Construction was stopped six years ago on the museum, which sits at the junction of Interstates 35 and 40 in Oklahoma City, when state funding ran out.
As Native people, perseverance is something we know well, and we would not be moving forward today without Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby and his leadership in establishing a powerful and productive partnership with Oklahoma City’s leaders. He has been a champion to achieve this dream. Once completed it will be an epic indoor/outdoor adventure for the entire family with unique exhibits, hands-on educational programs, firsthand accounts and cultural demonstrations.
Tribes have tremendous heritage and history in Oklahoma, which is why state leaders wanted to build this museum in the first place. It will substantially increase opportunities to educate Oklahoma’s youth on the rich history of our state, which was born from Indian Territory. Those critical aspects of Oklahoma’s history simply are not stressed enough in public classrooms. Oklahomans need to know more about their history and certainly need a better grasp of how important tribal governments are not just to our past, but also to our bright future.
Tribal governments mean so much to the state, not just its cultural identity, but also in a very real and tangible way economically. The Cherokee Nation alone has an economic impact on our state of over $2 billion.
Oklahoma is Indian Country, and AICCM will be a tremendous asset to all of us.
In today’s world, the term “information super highway” refers to the internet. While this term is modern, the idea behind it is as old as civilization. The idea is to create the shortest and most efficient route to move information. For as long as a thousand years, Indigenous people have used a route of travel not far from here because it was the most efficient route to deliver information and supplies. This route has been referred to at various times as the Osage Trail, the Seminole Trail, the Texas Road and the Military Highway.
A decade before the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee Nation’s first Supreme Court Justice, John Martin, brought his family from their home in New Echota, Georgia, to Indian Territory. His son, Joe, was only 8 years old in 1828 when they settled on the Grand River. He took to his new home quickly. In 1840 when he was just 20, he had already established a ranch that would become known as Greenbrier near the community of Strang.
To call Greenbrier a ranch is a bit of an understatement. By the time the Civil War started in 1861, the Martin family ranch and the river beside it both could be referred to as Grand. It consisted of around 100,000 acres of leased Cherokee land, about the size of what is now Mayes County. On this land was a good portion of the route then referred to as the Texas Road or the Military Highway. Before the war, the route saw many cattle drives from Texas to Kansas.
As the war progressed, it was described as “a critical route for information and supplies” for troops of both the North and the South. It was the shortest route from Fort Scott, Kansas, to Fort Gibson, Indian Territory, and Fort Worth, Texas. Two battles during the war were fought on the route. The North was the victor of the first battle. A year later the South had a much bigger victory by capturing hundreds of mules and wagons. This victory also interrupted supplies bound for Fort Gibson valued at over $1.5 million.
After the War Between the States ended, Greenbrier never regained its former glory. Today there is little more than a few historical markers to prove it once was there. Within a few years of the end of the war, the KATY Railroad followed the route from Kansas to Texas. In the early years of statehood the route developed into what is now known as U.S. Highway 69 and remained a critical route for information and supplies.
In recent years, technology giant Google established a data center complex in Mayes County. This data center could be described as a key component of the “information super highway.” It is fitting that the data center sits a short distance from the Grand River, within sight of Highway 69 and the railroad once known as the KATY. Now, as then, this route can accurately be described as “a critical route for information and supplies.”
As the chief of the Cherokee Nation and the son of public schoolteachers, it has troubled me to see the inaction at the state level as teachers across our great state struggle. The time for action is now, and the CN is taking the lead by granting our certified teachers the pay raise they deserve.
Recently, I proposed – and the Tribal Council approved – a lump sum payment of $5,000 to all certified teachers, effective immediately. Additionally, certified teacher pay will increase by $5,000, effective the beginning of teacher contracts in fiscal year 2018-19.
Over the past decade, the state of Oklahoma has made drastic budget cuts to public education. At the same time, teachers continue to meet additional demands beyond simply fulfilling the daily lesson plans. From monitoring student safety to test preparation to finding ways to help students in need of food or school supplies, Oklahoma teachers go above and beyond the call of duty each day and with fewer resources each year.
