By ROBERT JUMPER
One Feather Editor
It was a common conversation in the tourism offices when I was involved in that area – folks coming into the welcome centers from out of town and immediately walking up to a staff member and giving that staff member, who was usually a member of the Tribe, a rundown of personal family history. Somewhere in the conversation, they would state that their great great grandmother was “part” or “full” Cherokee. The discussion would go on, and the visitor would invariably say that, while they had no way to verify that their ancestral mother was of Cherokee descent, they just knew that somehow, they were Cherokee. The phrase “but I can’t prove it” would come up (and sprouted a pretty lucrative t-shirt business).
Tribal members have mixed reactions to the assertion of blood lineage to the Tribe. Some of it is a play for money and services. After all, we are blessed with financial and community services support that are the envy of many people. There is a perception, and maybe a reality, that the number of enrollment inquiries mysteriously went up after the tribe entered the adult gaming business and substantial “per capita” monetary disbursements started going out to tribal members. Most people are students of human nature, obviously because we are human, and we think people would seek membership if there was a significant benefit from being so, mostly because if we were in that situation, “that is what we would do.” And yet, we are still offended that someone would want to appropriate our heritage because of money.
It is very interesting watching the One Feather newsfeed on Facebook. With nearly 50,000 likes to the page, and only approximately 16,000 tribal members, it is a pretty good bet that a vast majority of those interested in the culture of our people are not Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Now, we don’t know how many of those folks are from other tribes on our like list, but I would imagine there are a few. I also imagine that there are quite a few people of various ethnic backgrounds who are just curious or interested in the history, traditions, and culture of Native peoples, and particularly that of the Eastern Band Cherokee.
Many years ago, based on the Folkmoot model, the EBCI Travel and Promotion office put on a festival, aptly named Festival of Native Peoples. The program solicited and paid traveling cultural groups from across Indian Country to showcase, celebrate, and fellowship at the Cherokee Indian Fairgrounds (or Ceremonial Grounds). All who participated agreed it was an amazing time of cultural sharing. There really was nothing like it in the Eastern U.S. Tribes were encouraged to set up booths to demonstrate their arts and crafts, and they were allowed to sell those handmade items to the community and tourists alike. Local representatives of the tribe, like the late Diamond Brown (former Tribal Council representative from Cherokee County/Snowbird) would set up an encampment to educate people on the Cherokee way of life from “back in the day.” Diamond was a Cherokee treasure who was great at making people, regardless of race or creed, feel welcome. He took great pride in his heritage and was not offended at all by those who wanted to experience it or share in it. Diamond knew that no one could appropriate what he had because he understood that it wasn’t just skin deep.
And the Travel and Promotion office, during the first year of the event, took the different tribal touring groups, early Folkmoot style, to elementary schools in the counties around the Boundary, to give them that more personal educational experience, enabling the tribes to interact with local educators and students, many times on a one-on-one basis. The meetings were absolute magic; no animosity, no hatred; just fascination, joy, and enlightenment for both participants and spectators.
The Festival of Native Peoples was about proud peoples sharing their unique proud heritages. And when you have a heritage to be proud of, you are going to find that there are many who wish they could have it, or at least experience it. Yes, there are some who might seek to be affiliated with a tribe for the material gains they might realize, but there were people who wanted to be connected to us long before it was “cool” to be Cherokee.
Everyone wants, needs, a sense of place; that they belong to something or someone. If you have any doubt, ask the folks at Ancestry.com. According to their records, on average, over 1 billion searches are handled by Ancestry servers per month; 330 million user generated photos, scanned documents, and written stories; and more than 3 million paid subscribers with over 100 million family trees on Ancestry. And that is just one genealogical service.
It was always my belief that the Festival of Native Peoples could have rivaled our own Cherokee Indian Fair in attendance with proper marketing and advertising. But it was cancelled before that could occur. It was a very expensive event to pull off if you did it right and there just was never enough advertising support to get the attendance needed to sustain it. The cultural benefit was negated by financial considerations. I hope that someday, forward thinkers will take another look at the FONP and bring it back. I believe the benefits of cultural sharing were greater than monetary gains.
Cultural confusion breeds cultural hatred. We are fearful of what we don’t understand. We need more times of sharing, not less. If our little COVID quarantines should have taught us anything, it is that there is great value in fellowship. A computer monitor will never replace the treasure of in-person interaction. Even if they incorporate a “hug” emoji, there is nothing like the real thing.