COMMENTARY: What we were before

by Feb 15, 2021OPINIONS





We must try, as a tribal community, to care for what we have. It is not acceptable to sit back and expect that our elected officials will handle all that we need done. They are representatives of us, the people. If they don’t hear from us, they have to rely on their own personal preferences or, worse, they listen to a small portion of the community or special interest groups that do not necessarily share the same views as the majority of the community. 

I have always believed that, as our enrollment law implies, that if you are recognized by our tribal law as a member of this Tribe, then you are a member of this Tribe. And it really doesn’t matter if you are a sixteenth, or an eighth, or a quarter or a half, or what is called a full blood. Per our own law, a sixteenth in “blood quantum” is just as Cherokee as a full blood. And, as we have discussed before, our current test regarding membership is based on a federal Indian roll at a time when Indians truly didn’t care much for those who had immigrated to this country and were confiscating land and relocating the original inhabitants, by force. 

I wasn’t there, so I am speculating, but I would think that many Cherokee families never made it to the federal Indian rolls because they would hide and refuse to be tallied by federal troops. To be Indian back then was probably not thought of as being as “cool” as it is today, even by many of our own people, at least not as the federal government saw Native American membership. 

The federal government was not counting Native Americans to plan for luxury housing, a car in every driveway, and plenteous, extravagant grub. No, those head counts were documentation for relocation to reservations to subsistence housing and rations. Our ancestors were relieved of prime real estate so that those immigrants would have a place to raise their families in good conditions. And what became Indian land was the parts of America that the immigrants found most useless – mountainous, rocky-soiled plots of ground that were unfit for farming or much anything else. 

Most of you know the story of Dahlonega, Ga. When gold was found in those hills, the federals told the Native Americans whose home was Dahlonega, that they would be going to a new home, whether they liked it or not. 

Even today, one of Georgia’s historical publications puts it, “Beginning in 1832, Cherokee territory in Lumpkin County, as well as in several other counties in north Georgia, was sold by the state to Georgia residents through a land lottery. A separate lottery was held in 1832 to distribute forty-acre ‘gold districts’ for $10 each in the same Cherokee area. The discovery of gold was one of the major reasons behind the Cherokee Removal, in which the state of Georgia expelled Cherokees from their ancestral lands in 1838.”

You see, back in 1838, Indians did not have standing with the state and not with the federal government either. We were not part of the “all men are created equal” because we were not men and women in the eyes of the law that governed the people of this new immigrant owned and operated country. 

It took decades of work by both Native Americans and those in the immigrant population who disagreed with the exclusion of humanity based on race to turn the course of history around a bit. The predominantly European population that came to America thought Indian ways were uncultured, unintelligent, and they frequently used the “s” word, savage. Our Native languages seemed animalistic to them, so they thought they would do us a favor and get rid of it in favor of English. In boarding schools, leathers, beads, and other common cultural clothing would be banned in favor of cotton shirts and britches. Indians were herded to reservations and told that, if they behaved and stayed put, they would be taken care of; given medicine, food, etc. 

It is my belief that is where the seed of addiction was planted for us, because Native peoples are human, and very intelligent humans at that. We built large civilizations across this land mass we now call America. We hunted, farmed, and traded. We even warred when necessary. It is widely speculated that, when the Europeans came to this country, had it not been for the help and generosity of the Indigenous peoples, they would have died or given up and went back across the sea. 

Tribes, particularly the five “civilized” tribes of the Southeast, were highly intelligent and adaptive. They would assimilate any part of a culture into their own if they saw it as a benefit to their communities. Unfortunately, when you sit people in a camp, give them land that is almost impossible to work into anything productive, tell them that as long as they comply they will be taken care of, and tell them that their culture is wrong and they will be rewarded for “right thinking”, you are basically telling them to stop being creative, stop interacting with your cultural family, and stop moving. Many Native Americans couldn’t see any hope but in substance abuse, whether that was alcohol, drugs, or even food. They lost their pride. They lost their hope. It is as true today about addiction as it was then. 

And so, we get to democracy. Many of us have not really given thought as to where democratic thinking came from and many of us resist current federal democracy because of its impact on Native peoples. But there is a good chance that modern democracy, as it exists in America, came from us. 

“Many Native American tribes had sophisticated, popularly based, and well-developed methods of organizing their societies. According to one author: At a time when Europeans labored under authoritarian, hierarchical governments, most [American Indian] tribes possessed democratic and responsive governments. Many tribes practiced universal suffrage and incorporated provisions for recall, referendums, and other political processes, thought later to have been developed by American and European political theorists.” ( 

It may be that we, Native peoples, are the authors of democracy. Democracy is a great privilege, and it was seen as such by our early ancestors. The duty of people to each other is what made our people a great nation. You see it, even today, right down to the community level. When someone makes it known that they have a need, it isn’t days or weeks before someone comes to their aide. It is typically a matter of minutes. Our community is one of service to each other, from volunteer food drives to volunteer home and yard work, to volunteers digging graves. From cradle to death, democracy is about community and community involvement. Democracy is about community pride. It is about community hope. It is remembering what we were all about before; before assimilation, before contact; before reservations. 

Don’t sit back. That is what the federal government did that was so costly to our people. We were not entitlement people and our ancestors never meant for us to be that way. We work. We contribute; not just for ourselves, but for the betterment of our entire community. Apathy should not be an option for a proud member of the Cherokee people. We refer to ourselves as “the Principal People”, because we consider ourselves unique, special, and set apart. We should be motivated to do more and be more, if not for ourselves, for our neighbor and for our progeny. The old reservation boundaries are broken down, antiquated. We need to get back to assimilating the good and rejecting the bad. We need to engage in meaningful discussion on how we want to be governed. We should not wait for our elected officials to make decisions on our behalf. We should work with them, engage with them, to help facilitate change for the benefit of all. That is what democracy is about. Unless we engage, democracy is just a buzz word with no real power. And if it has no power, then we have no power over anything, including our own destiny.