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Who are we? Cherokee programs find innovative ways to keep the flame burning for future generations

coverGrowing up on the Isleta Pueblo reservation in New Mexico, 26-year-old Cody Grant could name off the tribes he descended from — Cherokee, two sects of Pueblo — but he didn’t know anything about them, except their names.

“For me, it was because culturally, I was lacking,” said Grant, who split his time between New Mexico and Cherokee as a child. “I didn’t place big stock in cultural values.”  


His family told him tidbits about his heritage here and there, but he never took it upon himself to learn. At 16, Grant participated once in a native dance with other Cherokee youth as part of a larger performance.

“But I never really touched it any after that,” Grant said.

It was not until a few years later when Grant made the permanent move to the Qualla Boundary, the official name for the Cherokee Reservation, that he started delving into what exactly it meant to say, “I am Cherokee.” 

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In truth, during the last decade, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has worked on figuring out the answer to that as well — how to not only preserve but also propagate Cherokee culture both for enrolled members and visitors.

Qualla Arts and Crafts, the Museum of the Cherokee Indians, “Unto These Hills” outdoor theater and the Oconaluftee Indian Village were already cultural attractions. And there were always people on the Qualla Boundary telling traditional Cherokee stories, picking reeds to make baskets and carving statues from native woods — skills that their ancestors had passed down through the generations.

But there were few concerted efforts to pass traditional knowledge onto young Cherokee.

“If those opportunities were available, they were not organized in a way that is as widely available as it is now,” said Annette Clapsaddle, executive director of the Cherokee Preservation Foundation and an enrolled member of the Eastern Band. 

Many young enrolled members didn’t speak the language, know the dances or know how to make Cherokee crafts. Their understanding of the culture depended on what family they were born into, but for the most part, there was a gap in knowledge between the older generations and the new.

In addition to that, faux tribes — groups of people who claim native ancestry — seemed to be cropping up everywhere and were trying to advertise themselves as true Cherokees, which got the goat of members of the federally recognized Eastern Band.

“A lot of them were making up fake dances, and they were calling it Cherokee,” said enrolled member Sonny Ledford. It was “getting out of hand.”

Ledford is a dancer with the Warriors of AniKituhwa, a performance group created 10 years ago to be the official ambassadors of the Eastern Band and in response to the faux tribes.

Around the same time, the Cherokee Preservation Foundation started up thanks to proceeds from the new and blossoming casino enterprise. One of its key missions: to fund initiatives that protect the native culture.

“We see Cherokee culture as an asset for the progress of the Cherokee people,” Clapsaddle said.

Together, the creation of the Warriors of AniKituhwa and the Cherokee Preservation Foundation kicked off a revival of the culture that has led to the establishment of youth mentoring programs and the opening of a language immersion school.

“There was no one to teach (the youth). No one to wake that spark,” Ledford said. “Now, the fire is started again.”


‘A game of survival’

Tourists first started traveling to Cherokee in the 1940s era of John Wayne and expected to see the image of Native Americans that they had watched on the silver screen. At the time, Cherokee was little more than a one-horse town.

Ledford still remembers his parents’ description of the now-bustling downtown Cherokee. It featured one building, and there was a single road cutting through the reservation, he said.

His mother would walk four days from Snowbird as a child with her family to set out handmade goods on a blanket along the side of the road to hawk to a passersby. Other native peoples would dress up in feathered headdresses, or war bonnets, and greet tourists with a “How” — even though that wasn’t the traditional Cherokee greeting. 

“The kids liked it,” Ledford said of the gawking tourists. “It was a way to make money.”

Known as “chiefing,” it still persists as a way to make a quick buck by charging tourists to pose for a photo — even though the teepees and feathered headdresses the “chiefs” sported were never actually part of the Cherokee culture.

“It was a game of survival, and you give customers what they want, and you can’t criticize someone for making a living that way,” Clapsaddle said. But “we would like to present a more culturally authentic picture.”

