To me, the most serious failing of dominant understanding of Native Americans is that they are not seen as modern peoples. This holdover from the idea of the “Vanishing Indian” is disturbing to me because I didn’t expect this to be a modern problem. Rather, I thought people today would realize that these are a modern people who still exist today, and are not in any way remnants of a dying past. Alas, I have been too optimistic. It seems to me that this is precisely why our education system glosses over the roll and history of Native Americans in our US History courses. Therefore, while taking this course I have been most interested in two themes: the roll Euroamericans played in attempting to destroy Native American cultures and peoples, and how modern Native Americans produce their cultural identity. For me, this was particularly salient in our studies of the Cherokee.
While doing my readings for this class, it is not uncommon for a friend to ask about what I’m reading, or what the class is about. Through these conversations, I have learned that many students have heard of the “Trail of Tears” and they know it was awful, but they don’t have an emotional reaction to the topic the way they might for other parts of U.S. History that are more talked about. It is as though people have been told to think the topic is sad, but they have no concept of what happened and why it was so devastating. In reading the first hand account by a Cherokee man, we learn about how being forced to relocate to Oklahoma was culturally devastating, and many lives were lost. I can’t imagine the emotional turmoil they must have felt as a people with close connection to the land being forced to leave their land. What is interesting to me is that the Cherokee did everything Euroamericans asked of them. Cherokee formed a written language, sent their children to school, and had a democratic government arguably modeled on the U.S. government. Still, this was not good enough, and they were forced off their land with just as much or more force. This is salient to me because it demonstrates that dominant groups might complain about minority groups, but when the group changes to be more like the dominant culture, this is extremely unsettling. When a group that is “other” becomes more similar, it becomes more difficult for the dominant group to separate itself, inciting fear in the dominant group that they will lose their dominance.
Today, there is still tension between Cherokee and Euroamericans. I was very interested in learning about language loss and revitalization, and how it is connected to interactions with tourists and the casino. When tourists were coming to learn about Cherokee culture and ritual, Cherokee were protective of their culture and language. The language is connected to religious ritual, and they didn’t want their prayers to be known or misused by prying outsiders. This led to language loss, to the extent that the older generation was concerned that the prayers and rituals would be lost. After the casino was built, tourists were attracted to the area for different reasons, and lost interest in learning about Cherokee culture. This meant that Cherokee could feel comfortable using their own language again, and language revitalization efforts began. This is an oversimplification of a complex process, but it is interesting to me how the group values their culture and wants to keep it separate from the outside world. As an anthropologist who likes to learn about other cultures, this is hard for me to understand. I am exactly the type of person the Cherokee would want to hide their culture from, but I view my desire to learn as being positive or at least harmless to them. I am interested in how the Cherokee construct what it means to be Cherokee through their language and values, and how they don’t want to loose their uniqueness by allowing outsiders access to their culture. In addition, when tourists were visiting the Cherokee to see plays about their culture, the cultural difference was obvious. But when outsiders were no longer interested in their culture, the Cherokee needed to highlight the difference in another way, such as through language. Through this class I have learned about how dominant cultures want to keep minority groups other to themselves through oppression and violence, but I have also learned about how the Cherokee, as a minority group, have wanted to keep themselves other to the dominant culture.
Of course, through the course of this class, I have learned about many other cultures and their identity formation. They are all interesting and have their own stories to tell. For me though, the Cherokee story was particularly salient, in part because I am close with people who live less than thirty minutes from Cherokee, NC. I was ale to talk to him about that experience. My friend talked to me about how the groups are completely separated. He has never visited Cherokee, and he doesn’t know much about them at all. When I heard that, it made me sad, but through my reflection on Cherokee actions, I question whether this might be what most Cherokee want. Surely, I don’t know yet, and no group wants to live in abject poverty like many Cherokee do, but it called into question my preconceived ideas about cultural mixing and togetherness.