OPINION: Never too late to learn Cherokee Language
I am Cherokee. I know this because I have a Certificate of Indian Blood card that says so. I also have a blue card that says I’m a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. I have identified as Cherokee my entire life but I have not immersed myself enough in the culture, or most regrettably, the language.
I grew up hearing the Cherokee language, as my dad is a first-language speaker. Cherokee was the only language my paternal grandmother chose to speak on a daily basis. She knew English, but hardly ever spoke it. I heard it so often as a child I was able to understand what my grandmother and dad were saying but never learned to speak, read or write. My granny died when I was 11 and that’s when my knowledge of the language died for me. My dad still spoke it to my aunts and uncles, but for a reason I can’t remember, I stopped really listening to understand it. He would try to get me to learn by giving me directives or asking common questions in Cherokee, but I didn’t take the time to sit down and learn.
As an adult, when people ask if I know how to speak, I tell them I was too busy as a kid playing sports and doing other things to learn. I also took Cherokee I and Cherokee II while at Northeastern State University, but none of the teachings resonated with me. Hearing me say that, and now typing it, I’ve come to realize that is a lame excuse.
I’ll be honest and say I really didn’t see the need to learn the language. I didn’t think knowing Cherokee would get me any further in life. Other than speaking to a few people, I would rarely use it, so why learn. I’ve worked for the Cherokee Phoenix for 11 years. We publish Cherokee stories in our monthly paper and when time allows, we have the translators record audio of the stories in order for readers to hear it spoken by scanning a QR code from a smartphone. I’ve not paid as much attention to it as I should. It’s a great way to see and hear the language.
Now that I’m older, I regret not paying attention to the language growing up and taking the time to learn. I think my generation has made a huge contribution to the downfall of the language. But all is not lost. Although it’s more difficult, it’s not too late to learn. I realize how vital the language is to Cherokees as a people. It is more than a way to communicate. It’s embodies our identity and soul of our tradition, history and the Cherokee way of life.
With the New Year fast approaching, my resolution will be to learn Cherokee. The CN has several outlets as well as online options that are available to learn the language. I also know my dad and aunts will be eager to teach me and I believe they will say, “It’s about time.”
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.
Cherokee Nation Health Services offers our citizens some of the best care available in Indian Country. Folks in northeast Oklahoma know this, but recently we changed a few things that are creating more and better health services for Cherokee families. I am proud to say we are reaping the benefits of those efforts.
When someone comes to a CN health center and needs something that our own clinics do not provide, like a knee replacement for example, we send them to a specialist who is outside our network of CN doctors and health care providers. Under that system, we negotiate with insurance companies, hospitals, doctors and other vendors and pay for those services. When patients have a primary insurance, Medicare Part A and Part B, or Medicaid we are able to spend significantly less on the required service and then spend those dollars on other patients.
In recent history, the growth of referrals has been dramatic. In 2004, our system averaged 87 of these referrals per day. In 2017, those referrals had grown to an average of 410 per day. Because of this growth in needed referrals, our programs have had to manage their available resources. Some of the services that were being declined over the past year include elective orthopedics and some of the related diagnostic tests to those procedures.
To help address some of the recent limitations we had on issuing referrals for outside costly, nonlife-threatening treatments, we changed our records system, moving all patient health and medical records to a digital format. When a patient comes in, our newly installed software communicates with all payment systems, private insurance companies, Medicare and Medicaid.
The new efficiency has helped enable the tribe to collect almost $9.5 million in the first three months of FY2018 in third-party billing. Those additional funds will translate to more contract health dollars to approve referrals for surgeries, MRIs and other related tests and help cover a portion of more elective orthopedic referrals for our patients, who visited CN Health Services more than 1.2 million times last year.
It also allowed us to measure quality outcomes and efficiency, so doctors can earn more incentives when patients are treated and get what they need. The strategic changes in the physician salary structure reward our doctors for the quality and quantity of patients they see. Quality is up across the board at CN Health Services, and we have more funds dedicated to contract health needs.
I am proud of the strategic efforts we made to modernize our health system and collect more from private insurance, Medicaid and other third-party billing streams. The increase in collections also comes from our successful outreach to sign up more patients for Affordable Care Act marketplace insurance, SoonerCare and Medicare. These aggressive efforts to enroll more CN Health Services patients have been successful and are helping provide better health care services for our people.
Our patients have more health needs than we could ever possibly meet, so we are evolving with the times. There is continuing growth in the demand for health care, especially as the “baby boomer” generation matures and needs more and more care. And there are Cherokees retiring from the workplace all over the country and moving back to their roots in the Cherokee Nation. We want all our patients – Cherokees as well as other Natives in northeast Oklahoma – to live healthier lives. To address these growing challenges, we have been resolute in committing more gaming revenue dollars specifically for contract health services, which now is an annual commitment of about $7 million.