While the Eastern Band has made strides toward that end, there are always ways to grow and improve in that mission. Some tourists still visit the reservation and wonder “Where the Indians are?” because they are not wearing the clothing of their early ancestors.

John Tissue, executive director of the Cherokee Historical Association, which oversees the Oconaluftee Indian Village and “Unto These Hills” historical theater, said people who watch performances at the theater sometimes question why the Cherokee wear European garb for part of the show.

“The Cherokee adapted what was useful and good,” Tissue said. “Just because you want to see them in something else doesn’t mean it’s accurate.” 

When tourists visit the Oconaluftee Indian Village, a recreation of a traditional Cherokee village, some will still ask earnestly where the teepees are, not knowing that the Cherokee lived in homes more structurally similar to today’s houses.

“That is one of the most common things that we get,” said Grant, who works at the village.

If a person is asking such questions, it is important to turn the moment into a learning experience, Grant said.


Always ambassadors

For Grant and many other enrolled members, it’s their duty to be ambassadors of the Cherokee people at all times, whether telling stories to groups of tourists or simply shopping at Walmart. When you tell someone you are Cherokee, “you put yourself in a position to speak for a whole nation,” Grant said. “You can either put them in a positive light, or you can put them in a negative light.”

If someone runs into a cantankerous enrolled member, that will be their impression of who the Cherokee are, he said.

Much of the job of ambassadors, whether formal or informal, is to dispel stereotypes about the Cherokee.

In fact, that is what Ledford, a Warrior of AniKituhwa, does each time he starts his educational presentation. He clarifies that his people are not “Indians” or “injuns;” they are Native Americans.

“It’s not a regalia. It’s not a costume. It’s clothing,” Ledford said of the garb the dancers wear.

The Warriors of AniKituhwa, who range in age from their 40s to nearly 60, hold community bonfires at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays during the summer. The initiative launched two years ago offers tourists an intimate experience as group members tell Cherokee stories, perform dances and just generally talk about the culture.

“It’s not about a card we get,” Ledford said of the special identification card all enrolled members carry.

During the bonfires, the Warriors ask tourists to tell others about what they have learned and seen — to spread the truth about Cherokee culture.

“It helps us,” Ledford said. “You (visitors) become teachers when you leave here.”

The Warriors of AniKituhwa were established as official ambassadors of the Eastern Band to combat falsehood spread by faux tribes and people’s experiences with “chiefing.” 

Although he doesn’t have a problem with the people who “chief” outside gift shops in Cherokee to earn a living, Ledford said that for a real taste of Cherokee culture visitors should attend a bonfire.

“That’s entertainment,” Ledford said of “chiefing.” “But what we do at the bonfire, that’s education.”

The Warriors also take on younger Cherokee protégés to teach the native dances to.

Grant said that the Warriors of AniKituhwa “paved the road for a lot of younger people” to get involved in promoting the culture, and he credits Ledford and another warrior known as John John for helping him with his personal cultural renaissance.


A balancing act

The bonfires are a creative and enjoyable way for tourists to learn about Cherokee traditions, and a big part of drawing tourists to the cultural attractions where they can learn about Cherokee culture is to make it entertaining. When Tissue arrived in Cherokee in 2005, the Oconaluftee Indian Village was mostly enrolled members sitting around making crafts, and tourists watching.

“The craft tour was kind of stale,” Tissue said. “We knew we needed to change that. There is so much more to Cherokee culture than crafts.”

So, they added the living history component, which dramatizes Cherokee history, from traditional hunting techniques to the social structure of familial clans.

The Cherokee Historical Association works with experts at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, speaks with elders and references the books of ethnographer James Mooney when writing a new play or gathering information for a new dramatization for the village. Tissue emphasized that the living history at the village and plays at the theater are historically accurate in addition to being entertaining.

“It has to be entertaining first,” Tissue said. “(Some tribal members) want us to be extremely historically accurate, which we try to be.”

However, it’s a balance. If a play is very accurate but dry, no one will want to see it, and the whole point of the performance — to educate people about the Cherokee beyond what they already know — would be moot, he said.

