Life with the Chero­kee

Luxe Beat Magazine - - Contents - By Kait­lyn Phillips

Chero­kee, North Carolina en­twines the tra­di­tions of the past with the mod­ern con­ve­niences of to­day in an ef­fort to pre­serve their beau­ti­ful, in­tri­cate cul­ture. From sto­ry­telling to bon­fired pot­tery to ex­pres­sive dances, the Chero­kee cus­toms are alive (and thriv­ing) in this small town neigh­bor­ing the Great Smoky Moun­tain Na­tional Park. Dur­ing my stay, my eyes were opened to the Na­tive Amer­i­cans’ ap­pre­ci­a­tion for na­ture, unity and bal­ance. My per­spec­tive on the Chero­kee and on the world, was changed; may yours be, too.

I was given the op­por­tu­nity to par­tic­i­pate in sev­eral Chero­kee rit­u­als over the course of a week, per­haps most no­tably in my im­mer­sion in na­ture. John-john Grant, Mike Crowe, J.D. Arch and Last Bear Wil­noty were my guides dur­ing my visit and they took me a va­ri­ety of places: Ki­tuwah, the Mother City; Mingo Falls; Is­lands Park; Deep Creek; and Bryson City. Each lo­ca­tion had a sig­nif­i­cance, whether it be for a re­li­gious rit­ual or sto­ry­telling or sim­ply get­ting away. On a walk with Last Bear, he pointed out var­i­ous leaves, roots and flow­ers that the Chero­kee uti­lize in medicines; Mike ex­plained that if one takes some­thing from na­ture, one must leave some­thing be­hind as a thank you. John-john claimed that for ev­ery crea­ture on this planet, there is a cor­re­spond­ing story for that crea­ture. For ex­am­ple, the mole be­came squinty-eyed af­ter star­ing at the sun for too long, and the chip­munk got its stripes from a grumpy bear. The ea­gle flew to space to hang up stars, caus­ing his head to freeze white from frost.

Speak­ing of sto­ries, this is an­other fan­tas­tic el­e­ment of Chero­kee life. The art of sto­ry­telling is sa­cred, and the po­si­tion of sto­ry­teller can only be passed down to the smartest and bright­est in the vil­lage. It’s a great re­spon­si­bil­ity to mem­o­rize and re­count ev­ery story rel­e­vant to the Chero­kee cul­ture. John-john is a sto­ry­teller of this town, and he cap­ti­vated me with his tales of “How to Fol­low Di­rec­tions,” “The Story of the Blan­ket” and “The Story of Night and Day.” In Chero­kee so­ci­ety, sto­ries are used to retell his­tor­i­cal events, to ex­plain why things are or used to ad­min­is­ter a les­son to a mis­be­hav­ing child. J.D. shared that sto­ry­tellers wear a spe­cial belt called a “walk­ing belt,” formed out of beads made from seashells, called Wam­pum beads. Each bead on the belt rep­re­sents a story and th­ese sto­ries walk through time, hence the name. I was so in love with this idea, I pur­chased my own Wam­pum shell be­fore leav­ing.

If there’s one thing the Chero­kee taught me dur­ing my visit, it is the im­por­tance of history and her­itage. The Chero­kee have a tragic history, from racial stereo­typ­ing and abuse from English set­tlers to the Trail of Tears. Yet in spite of th­ese past griev­ances, they are in­cred­i­bly full of love and giv­ing. Part of their cul­ture is to be communal and hos­pitable, and that’s what they showed me. In liv­ing out their gen­eros­ity, they freely gave knowl­edge to me. They spoke rev­er­ently of their an­ces­tors, they can­didly ex­plained how they healed from past mis­treat­ments at the hands of set­tlers, they shared their hopes and ideas for the fu­ture, for unity in our na­tion. Their pos­i­tiv­ity and ea­ger­ness was awe-in­spir­ing, hum­bling and in­cred­i­bly mov­ing.

I was able to ex­pe­ri­ence their history more re­al­is­ti­cally through the power of Unto the Hills and the Oconaluftee Vil­lage. Unto the Hills is an out­door drama per­formed by Chero­kee res­i­dents that demon­strates the ground­work and af­ter­math of the Trail of Tears. Their reen­act­ment was quite grip­ping; I was shaken by the end. The Oconaluftee Vil­lage is a replica of what a Chero­kee vil­lage would have looked like in olden times, with employees wear­ing pe­riod clothes, build­ings made in pe­riod style, etc. There were var­i­ous “sta­tions” to walk through and talk with employees, such as a trap­ping booth, weaponry booth, ca­noe­ing booth, trad­ing booth and bas­ket-weav­ing booth. Both of th­ese pro­duc­tions gave me a first-hand glimpse into the life and past of the Chero­kee. The Chero­kee are very much lovers of life and enjoy singing, danc­ing and mu­sic with fer­vor. In their tra­di­tion, danc­ing is a way to ex­press cel­e­bra­tion, joy, prayer and fel­low­ship. On my sec­ond to last evening in Chero­kee, there was a bon­fire in Is­lands Park, while John-john told sto­ries and sang to the au­di­ence. Upon fin­ish­ing, John-john asked Last Bear and his wife, Cota Bear, to lead a dance in which the au­di­ence could par­tic­i­pate. It was called the Friend­ship Dance and it was a beau­ti­ful, uni­fy­ing way to close my week. To see na­tives and Cau­casians, el­derly and young, male and fe­male, all cel­e­brat­ing and laugh­ing to­gether was to see po­ten­tial in hu­man­ity.

I look for­ward to vis­it­ing th­ese great peo­ple, my friends, again. Chero­kee do not have a word for good­bye in their lan­guage; they be­lieve they will al­ways see each other again, ei­ther in this life or the next. They sim­ply say un­til we meet again.

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