We feel that these changes will set Cherokee health on a path for unprecedented financial security and open up more dollars for specialty care, including visits to cancer doctors and heart doctors and a return to covering a range of bone and joint surgeries.
Soon we will open the largest tribal health care facility ever built in America. A topping out ceremony is planned on March 9, and in 2019, when the facility (located at the W.W. Hastings campus in Tahlequah) is opened, it will house more health care specialists of our own and have two MRI machines. Currently, CN does not have either of those specialty services in-house, and we use contract health dollars to help pay for citizens needing those medical services.
Patients can get more information about additional coverage options by contacting their patient benefits coordinator at any CN Health facility or visiting <a href="http://www.CherokeeCare.com" target="_blank">www.CherokeeCare.com</a>.
Preserving the Cherokee language is preserving Cherokee identity, as the heritage and traditions of the tribe are rooted in our language. Our language allows us to pass along traditional Cherokee knowledge and values to our children and grandchildren. That is why I am so proud that Cherokee Nation Businesses has pledged unprecedented financial support to the Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program.
Through a signed memorandum of understanding, CNB is providing $180,000 to cover the costs of a language program called the 14th Generation Master Apprentice Program, a pilot program designed for students who originally learned to speak Cherokee at the tribe’s Cherokee Immersion Charter School. We hope it encourages language usage as they progress through junior high and high school. CNB’s monetary commitment will further advance the preservation and usage of the Cherokee language, as graduates of the adult master apprentice program are placed in supervised teaching and mentoring roles.
The new endeavor can be a bridge that unites the mission of our Cherokee Immersion Charter School and the Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program, which has graduated six students since it began three years ago and is expected to graduate six more students in 2018 and another eight students in 2019. Both programs have proven successful in their respective area, and now we can connect their goals and participants.
This multigenerational effort will help preserve and promote the use of the Cherokee language for generations to come and fill the gap between the immersion school and high school. Our youth, who have been educated in the immersion school, are among the most valuable Cherokee language assets going forward. We have made significant investments in these children, and we must keep exposing them to language-learning opportunities after completing the sixth grade. Now that we have graduates of the Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program, we have developed an expert pipeline and grown the personnel to keep our youth engaged after immersion school graduation. That means language lessons can be utilized at Sequoyah High School as well as within community settings. Creating new Cherokee speakers, and in turn letting them pass along what they have learned, will keep our language flourishing for generations to come.
Supporting cultural education and growing the language curriculum will help Cherokee children succeed on their lifelong journey and allow them to reach their God-given potential in school, in life and as Cherokee speakers. The 14th Generation Master Apprentice Program already has about a dozen Sequoyah High School students gathering for lessons after school. Plans are in place for a summer program with participants gathering from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. for 10 weeks. Those students, if they participate over multiple summers, could potentially get about 2,000 hours of language education just through summer participation. CNB continues to support the tribe in its pursuit of preserving Cherokee culture and heritage. Without the aggressive commitment from our tribal government and our business endeavors, the future of the Cherokee language would be in jeopardy.
Building safe homes, increasing scholarship opportunities and offering accessible health care to our citizens are essential services provided by the Cherokee Nation tribal government. Our ability to deliver vital programs is dependent on our success at Cherokee Nation Businesses. Hospitality and entertainment are the foundation of our economic success, but our diversified businesses, or non-gaming business ventures, now account for about 35 percent of CNB’s total revenue.
Several years ago, we concluded that gaming should be a portion of our economic portfolio but not all we do. We originally called this line of business “diversified” because we had to find a way to lessen our dependence on gaming.
CNB’s diversified businesses, which include 29 companies outside of the gaming industry, achieved more than $1 billion in federal and commercial contract wins in fiscal year 2017. Since 2010, the companies have increased their revenue and profitability significantly, which means they can provide a larger dividend to Cherokee Nation for critical services and programs, like education, housing and health care.
Federal contracting is a market with great potential. The U.S. government is the largest customer in the world, and we will continue creating expertise and securing contracts to bring dollars home to the Cherokee Nation. The hard work of our team, led by CNB’s President of Diversified Businesses and Cherokee Nation citizen Steven Bilby, has made CNB one of the most successful mid-level government contracting businesses in the world.
We have employees in 49 states and contracts in a variety of industries. Whether it is providing disaster relief services for FEMA, serving our Armed Forces through medical readiness exams or helping develop a cure for deadly diseases like the Zika virus, CNB has a significant footprint around the globe and serves more than 60 federal agencies.