“There is a lot more to Cherokee history than the Trail of Tears,” Tissue said. “There are so many cool stories.”

At Qualla Arts and Crafts, Manager Vicki Cruz sees two types of tourists — those who want to buy little trinkets from the non-Cherokee owned gift shops that litter downtown and the more educated visitors who want to buy authentic, albeit more expensive, handmade crafts.

“The way we know is they come in and gasp at the prices,” Cruz said. The crafts are an investment, but they don’t lose their value, she said.

Qualla Arts and Crafts is a cooperative of more than 200 traditional Cherokee crafts people. It came into existence in 1946, and is the nation’s oldest and foremost Native American handicraft cooperative.

Qualla Arts and Crafts gets orders from all around the world — Italy, Germany, Australia, Africa, France. But now, it is also building a client base within the Eastern Band.

“A lot of Cherokee people are buying Cherokee crafts now,” Cruz said. “We love it, and we want it in our homes.”


Money required

The reservation might still be a small town with “chiefs” populating the roadsides if not for the casino. Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort opened in November 1997 and created a stable and attractive source of revenue for the tribe.

“Now, it is the engine of the Western North Carolina economy,” Tissue said.

It is the single largest tourist attraction in North Carolina, attracting more than 3 million visitor annually and bringing more than $250 million in profits for the tribe.

While the casino has its critics who say that it’s immoral for the tribe to profit off of gambling, it has undeniably benefitted the Eastern Band, allowing the tribe to invest the casino profits in infrastructure, health care, education, social betterment and its culture — things it didn’t have the money for before.

One of the most apparent ways casino money has been invested in propagating cultural traditions is the work of the Cherokee Preservation Foundation.

“The (Cherokee Preservation Foundation) exists because of the gaming compact,” Clapsaddle said.

Because of worries that the reservation would only be known for the casino and gambling, people began looking around and assessing what they wanted visitors to see and take away from visits to Cherokee, she said.

“It was the impetus to think, ‘What are we doing with our culture?’” Clapsaddle said.

Without the money flowing from the casino, Clapsaddle said she doesn’t think the cultural enrichment programs available today would exist.

As a non-native, Tissue said his job at the Cherokee Historical Association is more fulfilling than ones he held directing theater in the past, particularly when it comes to portraying the Cherokee in “Unto These Hills” historical drama.

“This is probably one of the only places in the world we are telling a story about a people where the (actors) are related,” Tissue said. “I feel like there is a little more gravity to what we do.”

When talking about Cherokee culture, enrolled members mention the Cherokee language as arguably the most important aspect of the culture.

“It is our identification; it is us,” said Jerry Wolfe, a tribal elder and Beloved Man, a rarely given distinction that honors contributors to Cherokee culture. “We have to have our Cherokee language to be Cherokee.”

But over the generations, language was not always passed down. Elders who endured life in brutal boarding schools, which were designed to strip the Cherokee heritage from them and make them more European, were reticent to share their knowledge of the culture with their own children after that experience. 

Parents often believed they were doing the right thing by putting their traditional cultures aside and instead raising their children to succeed in the white world.

Different generations have had different experiences. Wolfe’s generation all spoke Cherokee. Then there were no televisions so parents entertained their children at night by telling stories in Cherokee. In fact, many of the 88-year-old’s schoolmates struggled with English and had to repeat years because of it.

Just two generations later, when Cruz was in school in Cherokee, everyone spoke English.

“Back then, the children that could speak it didn’t because, I guess, it wasn’t cool,” Cruz said. “But now, we admire the people who can speak it.”

Clapsaddle, who is in her early 30s, doesn’t remember having the opportunity to take language classes. But now, the tribe operates the Kituwah Immersion Language Academy, which takes infants and teaches them Cherokee from birth. The academy is a breeding ground for a new generation of native speakers, which excites enrolled members who fear the language might go the way of Latin or other lost Native American languages.

The language academy is “the most wonderful thing we could have on the boundary,” Grant said.

Often the classroom is the best way to reach out to younger kids since many are too busy with extracurricular after school.

