Don’t just celebrate Native American heritage — take it seriously

Ben Steere


November is National Native American Heritage Month, and for those of us who teach in the Cherokee Studies Program at Western Carolina University, it’s the time of year when our inboxes light up with requests from people seeking resources to learn about Cherokee culture and history.

I’ll share some of those resources here, but first, I want to share an idea. This year, don’t just “celebrate” Native American heritage: Take it seriously. Far too often, even well-meaning Native American Heritage Month programs present Indigenous cultural practices as interesting or exotic, but not clearly relevant to the world at large.

But Indigenous heritage, which includes a wide range of knowledge, beliefs and practices, should be taken just as seriously as Western scholarship when policymakers are looking for solutions to contemporary problems. Indigenous heritage is not just important for its cultural value: It offers solutions to some of the biggest problems we face as a society today. Several recent books and articles by Cherokee scholars and their colleagues prove this point.

Improving health and well-being

The new book Sounds of Tohi: Cherokee Health and Well-Being in Southern Appalachia (University of Alabama Press, 2022), written by WCU Cherokee Studies Program faculty Lisa Lefler (director of the Culturally Based Native Health Program) and Tom Belt (a Cherokee elder and retired coordinator of the Cherokee Language Program), arrives at a moment when America is having a mass reckoning with mental health crises.

Through a series of dialogues over seven chapters, Lefler and Belt explore the Cherokee concept of tohi, a holistic understanding of health and well-being. It links health with cultural values and connection with other people and the environment. The book teaches readers about Cherokee culture, history and philosophy, and it makes a convincing argument to take Indigenous knowledge seriously when it comes to improving health.

Melissa Lewis, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and associate research professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School, conducts research on the efficacy of Indigenous wellness programs that employ a “culture as prevention/treatment” model. In a recent long-term, co-authored study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, she and her colleagues demonstrate that participants in the Remember the Removal Program, a cultural leadership program developed by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the Cherokee Nation, had significantly improved diet and exercise measures that lasted six months after the program’s completion.

It is one of the first quantitative medical studies of its kind to show the positive health effects of cultural learning. This study has impacts beyond Cherokee country: It offers important advice for wellness programs that fail to consider the important connections between culture and physical health. You can learn more about Lewis’ work online at OsiyoTV, the Cherokee Nation’s award-winning documentary series.

Creating resilient communities

Indigenous knowledge systems are also relevant to pressing questions about the economy. Sovereign Entrepreneurs: Cherokee Small-Business Owners and the Making of Economic Sovereignty (University of North Carolina Press, 2019), by Courtney Lewis, citizen of the Cherokee Nation and associate professor at Duke University, is a detailed anthropological study that explores how Cherokee small-business owners on the Qualla Boundary of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians responded to the challenges of the Great Recession in 2009. Winner of the 2020 Mooney Award from the Southern Anthropological Society, this book is both a sensitive ethnography and a rigorous economic study that highlights the important roles small businesses play in creating healthy, resilient communities.

My final recommendation for your Native American Heritage Month reading list is about the environment: Roots of Our Renewal: Ethnobotany and Cherokee Environmental Governance (University of Minnesota Press, 2015) by Clint Carroll, Cherokee Nation citizen and associate professor of Indigenous Studies at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Carroll’s book is full of specific information about Cherokee environmental knowledge, but more broadly it argues that Cherokee and other Indigenous people have been active stewards of American landscapes for thousands of years. Their knowledge, based on millennia of careful observations of the natural world, will be crucial for addressing current environmental problems, from preventing megawildfires to developing more sustainable farming methods.

As these Cherokee scholars and their colleagues show through their cutting-edge research, Native American heritage isn’t just “interesting” or “unique.” It includes a holistic body of knowledge about health, wellness, economics and environment. This knowledge is grounded in both a scientific understanding of the world and an awareness of the importance of the connections between communities, culture, nature and well-being. This heritage isn’t just worthy of celebration, it is relevant to addressing the world’s most pressing problems.

Ben Steere is an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at Western Carolina University and a member of the Cherokee Studies Program faculty.



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