COMMENTARY: Cultural Preservation

by Jan 17, 2022OPINIONS0 comments



One Feather Editor


There has been much talk in our community, particularly in our government, concerning cultural and historical preservation. Yes, much talk. But talk is cheap, at least that is what P.T. Barnum said back in the 1850’s (and many more have borrowed since then). From language to artifacts, we say that the preservation of our ancestry is a high priority. We say.

In some cases, our actions match our words. Language programs get significant funding and attention. Rightly so. I don’t hold to the belief that my “Indian-ness” hinges on it, or that “if you don’t know the language, you are not Cherokee”, or “if the language dies, so do we as a nation”. But I do believe it is a significant piece of the large mosaic of being Cherokee. Language has significance in that there are many amalgamated cultures (like the United States) who select a borrowed language since their language was not part of their origin in this country. Their origin was in immigration from somewhere else. The Cherokee language, like those of other indigenous peoples, is one of the elements of our culture that sets us apart from other nations and cultures.

Language preservation is a little different than other elements of our culture. You may put an artifact on a shelf in a museum and the value and significance of that piece will remain stable forever. You put the language on a shelf. and you may preserve the mechanics of it, but it will die as a common value among our people. It must be learned and used in order to truly be preserved. It must make a difference in the everyday lives of the people. It must have a prominent place in the economics and communication of the Tribe, in order to be “alive”. The language must be raised above hobby status. And most of all, it must be allowed to be used, and if necessary, abused by the people who use it.

People in England cringe at the way people in the United States speak English. There is an enormous range of slangs and dialects of English in use. Southerners have a distinctly different take on English than folks from the Bronx in New York. In the use of the language, it gets amalgamated into other languages to different degrees. But it lives and, in most cases, thrives. Trying to keep a language sterile and pure comes at a cost. Creating regulatory organizations to prevent the misuse of a language will contribute to killing it in common use. Certainly, there is a place and function for a language authority in the documentation and clarification of language, but not to dictate how it is used nor by whom. Communication is such a vital part of everyday life that if a language becomes too cumbersome or regulated to use, it will be bypassed and only those who school themselves and have a passion for it will have any knowledge of it.

For over a decade, Tribal Council routinely resolved that an archive be built to house artifacts currently being kept in other repositories (museums and warehouses) because there is no room in Cherokee for them. Deadline after deadline have been missed. Multiple administrations have passed the buck from one two- or four-year term to the next. For all our bloviation about how valuable our history is to us, we continue to push down the road one of the very things that would allow us to preserve a portion of it. While there has been lip service given to the desire to bring Cherokee artifacts home, we continue to fiddle around and have done so for so long that now there are other agencies threatening to take possession of tribal artifacts in these borrowed locations.

To add insult to injury, we hear arguments within our tribal government concerning the purchase of land. To nutshell the argument, we continually hear our Tribal Council debate the purchase of land when they say that we have so many parcels that are sitting idle with no clear plan for their use. Over the years, the proposed locations for a tribal repository for artifacts have bounced around. Early in the discussion, one location mentioned was the Boundary Tree property, part of which, ironically, is the current home of the Language Academy. Hopefully, we have the right level of commitment of both branches of government to finally make the tribal archive a reality. Literally, it remains to be seen. Apparently, we have plenty of land to locate it on. And apparently, money is no object because grants that would at least partially pay for it have come and gone without concern that It might prevent getting the archive in place. Maybe it is time to put our land and money where our mouths are.

Public opinion is an ever-shifting thing. For example, many years ago, the people of Franklin, N.C. saw the Nikwasi Mound, a significant Cherokee cultural property, was about to be sold out to commercial interests with the possibility that the mound might be destroyed in the process of land development. In the covenant that those early Macon County settlers wrote when they bought the land, they said they were buying the land for the Cherokee people, since the Cherokee people at the time could not afford to save the mound, to maintain and preserve it for us. Well, fast forward to today, or at least in the last 20 years or so.