Our reputation and results are stellar, and the success brings CNB positive exposure on a national stage.
Yes, we continue to offer hospitality jobs to Cherokee Nation citizens within our 14 counties, but now citizens have opportunities to secure employment in technical and specialized fields across the country.
Helping create career opportunities for Cherokee Nation citizens for the next several decades is essential. It is equally important to instill in Cherokee children the dream of a remarkable career that is with the Cherokee Nation. Creating a highly skilled tribal workforce, along with the jobs, will sustain our tribe for generations.
Our mission always will be to grow Cherokee Nation’s economy here at home, and we have done that, but our mission is multifaceted. CNB’s profits outside the 14 counties help support the tribe through an annual dividend. The more success we have in federal contracting, the better we serve Cherokee Nation citizens. I look forward to an even more successful 2018 as our businesses on all fronts continue to grow and thrive.
In his response to Luke Mason’s apology (August 2017 issue), Larry J. Lewis, aka “Mashu White Feather,” using his Two Feathers International Consultancy public relations officer Daris Reno Blickman, who is also not a Cherokee Nation citizen, made this statement: “He (Luke Mason) is certainly not privy to Mashu’s family history or genealogy.”
While Mason may not have the skills to determine Lewis’ family history or genealogy, a team of genealogical researchers does have the skills to trace Lewis’ genealogy using public information, a lot of it that Lewis placed in the public forums.
In researching Lewis, genealogical researchers found that this was one of four names used by the same person. His birth name was Larry J. Lewis. His “papered name” now is Larry J. White Feather. Then there is the TFIC, which is a 501(c)3 nonprofit of which he is the founder and board chairman. A Google search for “Mashu White Feather” gave the name Larry White Feather. This gave the name of his parents, Jo Marie and James Orville Lewis. This was verified by the obituary for Jo Marie Lewis, which lists Larry White Feather as one of her sons. It also lists the names of her parents. More verification was given in a post by Doreen Bennett, in which she talks about the loss of their mother and names “Mashu White Feather” and his siblings listed in the obituary.
As “Mashu White Feather,” Larry Lewis claimed he is a Cherokee elder and his mother and her family raised him as a Cherokee traditionalist. But the genealogical research of Jo Marie Johnson Lewis found no connection to the Cherokee people. Her family consists of white people who came to Boone County, Missouri, from Kentucky, Virginia and Europe. Larry Lewis also claimed he is part Osage. Since his mother’s side consisted of all white people, he must be making that claim off his father’s side. But like his mother, his father’s side is also white people who came to Missouri from Kentucky, Virginia, and Europe. His father’s maternal grandmother was born in Osage County, Missouri, from parents who were born in France. So both of these claims are proven false by his family records.
Also, there are pictures of Jo Marie and James Orville in a house in Columbia, Missouri. The house’s address was listed as an address for Larry White Feather and the TFIC. This information is public. This evidence is available to view at the web address below, where it will be archived for public view, as well as in a blog away from Facebook. It is enough information for any genealogist to find Larry Lewis’ ancestors. Researchers worked on this information independently and each found the same results.
In researching Jo Marie Johnson’s family and that of her husband James O. Lewis, researchers found one consistent fact about each generation: each generation were people that were honest, hardworking people who ensured the survival of their family no matter how tough the times were. They were the type of people who anyone would be proud to call their ancestors. One can only wonder why Larry Lewis saw fit to recreate them into something they were not.
TFIC claims that Larry Lewis has never claimed to be a Cherokee elder, but a photo appearing on the TFIC page online is proof otherwise, as he certainly has control of what is printed about him there.
He claims to be a Cherokee elder and has traveled around the world dressed as a Cherokee speaking about Cherokee history, culture and current events when he is not a tribal citizen, has never lived among us, is not involved in any of our communities, has not contributed anything towards the betterment of our lives, is not a member of any of our ceremonial grounds, is not a fluent Cherokee language speaker, cannot vote in our elections and is claimed by none of us. This man takes selfies at the United Nations dressed in regalia when, as a non-tribal citizen, he has no voice there.
According to Manta.com, the TFIC had estimated revenue of $108,862 in 2016, employs a staff of five and shows an North American Industry Classification System code of 813211, “Grantmaking Foundations.”
“When these frauds ‘teach’ who we are to non-Cherokees, they are implementing the final stages of our genocide. “People see the fake history and perverted culture and then have no room to learn or respect what is real and so it is pushed that much more out of the way,” CN citizen Jared Edens said.
To view the facts of Lewis’ genealogy, visit: <a href="https://www.facebook.com/groups/1609142732471453/?ref=br_rs" target="_blank">https://www.facebook.com/groups/1609142732471453/?ref=br_rs</a>