We have the best colleges in Oklahoma (several in our jurisdiction such as Northeastern State University and Rogers State University), which train our brightest minds for the educational workforce. Yet, sadly, when they graduate, they often leave to teach in other states or are forced to leave the children they love teaching for higher-paying jobs. The state absolutely must address teacher pay this legislative session because we are in a crisis. However, the CN will not wait any longer.
This pay raise is in keeping with the CN’s longstanding commitment and support of public education. We started the first institution of higher learning for females west of the Mississippi River. We established a system of free public education well before Oklahoma statehood. We continue to achieve excellence today at Sequoyah High School, the Cherokee Immersion Charter School and through our support of public schools and students across northeastern Oklahoma.
In addition, we recently issued $5.4 million to 108 schools through our car tag compact. The amount given annually has doubled since 2010, and since 2003, the CN has contributed more than $50 million to public education through the compact.
The CN is unwavering in its commitment to public schools, students and teachers. Our pay raise reaffirms that commitment and, I hope, sends a message to state leaders that they should follow the CN’s lead and raise pay for all certified teachers in the state. The CN understands the role of teachers. It is a profession that we know is of extreme value and importance. Teachers impact so many lives and should be rewarded as such.
In the Cherokee language we have called ourselves aniyunwiya, the Real People. According to one author, “…the Cherokees, in common with the Caucasian race, had a high regard for their tribe, and were not too modest to proclaim themselves the ‘principal people’” (Walker 1931:2). Since our beliefs have served us well and our ancestors’ tenacity has done the same, our strong ego is an earned quality.
The Cherokee language is in the Iroquoian language family. Various Iroquoian speaking tribes now live in the eastern Great Lakes region of the U.S. and Canada. Although there are shared tenets among most American Indians, Native nations experienced different histories, spoke different languages, were comprised of a variety of compelling individuals and lived in particular environments all of which serve to provide particular qualities and practices making each nation profoundly unique.
According to early Cherokee oral history our arrival in our homeland involved travelling over a sea, or through a flood (Meredith and Sobral 1997: 33). The displaced Cherokee population ultimately settled in the forested terrain of what is now the southeastern United States. Surrounded by tribes speaking other languages, we were compelled to display superior strength in order to thrive. Our successes at adapting to change proved useful throughout time.
James Mooney, an early anthropologist, cited a remark provided by a Cherokee man in late 19th century, “…the animals and plants were first made . . . we do not know by whom (Mooney 1898: 240).” The lack of commitment to a single creator is often noted in early Cherokee thinking. The flood story includes statements that Cherokees “commenced to repair the damage done by the gods.” It was also noted they sought to build a structure reaching to the heavens. It seems Cherokees believed they could live equally with their gods and maybe the reference refers to the building of mounds, which could be useful if a future epic flood occurred.
Large earthen mounds were serving as Cherokee ceremonial centers when European colonists arrived in the Americas. Cherokee governance in early colonial times consisted of clan council representatives electing a war chief and a peace chief in each village, and groups of villages linked within geographic districts. As the U.S. government developed after the Revolutionary War, we Cherokee immediately emulated the new U.S. government model by electing a principal chief, legislative representatives and forming our own supreme court.
Our history with Europeans includes Hernan DeSoto in 1540, serving the British during the French and Indian War, fighting colonists in the Revolutionary War, allying with Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812, suffering removal to Indian Territory after President Jackson refused to enforce a U.S. Supreme Court ruling respecting Cherokee sovereignty, the divisive Civil War, which split the Cherokee Nation into two armies, joining a plan to create an Indian-run U.S. state of Sequoyah, but instead being made citizens of Oklahoma. There are currently three federally recognized Cherokee governments (one in North Carolina and two in Oklahoma). Through generations of turmoil, the CN played the cards it was dealt, persevered and today has over 350,000 enrolled citizens, and is one of the major financial engines fueling northeastern Oklahoma.