The Eastern Cherokee has become a nation of means and has made great strides in acquiring and preserving culturally significant lands like Nikwasi, including the mother town of the Cherokee people with the land into trust of the Kituwah, which is the home of another hallowed mound. In the case of Nikwasi, however, when the Tribe made inquiries of the modern-day town leaders of Franklin, they were met with much resistance to turning the mound over to the Eastern Band, who they said at the time they secured the mound that they were saving it for. Even after a highly publicized “grass-ocide” incident, where the town, in an effort to kill weeds on the mound that sent chemical poison into the mound and turned it completely brown, rebuffed the efforts of then-Principal Chief Michell Hicks’ administration to secure the Nikwasi Mound for the Tribe. So, public opinion had apparently shifted from the town’s community leaders at the time they purchased Nikwasi to the town’s present-day community.

The Nikwasi Initiative is the most recent, and possibly the most successful, in the attempts to put the Nikwasi Mound back in the hands of its original, rightful owners. This coalition has obtained the land and while the mound is not owned by our Tribe, there is tribal representation on the board of the entity that has control of the mound. That was no easy achievement with some in top leadership in Franklin who were vehemently against letting go of the mound.

Still, we are far from being able to take possession of this historical tribal landmark. And, after recent sessions of Tribal Council in which funding for “upgrades” to the mound have been discussed, I have new concerns about our ideas and concept of historical preservation. During those sessions, there has been much discussion about how to enhance the site of the Nikwasi Mound for public access and viewing. At first glance, that seems a very innocuous plan. But making Nikwasi a tourism attraction is not the same as preserving it for the Cherokee people. With all the talk of visitor kiosks, restrooms, and other amenities, there was little discussion as to how the mound itself will be preserved, protected, and secured. There is talk of purchasing land adjacent to the mound to increase visitor capacity, which means increased traffic on a sacred Cherokee site. There were not many questions from our Tribal leadership about what measures would be employed to keep people from walking, digging, or otherwise damaging the mound itself.

I made an inquiry to try to get some thoughts from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO), to get their take on the proper preservation of a culturally significant or sacred site. As of press time, they have not sent a response. But one thing was clear from previous discussion with this program charged with proper documentation and preservation of Cherokee artifacts, large and small, is that pointing out locations and promoting foot traffic on them is not a favored practice.

There are many such sites, like mounds, fish weirs, and burial sites that have been intentionally left off of public information and tourism brochures. Our purpose for acquisition of these precious items and lands, is not economic gain. It is more personal than that. Cherokee people have had a relationship with the land that most immigrants to the land could not understand. It is almost family, and definitely spiritual. The land and the artifacts of ancestors have medicine attached to them. And for Cherokee people, medicine is a very, very private thing, possibly shared with family, maybe fellow tribal members, and very rarely with outsiders.

Yes, public opinion is a fickle thing. People are loving and accepting for a period, and then hateful and rejecting the next stretch of time (mostly based on whether you are agreeing with them). So, in a modern culture of ever-changing allegiance, the Tribe must guard against the possibility that a shift in the status or image of our Tribe might result in the desecration of our sacred sites and monuments, particularly those that are not under the direct protection and jurisdiction of our government. If a group doesn’t agree with your group, anything that represents your group is in jeopardy. In our case, it would be our sacred sites and monuments. Sometimes desecration is intentional. At other times, precious, irreplaceable items and places are destroyed by ignorance or neglect. Whatever the reason, when artifacts are defiled, it is not possible to restore or replace them, so security and proper procedures for maintenance should be priority items of concern for our community and for our government, more so than what kind of publicity or monetary value we may gain from having it.

I believe in the preservation of our culture, understanding that cultural preservation specifics areac subjective and each tribal member will have different ideas on what should be considered sacred or culturally significant. All the more reason for all of us to engage in the discussion, because our Cherokee heritage doesn’t belong to a government or entity. It belongs to each member of the Eastern Cherokee nation.