A family affair

[Editor’s note: The historic gathering of the Oklahoma-based Cherokee Nation and Western North Carolina’s Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians April 16 to 18 unleashed a cascading array of images, memories and deep emotions. The following text and photos aim to convey something of the essence of the event.]

Click here to view slideshow Music by Tommy Wildcat

From the lush woods of Red Clay State Park in Cleveland, Tenn., the soaring melody of a six-hole flute beckons visitors onto sacred Cherokee land. “It has been 25 years since the two tribal councils and chiefs met here in Red Clay,” notes Cherokee historian Barbara Duncan, who helped organize this reunion.

“When they met here in 1984 it was very significant because, up until that time, the Cherokee people had been divided,” she explains. “The significance of [the 2009 reunion] is to commemorate that revocation 25 years ago and also to remember the council meetings that were held here in the 1830s, when the tribe was trying very hard to stay together as one people and to hold on to their land.”

Resplendent in beads, breastplates and skins, and bearing handcrafted weapons, the Cherokee bring their dynamic heritage to life. In a clearing nestled in the woods, storytellers address a crowd of eager listeners, relating how humans discovered fire, why the blue jay has a white tip on his tail, and why we must always respect our elders. Infused with metaphor and rich in traditional wisdom, each tale encapsulates a lesson about the Cherokee way, in which every living creature is honored and respected.

With painted faces and carefully crafted weapons, the Warriors of AniKituhwa exemplify the strength of the Cherokee people and their skill as hunters and fighters. Meanwhile, the Oconaluftee Village Dancers present traditional dances inspired by animals and nature. And all the while, the music of the wormy-chestnut flute and other traditional instruments creates a soothing soundtrack that seems to reach back across the ages. Vendors display beaded jewelry and quahog-decorated crafts, woven baskets, ceramics and clothing. Children splash in the Blue Spring and try their hand at such Indian games as blowguns and marbles.

The sweeping, beautiful land of Red Clay seems an appropriate place for the two groups to honor their history, share their traditions and celebrate their cultural resilience. The seat of Cherokee government from 1832 to 1837, it was here that Chief John Ross learned about the forced removal of his people from their ancestral lands in a westward mass migration that’s remembered as the Trail of Tears.

“Over 18,000 Cherokee people were removed,” says storyteller/re-enactor Robert “RedHawk” Eldridge. “On that journey, over 4,000 people died, and many disappeared along the way, vanishing into the Smoky Mountains. Red Clay was our last remaining holding before being forcibly removed, after the Indian-removal treaty was signed by Andrew Jackson.”

Among the three-day reunion’s diverse events are an “Eternal Flame Run” from Cherokee, N.C., to Red Clay State Park and a symposium of Native American scholars considering the Trail of Tears’ historical significance and impact on Cherokee society.

For many, the gathering is also a time to reconnect with family and friends. “While many miles may separate us from our Cherokee people in Oklahoma, we are still a united nation, and we will be recognizing and celebrating this relationship,” proclaims Michell Hicks, the Eastern Band’s principal chief. “As a people and as U.S. citizens, we have an obligation to educate our children and people about our ancestry and history. This event will assist us in moving the Cherokee people forward while remembering the trials and lessons learned from our past.” Despite those hardships, the Cherokee people are the largest Native American tribe in the U.S. today.

The reunion triggers powerful reactions in Cherokee participants and visitors alike. A tearful Martha “Windwoman” Esslinger declares: “I love my native heritage and am so proud of it. The reunion gives me a chance to connect with my heritage, and everyone has been so receptive to me and my story.”

As Chad Smith, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, observes, “We can never forget the emotional, historic and tragic events that resulted in the Cherokee Nation coming together on these grounds more than 170 years ago. The Cherokee government survives because our leaders exhibited great clarity, power and passion while seeking resolution to the conflict brought by the state of Georgia and the United States. Their courage and wisdom are the reason we have the enduring legacy of the Cherokee people, which is to face adversity, survive, adapt, prosper and excel.”

The Warriors of AniKituhwa: “I am proud to be here representing our people,” says dancer Kody Grant. Photos by Jonathan Welch

Music and stories: Cherokee flutist and storyteller Tommy Wildcat plays the six-hole flute. (To hear a song from Tommy’s new CD, Flames of Fire, go to www.mountainx.com.)

The bear dance: The Oconaluftee Village Dancers perform traditional pieces inspired by animals and nature.

Traditional Cherokee weapons: Handmade tomahawks.

Not for the faint-hearted: Cherokee stickball is traditionally played without shoes or padding.

Storyteller Robert “RedHawk” Eldridge: “I make use of every chance I get to further the education of the history of the Cherokee.”

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2 thoughts on “A family affair

  1. allappaloosas

    Dear Mtn Express
    Thank you so much for this article. My grandmother and her mother and so forth were part of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma and I have always wondered why the Eastern Cherokee do not recognize us here especially after all we went through on the Trial of Tears. I did not know about the meeting before(25 years ago) and I am glad to know there has been another. I wanted to attend this event, but could not. Thank you for giving me a taste of what went on.

  2. Joie Bourisseau, Anishinaabe~Ojibwe, Mackinac Band of Chippewa & Ottawa Indians

    The morning when the Western Band reunited with the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation after 150 years absence, the Sky Chiefs awakened me before dawn and invited me outside. The sky colors were a wide range of soft pinks and purples. They began coming into view. So many riders across the sky this day! They were coming from every direction, eager to display their joy to be united again. My heart soared as I fell to my knees in prayers of gratitude for this profound Blessing to witness their arrival. Many Nations rode in on horseback from all parts of Turtle Island. Again I felt so very blessed to be part of the Greeting Group, welcoming our Relatives Home. Your story, here, cites their reunion in the area of Red Clay. My accounting, above, took place in Asheville, NC. I am guessing both occurred. Unfortunately, I don’t know the year of the Asheville reUnion.

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