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Cherokee Historian Gives Heritage Month Talk at NIEHS

By Eddy Ball
December 2007

Shown here at the NIEHS Travel Show in April, West found himself at the other end of Rodbell before an audience, giving a talk on the history of his tribe.
Shown here at the NIEHS Travel Show in April, West found himself at the other end of Rodbell before an audience, giving a talk on the history of his tribe. (Photo by Eddy Ball)
The Cherokee syllabary is a set of 86 symbols combining Roman type, curls and dashes. Each distinct letter stands for a syllable in the Cherokee language.
The Cherokee syllabary is a set of 86 symbols combining Roman type, curls and dashes. Each distinct letter stands for a syllable in the Cherokee language. (Graphic courtesy of the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum (http://www.sequoyahmuseum.org/") Exit NIEHS Website in Vonore, Tennessee)

Eastern Band of the Cherokee historian and Welcome Center representative Buck West shared his personal and tribal history with NIEHS staff during a Native American Heritage Month lecture November 14. The event was sponsored by the NIEHS Diversity Council and hosted by Staff Scientist Angela King-Herbert, D.V.M.

West, who is a sixth generation descendent of one of the Eastern Band's most important leaders, captivated the audience gathered in Rodbell Auditorium with a narrative of his people's tragic and resilient history from the 1500s, when the Cherokee first encountered Europeans, to the present, as they experience a kind of political and cultural renaissance.

Along with the history of his people, West also shared important events from his own life. He was visibly moved as he recalled the humiliation and loss of cultural heritage experienced by generations of Cherokee children in missionary and federally controlled schools. "As a school boy in the 1950s," he explained, "I was whipped for speaking the language of my people."

In many respects, West's story was a chronicle of loss - a sovereign land appropriated by government decree despite a Supreme Court decision in the tribe's favor and an advanced culture oppressed by American settlers hungry for gold in the mountains of north Georgia and Western North Carolina. The commandeering of their lands sent the Cherokee on a disastrous forced march to Oklahoma, a journey known as the "Trail of Tears" that killed between one-quarter and one-third of their 1838 population of 17,000 people. The oppression of their culture wreaked spiritual malaise among the Cherokee, nearly wiping out their time-honored customs, heritage and language.

However, West, his daughter, who now teaches the Cherokee language, and his illustrious ancestor, Chief Yonagusta, are examples of how the Cherokee people worked patiently over the years to make the future better. West and his daughter are part of the contemporary movement to preserve Cherokee history and the tribe's language, the sole Native American language with its own orthography. Without Yonagusta, there might very well not be an Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indian as it now exists.

The Cherokee language has a phonetic syllabary invented in the 1820s by Sequoyah, the only individual in recorded history to single-handedly develop a system of writing for a spoken language. The tribe started its own newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix in 1828, created a written constitution and laws, and translated the Bible into Cherokee. "We were the first people 'hooked on phonics,'" West joked as he catalogued the tribe's accomplishments, including almost universal literacy by the mid 1830s - something most of their white neighbors were too illiterate to appreciate.

According to West, Yonagusta, the chief who stayed behind to lead the thousand or so tribal resisters of the forced relocation, convinced the tribe with a deathbed request in 1839 to accept his adopted son, the white trader Will Thomas, as their next chief. The Cherokee were not considered citizens of North Carolina at the time, but Thomas, by virtue of his racial identity, could buy and own land. Using his own money and the money of his people, Thomas helped the tribe acquire the 56,000 acre tract adjacent to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park now known as the Qualla Boundary.

Today, a revitalized Eastern Band governs its six townships and the education of its children, who are required to study Cherokee language and history in order to graduate from high school. Tourism and gaming provide additional revenue for the isolated communities of the Qualla Boundary.

The tribe and the Cherokee Historical Association have helped revive the Eastern Band's history and culture with the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, the Oconaluftee Indian Village, where West also works as an historical interpreter, the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual and the Cherokee Cultural Resources Office. Nearby county high schools, Western Carolina University and Southwestern Community College also support Cherokee heritage with courses in the tribe's language and history.


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