The foothills of Ozark's are coming to an end as we exit the Cherokee Nation headed south through Choctaw country to our home in Texas. Seems odd that this land felt like a home with its deep connections to our family’s history even though this was my first time visiting the Cherokee Nation.
Growing up I was registered as a member of the Cherokee people since I was a little girl through my father’s family. My dad was always one to keep the traditions and love of history alive. It was part of our heritage. We crafted dream catchers, medicine bags, bows and arrows, drums and my dad would sit around a circle of men knapping arrow or spear heads. We knew the stories of the Cherokee; we mourned the trail of tears, and we sang Amazing Grace in our Cherokee language. One of my favorite childhood memories was a taditional Upic wedding. It was my first experience to see an Indian drum circle. I was 9, paused in time in pure amazement as I watched 5 eagles come together to fly in a circle in the sky above the drumers. That is when I realized how connected we were to the animals and their spirits.
Even though we had never set foot on the Cherokee nation we grew up both as a ranch family in Oregon to Homesteading in Alaska and carried on our pride in all that we did. Our dad’s dream was always to bring his daughters back to Oklahoma. Today as a 37-year-old mom with four daughters of my own, we finally got to go to Oklahoma with my dad. While the Nation is trying to build back our land and traditions that have been taken away time and time again throughout history a sad moment for us was seeing that the Nation is not much of a nation at all. We sat in the research department hoping we were just missing something, although after long conversation with the genealogist, we found how sad of a situation our nation is in.
While the Cherokee is the largest registered tribe in the United States with a count of approximately 450,000 members, they are also the most disbanded tribe. Beginning in our roots, the Cherokees homeland was the Carolina’s, Tennessee and Georgia. After Settler’s came in and took the lands away from the Cherokees, many tribal members left to the far side of their hunting territory near the Mississippi river. After years of peace talks and treaties that were pushed to the side each time settlers grew into more of the Cherokee lands. Cherokees tried to adapt and grow with the ever-changing environment. They built plantation homes and schools. Sequoyah recorded the Cherokee language in 1825 to create understanding between people. They began to record their traditions, laws, medicine and ceremonies. Cherokees followed the law of white men until the mid-1800’s when Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act. This act sparked an event we know today as the Trail of Tears.
The trail of tears began as 7,000 US Soldiers began removing Cherokee families from their homes by bayonet. Cherokee families of all distinction were herded into stockades to begin the journey west to outlined Indian Country set aside by the US government. Not only were they treated like animals, but they were also taken from their homelands, away from their ancestral graves, their food sources and all their belongings. No one was allowed to pack clothing or supplies, they left with nothing but the clothes on their backs. As Elizabeth Watts said in an interview in 1937 recalling her grandparents’ stories “This trail was more than tears. It was death, sorrow, hunger, exposure and humiliation to a civilized people as were the Cherokees.” You see pre-removal, the Cherokees supported and traded with the settlers so much that many were wealthier than some of the settlers. The Cherokees owned slaves and had mass amounts of crops that supported the settlers. After the removal, the plantations and homes of the Cherokees were auctioned off to settler families who became very wealthy due to the already established and functioning high producing crops across Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas. While Settlers were gaining new homes, the Cherokees as well as other Indian nations from Michigan down to Florida were being marched through wintering weather, water crossings, Illness and hunger. The food ration consisted of two cups water, a slice of cornbread and one turnip a day. Of the estimated 17,000 Cherokees that were forced down the trail, it is estimated that 6,000 died. Many of the Cherokee’s that made it through the trail still perished in their new homeland due to diseases manifesting within the people from the journey or lack of living essentials and preparation time.
Because of the way in which the removal took place much of the Cherokee heritage was lost. Their records and heirlooms were left behind and destroyed by the families that took over their lands. Because of this the Tribes counsel made the decision to never again record the medicine of their people. They choose certain families to become the “Secret Keepers” of their traditional ways of medicine. Their medicine consisted of herbal supports, mindset and ceremonies. The chosen families were responsible for selecting the next secret keeper and training them throughout their life. It is estimated that the secret keepers had a memory of between 600 to 800 plants and all the forms in which those plants could be used. Today in 2023, the Cherokees have 10 secret keepers left who are now recording this information to keep the traditions and culture alive. This information will be held and stored through the Nation to be passed down to those that are selected being humble, kind, trustworthy and respectful to the people, the history, animals and the earth. In the same manor that the Elders of the Cherokee people took to protect their medicine, they also did to protect their ceremonies, stories and beliefs.
