COMMENTARY: Commitment to family

by Feb 6, 2024OPINIONS0 comments


One Feather Editor


We are not a casino town. Ask anyone whose heart and soul are in this land and they will tell you quickly that this land, if it is to be called anything, if it should be defined by anything, that should be its connection to the Principal People. They will tell you it is the Cherokee heritage that matters foremost, and that the casino is a means to an end, the sustenance of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. It is how we assert our “sovereignty”, and we provide for our people. We may be casino-dependent, but our eye is on the ball.

If you ask traditionalists and elders, you get varying degrees of response when it comes to the question of the value of adult gaming. The casino was not approved by the people but was a decision made by the tribal government. No referendum was held, as in the cases of alcohol and cannabis, for example. It was decided by the government. The data would tend to imply that, at the time, those constituents who voted in the election after the decision was made were decidedly not in favor of the act to move forward with adult gaming, because nearly all the Tribal Council, Principal Chief, and Vice Chief at the time were voted out of office. We could say that was a coincidence, but most folks wouldn’t buy that, I don’t think.

I rarely speak for the community because I don’t think it is good or fair to assume I know what the membership is thinking. It is a source of aggravation and frustration for me that some will lump us all together under their belief about an issue without asking us first. I do however think that it is safe to say that many of us wonder if all change is for the good when it comes to the types of revenue generation that we are choosing for ourselves. The casino has set a high standard for return on investment. For many years, we have enjoyed a basic monopoly in our region when it comes to adult gaming. The profits, according to our leadership (and the subsequent tribal checks) showed an unprecedented return on investment. But the days of no competition are quickly eroding from us. With new legislation and growing competitive interests, concerns are increasing and there are more calls for smart strategies for investment in sustainable economics.

In 2001, Dave Ensley and a group of tribal leaders created the Children’s Trout Derby. Water is life. It is a dominant force in Cherokee life and has been since before the people documented life. In a 2016 Our State magazine article, the late tribal elder and Beloved Man Jerry Wolfe recounted one significant example of the importance of water.

“…it helps to know about the ritual called ‘going to water,’ a cleansing practice performed every morning to start the day. Regardless of the season or weather, Cherokees would go to the river to pray and submerge themselves. In fact, the word for ‘going to water’ in the Cherokee language is interchangeable with the words for bathing and submerging.

“A ceremonial dip in the river was thought to wash away illness and bad thoughts. Cherokees bathed at the new moon, and upon returning from war, men would go to the water to purify themselves before re-entering the community. The practice was so sacred that it was considered taboo to spit or go to the bathroom in the river, or to contaminate it with animal blood.

“When the Cherokee talk about ‘the waters,’ they aren’t talking about lakes, or the ocean. They’re speaking of rivers and the watershed as a whole. In western North Carolina, there were no lakes. Lake Lure, Fontana Lake, and Santeetlah Lake are all recent, manmade, hydroelectric lakes. Cherokee towns were situated by rivers, and always on the west side, because in the going-to-water ritual they faced east, and the names were inseparable from the river descriptions. Oconaluftee: ‘Going really fast.’ Tuckasegee: ‘The turtle place.’ Antokiasdiyi (French Broad): ‘the place where they race,’ because it was wide enough for canoes.”

Dave, and the leadership at the time, knew the importance of teaching cultural values to future generations. Cherokee values. Family values. The Cherokee tradition has never been about money and power, but about family and spirit. Dave, and the leadership in place at the time, created an event that had no clear direct revenue stream. In fact, thousands of dollars of gifts were given away at each annual Trout Derby to participants, both tribal members and visitors. Gift-giving, another Native cultural tradition, was another way of emphasizing the importance of family.

“For example, rather than store up food for personal use, Ojibwe families would give it to others. Gift-giving created bonds between families and helped turn strangers or enemies into kin or allies. The gift was given with no expectations. Native peoples believe that what is given always comes back to the giver in one way or the other.”

In a world where “wants” outweigh “needs”, we tend to lose that cultural connection to the “give trusting that the giver will see a return” tradition.

We don’t need to lose the traditional ways of the Cherokee people. Outside marketers will come on to our land and tell us tried and true marketing tactics and try to sell us strategies that “work for North Carolina tourism” or are the “industry standard” elsewhere but fail to understand the uniqueness and power of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and our unique location on a land that, through the Creator, belonged to us. What works in Asheville, Sylva, Bryson City, or Linville Falls doesn’t work for Cherokee and Robbinsville. Before we allow consultants and contractors to come here to show us the “right way” to market Cherokee, they at least must be educated in who we are and base goal setting not on the world’s values, but on Cherokee values. And we should lead these consultants, not follow them.

When we talk about family tourism on the Qualla Boundary, we tend to talk about the outside visitors that will come to our land. We are also talking about the families on Boundary because the word “family” to us is all-inclusive. It is just as important to us that the community enjoys an attraction as it is for us to have tourist draws. For years, tourism managers and directors hired into the tribal government, when it comes to tribal events, have asked the question, “Is it a community event or a tourism event?” The frustrating answer that always comes back is “Both!” The aggravating and challenging truth for our tourism development leaders is that you will never get good outcomes without crafting your events with families in mind regardless of the family origin.

It is very difficult in a “bottom-line” driven world to be from a culture that never pays much attention to the bottom line. The Native culture has always been about strength, compassion, honesty, and integrity, not greed and entitlement. Being dollar-driven is not the Cherokee way. You see it in the way we disperse many of our goods and services to our people. It is not about individuals but about the good of the whole. Family.

Maybe the battle is not for the dollar so much as it is to retain our identity. What we are and who we are. What we are is easy. Who we are has been corrupted over the years. Everyone who visits or reads about the Cherokee people in North Carolina talks about how much they care about each other. How much they take care of each other. How quickly they come to each other’s aid and sacrifice for each other. Why? Because we are family. Because we know that the giving of a gift will likely return to the giver in ways unexpected. We have communal values that we should not toss away or subvert to the hunt for a dollar. There are ways to maintain our cultural values and still be very prosperous financially. All we have to do is focus on the family.