Lt. Henry Timberlake observed of the Cherokees in the 1760s, “As to religion, every one is at liberty to think for himself; whence flows a diversity of opinions amongst those that do think, but the major part do not give themselves that trouble (King 2007, 34).” During colonization a number of Cherokee women married Scotsmen and Englishmen. In a matrilineal society, children born to Cherokee women were members only of the mother’s clan without regard to whether the father was Cherokee or not, however, matrilineality began to erode along with clans. Cherokee leaders initially resisted missionary incursions, and then relented by accepting missions that would provide schools. It is difficult to sort out the natural threads of culture from the introduced threads at a time when traditional practices were being driven underground.
Anthropologist James Mooney concluded, “There is change indeed in dress and outward seeming, but the heart of the Indian is still his own (Mooney 1898: 12).” As the Cherokee faced the 20th century, he noted, “there are still several thousand full-blood Cherokee… who speak only their native language and in secret bow down to the nature-gods of their fathers (147).”
A polytheistic (belief in many gods) doctrine should not have been disparaged or forbidden, but missionaries generally termed such beliefs as pagan and savage. The work of missionaries was sometimes deemed by early Cherokee traditionalists to be a self-gratifying undertaking whereby foreigners passed judgment and imposed their own will upon a people imperiled by colonialism. Many Cherokee did become willing members of Christian churches (Moravian, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian). Some congregations encouraged hymns in the Cherokee language, and Cherokee-speaking preachers existed (and continue to exist). Some Christian churches accepted that their congregants would also attend traditional stomp grounds, while some pastors forbade such attendance.
New generations often yearn to revive what was lost. Redbird Smith began an effort at the end of the 19th century to re-establish traditional Cherokee stomp grounds. Smith ultimately focused on reclaiming seven ancient wampum belts from the CN archives to establish ceremonies based on what was remembered of those belts’ original messages. He and his sons prepared a stomp ground where he rekindled a sacred fire for the revivalist movement he called Nighthawk Keetoowah. Altogether 22 ceremonial grounds were developed and thrived for a time. Modern life and political strife, however, served to reduce the movement. It continues today among a number of traditional Cherokee adherents, and the ancient wampum belts reside in their care. Smith noted before his death in 1918, “I have endeavored … for my people to remember that any religion must be an unselfish one… This religion does not teach me to concern myself of the life that shall be after this, but it does teach me to be concerned with what my everyday life should be (Hendrix 1983: 76-85).”
The following tenets, noted in our mythology have been, and are, important components of Cherokee core beliefs.
<strong>· All living things play a role in a dynamic world.</strong> Cherokee stories detail close relationships with animals and plants. So close that one story cites tracking a bear and seeing its footprints become human. Another cites a wife who transforms from deer to woman and back. Another wife and mother saves her starving family by becoming the gift of corn, and another cites strawberries lightening the heart of a woman after an argument with her husband. Science now tells us that we share DNA with all living things.
<strong>· All natural parts of the world are sacred.</strong> In addition to animals, other natural components are essential. Earth, water, air, minerals, the sun and stars deserve our respect because we are all interdependent in our relationships. One enduring practice of Cherokee traditionalism is “going to water.” At the start of each day, adherents attend a source of water to rinse their faces in a sacrament of connection. Early Cherokee villages were located on a water source and the community’s council house faced the water, as does today’s historical Cherokee Capitol Building in Tahlequah (Tellico/Diligwa), completed in 1869. The form of the building may have changed to one made of brick, but its spiritual and social contract was preserved. Benny Smith, Cherokee professor and spiritualist, after being asked if the surviving ancient Cherokee wampum belts are sacred, simply stated, “everything is sacred” (Smith, Strickland 2010, 24).
<strong>· Cherokee women warrant respect equal to Cherokee men.</strong> In early days, the division of labor found women to be equal contributors to the economy through their work in agriculture, weaving and basketry, and they were especially honored for gestation and childbirth, which provided future generations. The Cherokee population consisted of matrilineal clans, and all children were raised by their mother’s family. Today, Cherokee women attain professional and political lives equal to Cherokee men.