Many of the tales and fables told today about Indian ways are just that. They are fables told to the white men to protect our truth. As an example, many people today know of the Dream Catcher as an object to filter out nightmares and catch the dreams to help manifest them into your reality. Whereas traditionally the dream catcher was a game played by young children to help them learn to aim and shoot their arrows between the holes of the net as it was thrown in the air.
Traditionally Indian people were masculine and fit, they lived strictly off the land. They worked hard and lived long because there was no intervention. If you did not hunt, you did not eat. If you did not craft your bowls and baskets and foraged; you would have gone without. It took the whole tribe to survive as some were warriors and some were weavers. Some cooked and some farmed while others practiced medicine. Being rounded up and moved to reservations ruined the livelihood and culture of many Indian tribes. Thus, creating dependency on the government and honestly a lot who just gave up.
The Indian Removal Act was not the end of the battle. For years after the Government continued to clear out the Indian people and make it very hard for their culture to survive. Between mandating Catholic boarding schools to continuously taking back lands the Cherokee people were almost destroyed. Originally claiming and working over 40,000 square miles of land in Indian country that was later allotted by the US to individual Cherokee families when Oklahoma became a state. Now today through tax auctions, deed transfers and US Eminent Domain laws taking over lands the Cherokee nation is a mostly landless tribe trying to recover. Only 20% of the 450,000 registered members live on Cherokee Nation land and less then that are actively trying to save our people’s culture.
As a Holistic Practitioner and Cherokee Indian woman, I have studied the healing modalities of many cultures. Trained and certified in Ayurveda and Herbalism my heart is saddened that there is no way to learn my peoples traditional medicine and hold certification that is nationally accredited because of the way our history has been woven. What I have learned and carry with me are pieces of what is left. Pieces that another must trust that I am humbly learning and sharing out of a respect for my culture and others. I am grateful for those that have dedicated themselves to learning the ways and keeping them alive while apprenticing and sharing.
Years back a white man adopted into the Cherokee people was James Mooney. James had a love for the people and their humble loving hearts. He lived amongst the last traditionally living tribes and documented their stories and beliefs as well as some of the medicine. James recorded that the Cherokees believed they were people sent to earth from God above to provide healing. They believe that the first Cherokees were given the knowledge of plant medicine by God to share on earth. Which this is not too far off if looking at their story through a christian lens. There are other times in the bible that cite God sending angels to earth. I think it is so interesting that before printed bibles were shared with the Cherokee people to learn Gods word, they had already believed in him. They were already missionaries here. As a Christian, I have a hard time with many cultural healing modalities I have studied because of the way they believe these modalities came about. Like Ayurveda for example, which is the medicine of India. The people there believe it was a gift from their God of medicine after a war in the sea between Gods. So many holistic healing modalities are tied to a stigma and are connected to unknown Gods or Creators in Spiritual worlds instead of the one true God the Father, Jesus Christ. Ireland was one of the first people to record plant medicine in which they did so by studying the patterns and habits of animals in the wild to mimic and test those plants on people. How wonderful is it that the Cherokee people already had that knowledge. Maybe that is one of the reasons they were such a large and advanced tribe in America before the English settling. They lived very connected with all of Gods great creation on earth and worked hard to protect and care for it.
After 185 years since the Indian Removal Act and the establishment of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma my prayer is for the people to find pride in their heritage and become active in the nation to keep the culture strong for the next generations. We have survived, and my prayer is to now thrive.
I will proudly continue my studies and practice in Herbalism to share with all who are willing to learn. Thankful today for the opportunity to share memories with my dad on the Cherokee Nation and enjoy the beauty of the land our people once enjoyed before us.