“What you have to do is have a class in the schools,” Wolfe said. “That is the only way we can get to them today.”


Resurgence of language

Enrolled members have begun using the language more often nowadays, just in greetings, if nothing else.

“You hear it out in the community a lot,” Cruz said.

And people are spreading words to others. If one person learns a new word, they pass it on to friends who are also trying to learn Cherokee.

“They learn that word then, too,” said Dawn Arneach, outreach coordinator at Qualla Arts and Crafts.

Street signs, and the signs on tribal buildings, are in Cherokee. Even police officers badges have Cherokee syllabary on them.

Arneach has been learning Cherokee on and off for 10 years and takes her 19-year-old son to Monday classes with her. The hardest terms are utensils and clothes, she said, but the language as a whole is tricky because the words describe many aspects of something at once.

Words identify not only what something is, but also what it does — capturing the entire essence of what is being conveyed.

“It’s what you are talking about, who you are talking about,” Arneach said.

A few times a year, fluent Cherokee speakers from North Carolina and Oklahoma gather to decide on new words to add to the language’s vocabulary. Words for modern objects like ‘computer’ or ‘airplane’ are the most obvious, but even words like ‘whale,’ ‘arctic tundra’ or ‘bomb’ didn’t exist in the traditional language.

Although use of the Cherokee language is growing in popularity again, it still has many hurdles to jump.

“Language still continues to be on the critical side,” Clapsaddle said.

For one thing, there is a lack of teachers. The tribe can’t replace the fluent speakers who are dying off quickly enough.

“That is extremely difficult for us to develop because it takes so long,” Clapsaddle said.

But the trouble of creating fluent speakers is considerably better than the alternative. 

“The structure of the language — the places it is used, the way it is used — represents our world view,” Clapsaddle said. “If we lose that, we lose a major piece of our world view.”

As society continues to move forward, is Clapsaddle concerned that parts of Cherokee culture will get lost in the shuffle?

“There has been a lot put in place to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Clapsaddle said.

The Cherokee Preservation Foundation has started mentoring programs pairing elders or experts with Cherokee children to teach them about traditional Cherokee culture and how to be leaders on the reservation.

It also has the Cherokee Youth Council, which includes students from the middle and high schools that is modeled off the Eastern Band’s Tribal Council, as well as the Coulter Leadership Council for adults. Both councils interact with similar groups funded by the foundation in the seven western counties.

“We being Cherokee don’t just want to sit at the table; we want to set the table,” Clapsaddle said.


Teaching the future

Similar to the Kituwah Immersion Language Academy, Qualla Arts and Crafts takes one aspect of Cherokee culture and focuses all its efforts on preserving it.

“Our responsibility here is to promote the crafts and make sure they don’t die out,” Cruz said.

The arts and crafts center holds classes for enrolled members and sells native artists’ crafts. The courses often show enrolled members how to create items the way their ancestors did with natural resources, including getting their own clay from the earth or harvesting river cane for basket weaving.

“We are the roots of Cherokee,” Cruz said. “We are kind of the real deal.”

To further expose enrolled members to native crafts, Qualla Arts and Crafts hosts outreach courses in the reservation’s different communities.

“If we have it out in the community, other people might get interested,” Cruz said.

The Cherokee Historical Association has also started a small six- to eight-week mentoring program for youth this summer. It pays a minimal amount, and the young’uns learn how to give tours of the Oconaluftee Village and must make at least four of the six crafts shown there.

The program has four participants this year and will likely remain about that size, Tissue said, because the association only has a little room in its budget to pay them.

The broad spectrum of cultural preservation initiatives in Cherokee make the tribe a leader among native peoples in the Americas when it comes to propagating their traditions. Cherokee is a model other tribes look to for how their culture can be authentically showcased to tourists, while keeping the flame burning for future generations to carry on.

Many Cherokee today prefer to call themselves “Kituwah,” their own word for their own people, rather than Cherokee, which was bestowed on them by whites.

“Anyone born in America is Native American,” Ledford said. “We are Kituwah.”

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