By SHANNON SWIMMER
This question often elicits eye rolls and sarcastic answers. But, what would happen if enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians started asking that question, in an earnest way, in an effort to be more than just a “card-carrying member?”
Being Cherokee is a privilege, and yet that privilege is lost in a sea of community issues such as substance use, domestic violence, and child abuse. It’s hard to feel privileged when you see so many in the community struggling, or if you are struggling yourself. I believe that if we started asking ourselves how to become Cherokee, we would see drastic improvement in the health, safety, and wellbeing of our community.
Becoming Cherokee may be as simple as being born. Or, it may be an enrollment process to prove you’re Cherokee. Maybe you need to know the language to be Cherokee. Maybe you have to possess a certain level of cultural knowledge or engage in traditional practices if you want to be Cherokee. There’s no right or wrong answer. The point is simply to get people to ask the question and start the conversation. Because it is a question of survival and the answers can tell us how to save our language, our culture, and ultimately, our people.
Right now, one of the most serious threats to our continued existence is the epidemic of substance use. Some say we’re losing an entire generation to drugs. It has become so widespread that every member of our community has been affected by substance use in one way or another. We have all experienced trauma and we are all recovering from it. Some of us have found positive ways of dealing with trauma, while some of us continue to struggle with its lasting effects. Substance use is just one coping mechanism, but it is one that is used all the time, sometimes with deadly consequences.
As we continue to lose our people to substance use, we are also losing potential to save ourselves as a tribe. Each person lost had the potential to learn the language, our songs and dances, and to teach others. As humans, we all want to feel like we belong. We want to feel wanted so we have a sense of value and importance. When we don’t have that sense of belonging, we may seek it out in unhealthy and unsafe ways that only lead to further trauma. When introduced to our Cherokee heritage, we feel a sense of connection and belonging, and realize that we are an important part of something bigger than ourselves. It takes people willing to be generous with their time to teach and share their knowledge with others, and that makes us feel valued. When we share our own competencies and lessons we’ve learned over the years, we empower one another. When we encourage one another and root for each other, we develop a feeling of responsibility, accountability, and support.
A community is the sum of its people. In some ways our community is like any other, and in some ways it is not. We share many of the same problems and issues as other communities around the world. But we have the unique and powerful ability to tap into a cultural identity by asking, “How do I become Cherokee?” That question, and the answer is the starting point for saving every positive thing that makes us different and gives us the ability to ensure a future for the next generations of Cherokee.