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Illustration: Lexi Browning/100 Days in Appalachia

Disclaimer: Dear readers, this is the last email in Jeremy's Creators and Innovators newsletter series. Due to some technical difficulties yesterday, this message was delivered to the incorrect audience. It's been such a pleasure to co-host with Jeremy, and we hope you enjoy his final address! 

Fellow Appalachians,

In the year 2020, race and racial identity have become the center of attention — next to COVID. We are a society that looks at things at face value, or surface of the skin, or simply just stereotypes and not the identity of the story that the color of the skin associates with. I mean, how can I be Native if my skin isn’t brown? Don’t we all just wear headdresses, live in teepees and talk to animals? No, we don’t.

I have been hit with the saying, “You’re Indian? You don’t look Indian,” more times than I can count. My father is white and my mother is Cherokee/Navajo. My skin color comes from my father, while my blood quantum comes from my mother. Cherokee is a matrilineal culture where your blood quantum line primarily focuses on the female lineage, as well as your clan system. 

So what makes a Cherokee a Cherokee? 

There’s only so much I can say here about the long history of identity of what makes Cherokees Cherokee. We are not this stereotyped identity of teepees, colored feathers and headdresses. Our Council and Chiefs do not sit around a circle around a fire and smoke peace pipes while having a vision, or ride on a horseback to the nearest cliff at sunset, holding our arms out wide for the spiritual epiphany. 

Photo: Jeremy Wilson/Provided

A lot of what stereotypes are based on are commercial. You will find many stereotypical products in craft shops in Cherokee, as that was what was attractive in retail spaces many years ago. Unless you are visiting the Cherokee Indian Museum or the Qualla Arts and Crafts shop in my community, it is rare that you will walk into a retail craft shop and see true authentic Cherokee crafts and history.

At one point, Cherokee used to encompass several states prior to the Indian Removal Act. Today, we are only a mere speck on the map of Western North Carolina. So much was taken away from us in the days of Andrew Jackson, but today so much can be found when you visit. Unfortunately, some people think we are extinct, and our biggest recognition for many outsiders is our two casinos. While it’s a wonderful commercial branding, gaming is not our identity either.

Photo: Jeremy Wilson/Provided

Cherokees do not greet you by saying, “hello.” We will greet you by saying, “Siyo” (shee-yo), which is hello in our language. You will not find traditional clothing with colored feathers and war bonnets with war paint. You will find our traditional men in breechcloth and leggings and our women in wraparound skirts and poncho-style blouses. Cherokees did/do wear moccasins. Our men do wear war paint, but our women do not, but rather traditional bead necklaces and sometimes armbands. One of the most well known pieces for our women, especially our elderly women, is the bandana — a signature piece of attire for when they cook and work. 

One claim that is often made about the Cherokee is that everyone seems to have a Great Grandmother who was a full-blood Cherokee Princess. While we do have an annual pageant competition at the Fall Festival to crown our royalties as our yearly ambassadors, Cherokees did not have princesses, nor did they have a prince that so many outsiders claim they have. Tribal Membership is based on the 1924 Baker Roll and ancestry that dates to that Roll. 

One of the most famous sports, and also one of the key ways to settle a dispute, is Indian Ball. A traditional game that is undeniably brutal and can sometimes be deadly. A similar game to Lacrosse, Indian Ball is also known as “Little Brother of War.” Two teams come face to face and the first to 12-points wins. There is no protective equipment, no shirts, no shoes and no guarantee that you will come out ok. Injuries, blood and sometimes worse can occur during this sport, but it is now a game that our whole tribe looks forward to each fall. It is the game that makes men.

Photo: Jeremy Wilson/Provided
If there is anything that is the center of importance for Cherokees, it is the protection of our elders and our language. We are losing elders, who are fluent speakers, rapidly, but we are constantly finding ways to keep our language alive. Our Immersion school teaches children from K-6 the language and become second language learners. However, any time we lose one of our precious members, we lose another volume to our cultural library, as each one carries something significant that has been handed down for generations. In today’s world, it is difficult to fully pass on. 

There are many ways to title an elder as prominent, but we have recently lost a few of our most Beloved, who were our community’s grandma and grandpa. Amanda Swimmer and Jerry Wolfe, both from the Big Cove Community. Also, Shirley Oswalt from the Snowbird Community. They were prominent figures in language, arts, pottery, Indian Ball and community.

While we don’t go out in the valleys looking for buffalo to kill with our bow and arrows anymore, much of our traditional foods were originally composed of what we call the Three Sisters – corn, beans, and squash. Wild greens, mushrooms, ramps, nuts and berries to pair. We hunted bears, deer, squirrels, rabbits and fish for our meats. Some of our diets changed with different fruits and meats after the arrival of Europeans, but much of our traditional diets remain the same today. 
Photo: Jeremy Wilson/Provided
Cherokee is far from what you might see on TV. It is in fact probably everything you didn’t think of when you’ve never been to a reservation or Sovereign territory. Cherokees do marry and have children outside of their race and tribe, which is why my skin is not dark as most think a Cherokee should look. If you don’t believe me by the looks of my skin, I am prepared with my Tribal ID card for proof. The identity of who I am is not based on what you might have learned (or not learned) growing up, but it is based on the enrichment of everything I have mentioned. The language, our elders, our arts and crafts, Indian Ball, our legends and stories, our foods and our history. I am not an Indian you see on TV. I am a Native American, and my identity is what I learn and carry on to the next generation.

While I can’t share the entirety of Cherokee history and stories, I hope you have learned a little bit about the aboriginals of Appalachia over the last few weeks. We welcome you to our homeland. We only ask that you take time to enjoy our territory; to truly learn about who we really are. 

Thank you for joining me,

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