<strong>· Elders are keepers of knowledge and respected for having experienced life’s path.</strong> In clan society, extended families cared for elders, and elders spoke their wisdom during council meetings. We are a family of relatives; our genealogies link us to shared ancestors; elders preserve traditional knowledge. Respect for others and listening to people is a courtesy of a united people.
<strong>· Family and community are pillars of Cherokee strength.</strong> Although Cherokee clan life diminished due to exogamous marriages, there had been seven long-enduring clans. Seven serves as an important number for the Cherokee, and the CN’s seal and flag depict a seven-sided star. There are seven directions: east, west, north, south, above, below, and here. There are admonishments to make decisions based on how our choices affect seven generations forward. Our community and our children are our future, and remembering our clan heritage is not to be forgotten.
<strong>· Ceremonies, legends and symbolism are integral to Cherokee identity.</strong> Cherokee art includes symbols derived from our guiding mythology. Water spider is an enduring motif (she risked her life to bring fire to the beings, and her success reminds us that the smallest among us can often contribute mightily). Social and ceremonial dances are conducted in a circle (unity and eternity) with a central fire (like a sun warming us). The dance circle is an earthen path, the drumbeat is earth’s heartbeat, and the women’s shell-shakers provide responsive rhythm. Sharing food, labor and resources at gatherings is a practice of bonding and commitment to community. Present-day Cherokee arts, crafts and storytelling reflect Cherokee philosophy amidst challenging dichotomies. We cannot remain in the past, nor can we abandon our past. We must maintain the threads connecting us to all that is vital to being Cherokee.
<strong>· Technology, knowledge and opportunities should be used to advance Cherokee concerns.</strong> Sequoyah developed letter symbols for syllable sounds of the Cherokee language, and we were able to publish the first American Indian newspaper in our native language at a critical time when information was essential. Early survival arts such as making fire from friction, twisting fiber to make twined bags, knowing when to gather the bounty of wild plants is knowledge that enriches our lives and must be preserved and passed down the ensuing generations. Knowledge of our history is a tool to propel us forward rather than catch us in eddies of repeated errors. Computers and electronic devices can serve Cherokee causes. We must continue to be smarter than those who would harm us.
In summary, our ancient gods were not ones to sit in judgment, therefore we did not pine for forgiveness nor did we ask for more than had been provided. There was no afterlife to risk or to bargain for. The gods had no eye upon the sparrow, so there was little need for continuous conversation between citizens and gods. Ceremonies were the rare time to engage in rhetoric, to impress upon the youth and the wayward the lessons derived from our past. We possess vagaries of personality, and being human we err in judgment from time to time. Serving to sustain us as individuals is primarily an act of our fellows, not our gods. Our fellow citizens keep us in line by rewarding us when deserved, and troubling us when we stray. We live for each other, for our family and our community, and strive to keep our world in balance by respecting its elements. There were joyful ceremonies including the Green Corn festival and the mid-winter renewal where we expressed gratefulness for sustainability. We had a mindfulness of the natural world surrounding us. This is how we were and how we should be. While it is possible to embrace an introduced religion alongside Cherokee beliefs, it is not necessary to do so. If we follow basic Cherokee tenets, we will remain the ever-proud Principal People.
Hendrix, Janey B. “Redbird Smith and the Nighthawk Keetowahs,” Journal of Cherokee Studies, Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Cherokee NC, 1983.
King, Duane H. The Memoirs of Lt. Henry Timberlake, Museum of the Cherokee Indian, NC, 2007.
Meredith, Howard and Virginia Milam Sobral. Cherokee Vision of Elohi, Noksi Press, OKC, Oklahoma, 1997.
Mooney, James. Myths of the Cherokee, Nashville TN, 1982.
Smith, Chad and Rennard Strickland. Building One Fire, Cherokee Nation, 2010.
Walker, Robert Sparks. Torchlights to the Cherokees, MacMillan Co., 1931.