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Cherokee shoots down U.S. motto display

fr mottoSince launching the U.S. Motto Action Committee, Rick Lanier has gotten his pitch to government leaders pretty well dialed in. After the group won a lawsuit in 2005 challenging Davidson County’s display of the national motto on its county building, Lanier’s helped convince 67 North Carolina counties and municipalities to display the words “In God We Trust” on their buildings.

But when he reeled off his standard speech to the Cherokee Tribal Council last week, he didn’t get quite the reaction he was hoping for. 

“You have to understand our people to put up a sign like that. You don’t even know our people,” Councilmember Tommye Saunooke, of Painttown, told Lanier. “You don’t know what kind of beliefs we have, and it offends me to think that you need to tell us what to do.”

For a government body that begins every session with a prayer to the Christian God, whose members regularly allude to their Biblical beliefs as the basis for their decisions, whose community is populated by church buildings and the people who fill them on Sundays, the tongue-lashing handed Lanier — from councilmembers and community members alike — may have seemed surprisingly strong.  

“When you go to an indigenous community, you really have to put in time to learn about who those people are,” said Becky Walker, a Wolfetown community member. “I feel like if you had done that, you probably wouldn’t have come here.”

Even aside from the content of the resolution, it was a huge mistake for Lanier to submit the legislation under his own name, said Joey Owle, also of Wolfetown. 

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“Do we allow non-enrolled members to come in here and make resolutions dictating what we do here?” Owle asked Council.  

Councilmember Teresa McCoy, of Big Cove, seconded that criticism but said she took issue with the contents of the resolution itself. 

“I don’t respect that, and the reason I don’t respect that is in the legislation itself,” she said. “The United States national motto. That’s not me. That’s not Cherokee.” 

The resolution — the same one Lanier has submitted to county after county, town after town — drew flak from those assembled at the councilhouse for its glowing description of the national motto as “patriotic” and “engraved above the entrance to the Senate Chambers as well as above the Speaker’s dais in the House of Representatives.” 

“Our society — my Cherokee society — is not your society,” McCoy told Lanier.  

Cherokee is a sovereign nation, councilmembers emphasized, and its members’ first allegiance is not to the banner of America, especially considering the history between the U.S. government and Native American tribes. For some, the request’s wording set off red flags created by the more traumatic portions of Native American history. 

“I drove though Carlisle to see the school where my grandmother was sent as a baby, and above the door there on the building, it basically says it got started to put Christian religion in these little heathen children,” McCoy said, referencing the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, a boarding school where Native children were taken after being separated from their families in an attempt to “civilize” them. “On the door it says, ‘Kill the Indian and save the man.’ That is one of the most painful things.” 

“When I think of the words he’s going to put on our councilhouse and other government buildings, I think assimilation and indoctrination,” Owle said. “There’s been a long history of that.” 

Resolution withdrawn

Lanier appeared somewhat flummoxed by the outcry. He’d come by Tribal Council the month before to give council a rundown of the U.S. Motto Action Committee’s mission and the help it would offer if the tribe so desired. Evidently, he’d felt enough encouragement from that interaction to warrant drafting a resolution and coming back for the February meeting. 

Instead, he found himself the object of criticism from all sides and, when he returned to the podium at the conclusion of the discussion to respond, was interrupted by Chairman Bill Taylor asking if he was going to withdraw the resolution. 

“Can I just respond?” Lanier asked, as members of the audience murmured, “No, we don’t want to hear.” 

“When I asked for a way to get it set up and come on the Council, I had no inkling or idea that anybody would be offended about it,” Lanier said. “I have not tried to force this on anybody.” 

“When I talk to the Lord myself I very carefully say, ‘Lord, help me to be a light and a representative of who you are,’ and it hurts me to think that I have inadvertently offended anyone,” he continued, adding that if the board didn’t wish to move forward with the resolution, he would be “unkind” not to withdraw it. 

“Well, we’re about to find that out,” Taylor responded. 


Doing it their own way

Lanier wound up withdrawing the resolution, a move councilmembers endorsed unanimously. He quickly left the room — but the conversation didn’t end there. 

Actually, councilmembers agreed, it would be a good idea to have a similar motto displayed in the councilhouse — but done Cherokee’s own way, not at the behest of the U.S. Motto Action Committee. 

Councilmember Alan “B” Ensley, of Yellowhill, said he’d been getting texts “from the community that they didn’t like non-Indians coming in telling us what we needed to do.” However, he said, “I think it would be good if we had that in our syllabary on the building out there.”

Council ultimately decided to do just that, asking its Cherokee translator, Myrtle Driver, to help work out the kinks of translation.

Leaving the English off would actually be a good thing, Driver said, because fitting both the syllabary and the English “In God We Trust” in the design had required shortening the Cherokee phrase. By using only syllabary, the entire phrase — which translates to something along the lines of “God, the creator, we trust and depend on him” — could be displayed. 

There was some disagreement, however, as to the exact translation to use, so Council decided against acting on the idea this month. Instead, Driver will meet with the Cherokee Language Consortium — a council of Cherokee speakers representing each of the Cherokee tribes — to determine which translation should be displayed. Ensley asked Driver, a member of the consortium, to come back later with a draft resolution for council to approve. 

“We want to make sure we’re going to do it right if we’re going to do it,” Ensley said.



The national motto in Western NC

The U.S. Motto Action Committee has made its share of stops in Western North Carolina before arriving in Cherokee. So far, both Macon and Swain counties have approved display of the motto “In God We Trust” on its buildings, along with Cherokee, Graham, Yancey and Rutherford counties.

However, Rick Lanier — the committee’s vice chairman — has not made a presentation to the Haywood County Commissioners, as the motto is already displayed in their meeting chambers at the Haywood County Historic Courthouse. He had tried to get on the agenda for the Jackson County Commissioners, but was denied. According to Chairman Brian McMahan, the denial had more to do with the fact that the county building doesn’t have any kind of government emblems or mottos on its exterior walls than with any issues specific to the motto. 

“The building just has the name of the building, and at this point there’s no initiative on the board’s part to place a motto on the building,” McMahan told The Smoky Mountain News in September. 

Lanier, who served as a Davidson County commissioner from 1998 to 2002, helped start the committee after the board he was part of approved display of the national motto following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The American Civil Liberties Union challenged the display in a lawsuit, but after years in the courts, Davidson County won. Since then, the U.S. Motto Action Committee has worked to help county and municipal governments in North Carolina display the motto on their own buildings. 

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