The Cherokee Nation


The modern Cherokee Nation is enjoying a renaissance in language and culture. Living History Demonstrator Paula Nelson shares the resurgence.


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I'm Harmony Hunter. My guest today is Paula Nelson, a living history demonstrator from the Eastern Cherokee Nation. Paula, thanks for being here with us today.

Paula Nelson: I'm so glad to be here.

Harmony: You are a member of today's modern Cherokee nation. Can you tell us a little bit about what the Cherokee presence is in modern America?

Paula: The Cherokee presence in modern America is a very strong presence right now. There's different ways to answer this if you're talking culturally, economically.

Economically, we're very strong with the introduction of tribal gaming. We have a lot of funding that comes from tribal gaming that feeds a lot of our tribal programs. So that money does go into programs that help a lot of people.

As far as culturally, we are experiencing, and have been experiencing for the past six or seven years, this wonderful cultural renaissance is happening in Cherokee. For the longest time, a lot of our history and our culture had been forgotten. I don’t want to say lost, I'd say had been forgotten and all we could really focus on or remember was the historic period, which was kind of along the timeline of events that we have been discussing here at Williamsburg.

But now we are exploring back into the 1700s and beyond into the Woodlands period and the Mississippians period and even into archaic times and learning more about Cherokee people. It's a beautiful and powerful thing. The spirit of the Cherokee people is coming back to life. Their hearts are coming back to being Cherokee. With the language being worked on so hard, so diligently by this dedicated group of people and with the tribal council supporting it, that's just going to make us even stronger when our language gains strength. So modern Cherokee is a powerful Cherokee.

Harmony: Is Cherokee still spoken?

Paula: The Cherokee language is still spoken, you will hear people say that Cherokee language is dying out, and I disagree with that. I disagree with that immensely. Our language is not dying out, however, there is an issue in that most of our fluent and master speakers are elderly, and we're losing, on average, three of those master and fluent speakers a month because of their age and because of illness.

So, and, as far as speakers in their 30s and 40s, we have speakers that are in their 40s and 50s, we don't have very many that are in their 30s. When you get down into 20s and teens, it becomes less and less. With the immersion program, which we have discovered through research, we worked with the Hawaiians and the Maori, immersion is the best way to learn the language. You're immersed in it totally.

When the kids go to immersion school, they speak only Cherokee, no English is allowed in their classrooms at all, so we have these little, beautiful little children that are going to be almost like the saving grace of the language. Their parents are have to learn and take classes on Cherokee too because it doesn't work if you're immersed in a classroom and you go home and you're not able to converse with your parents.

So we have second language learners which are those parents and people like me and other people my age who want to learn the language and then we have these beautiful immersion children, which they just dedicated a new academy, The Kituwah Language Academy to advance now into older grades speaking Cherokee language. That's just phenomenally beautiful to me. I can't express how much joy that makes me feel.

Harmony: So you grew up speaking English. As you are learning Cherokee, what strikes you as the differences between speaking English and speaking the Cherokee dialect?

Paula: I would say the specificness of the Cherokee language. The Cherokee language is so specific that you really can't mistake anything anyone says. You know in the English language there are so many different ways to say something and it can be misinterpreted. But in Cherokee language, they are so specific that you cannot really misunderstand what they are saying. It's so obviously clear.

Like if you're asking for an object, like paper, "goweli" it describes the paper as a flexible object or it could be described as a firm object. It's pretty intense, and it's a very difficult language to learn and then comes the first, second, third person. You add a new syllable on, or the word changes when I'm talking about if it's my mother, grandfather, sister, it totally changes when it's your grandmother your sister. Learning those is really complicated. Then when something's negative new things are added.

The Cherokee language is very difficult to learn. So becoming a master or even a speaker is attainable. Becoming a conversational speaker is something that is to be celebrated, just to be able to carry on a conversation, much less be a master speaker.

Harmony: Historically, I think when Europeans first came into contact with native tribes, one of the things that was strikingly different from European culture was the role that women played in society. It was a matrilineal society, women held power, women held land, women's clan names would be passed on to children of later generations. Do you think that women in Cherokee society hold the same stature as they did historically?

Paula: I think if you would ask a lot of them, and this might have something to do with the introduction of Christianity and Christianity being a religion that so focuses on the male. We have a lot of Cherokee people who are Christians, and they will probably swear up and down that that doesn't exist anymore.

But yet, I go into the Christian woman's home, and I see who's running the house, who's telling what to do, who is doing this, and I say it's still present, because I see it no matter how much they deny it. Cherokee women are very strong, very outspoken, very much the leaders in the fight for culture and the fight for language.

Harmony: You talked about a renaissance in Cherokee culture and bringing back to life some old customs, old practices. What examples would you cite of things that are being renewed?

Paula: There are games that are still played. They are talking about bringing some new games back to life again. We were talking about bringing the old game of chunkey back, which we still know how to play, still know how to make the implements, but it hasn't been played in Cherokee in I don't know how many years.

Harmony: Can you describe it?

Paula: Chunkey is "chun-key" is a stone about the size of a saucer, thicker and heavier. One side would be concave. It was very rare you saw both sides being concave, but every now and then. Basically it was a betting game, and children could play it, and you would roll the stone and then you would hurl your spear and see how close your spear would get to where your stone had stopped. It was a great gambling game a long time ago. Kids like to play it, so we’re talking about bringing that game back.

Another example is what I'm wearing. These clothes, ten years ago, you wouldn't see these clothes on the street and a Cherokee person would not have accepted these clothes as being Cherokee. Because this was a time period that we didn't have any information on – the only clothing that we wore and said was Cherokee were ribbon shirts, basic shirts with ribbons sewn on them, or what was called the tear dress which would be post. They said it was created on the Trail of Tears out of seven yards of fabric. The reason it’s called a tear dress is, they had no scissors, so they had to tear it to sew it together.

About ten years ago, those were the only forms of Cherokee dress that were remembered or known. Now, we're learning further back what we wore, how we wore it. A primo example is what I have on.

Harmony: Tell me more about what you have on right now.

Paula: What I have on here is a woman's wrap skirt, made out of trade wool, decorated with beads that I probably would have traded for. They're called pony beads because they're large in size. If they're smaller they're called seed beads, because they look like seeds. It's edged in cotton, it could be edged in satin if I were wealthier.I'm wearing trade silver. If we had something, most likely it was decorated. Because we wanted everything to be as beautiful as our surroundings were. So this is a wrap skirt, just a typical 1700s-style wrap skirt.

Back then, for Indian women, there were no men's shirts, women's shirts. There were only trades shirts. So there were mostly men's shirts, this that I'm wearing. There wasn't an option of men or women, so this is just a men's shirt, and this is a more fancier one. I'm dressed like a more wealthy Cherokee woman now, because of all my silver. I have the fancy sleeves, normally it would be white muslin or linen shirt, very simple. My skirt is elaborate, it’s not a skirt for work, it's not something I would be working around the house in. This would be something I would go to a meeting in to show my status.

The one thing I love about Native American people, just not Cherokee is that your wealth, yes, I'm wealthy, but I don't judge myself by being wealthy by how much silver or beads I have, it's how easily I give them away when someone needs something, how easily I can give it away to fulfill someone else's need. That’s something I think is very special about Cherokee people.

Harmony: Thanks for being with us today, Paula.

Paula: Thank you for inviting me.

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