I think that we as Cherokees have always had divisions amongst ourselves and I doubt that you will find many groups of Native people here, in what is now the United States, that have always acted as one, in unison, throughout their history. The Cherokees are a large number of people who were confederated into one nation by virtue of language but before removal, back in the east, we inhabited a large portion of the present day southern states. That was our territory before contact with the Europeans, when first the Spanish came from the south, then the English from the east and the French from the north. 'We had contact with all of those Europeans as well as other tribes from the north and south, and I think at times divisions amongst us were created by the separate alliances that were made with those different peoples. In terms of The Trail of Tears, that happened a long time after initial contact and by then we were dealing with 'the Americans'. It would probably have behoved us at the time to have embraced a more nationalistic flair and attitude about ourselves and had we done so I think that we may have been more successful in retaining our homelands, but because of that divergence of opinion within the Nation it was easier for President Andrew Jackson and the state of Georgia to execute their policy of removal, resulting in The Trail of Tears.
In the east the Cherokee Nation had established a democratic form of government with a recognized council and leaders, so we began early in terms of organizing a democratic forum to meet the demands of dealing with the US government. 'We had begun to forge ahead as a Nation, but geographically within the United States itself we were virtually locked between the northern states and the southern states and the ideologies of the North and South had a lot to do with forming ideologies, and as a result overall plans, by different factions within the Nation about which way the Cherokee Nation itself should move. That's really what happened in terms of The Trail of Tears. The Ross party was mainly Republican in ideology but the Ridge party was more or less aligned with the Confederates and the slave holding states and, at the time, the Federal government was equivocal and that's how it came to make the agreement with the Ridge party against Chief John Ross and the Cherokee Nation government.
The Cherokee Nation government was fighting hard to oppose removal and sought remedy through the courts. In March 1831, the Cherokee Nation u. Georgia was rejected by the US Supreme Court on jurisdictional grounds but in February 1832, without the question of jurisdiction, the Cherokee Nation won in the matter of Worcester v. Georgia, the Supreme Court ruling that neither the state of Georgia or anyone else had the right to seize our lands or force us west of the Mississippi. However, President Andrew Jackson defied the Supreme Court and said that if they were able to enforce that decision, then they could go ahead and enforce it. Jackson advised the state of Georgia to continue its actions against the Cherokees, and he was part of the group that made the agreement with the Ridge party of John Ridge, Elias Boudinot and Stand Watie, that made it all possible. By 1834 the unity of the Cherokee Nation began breaking apart; Ridge and Boudinot had celebrated the 1832 Supreme Court ruling just as John Ross had, but by 1835 they had made their agreement with the US government, and Cherokee was going against Cherokee on the question of removal and survival.
Interestingly, by that time a lot of Cherokees had already begun to move simply out of distaste for the living conditions that had come upon them in the east; things were changing too quickly and they wanted to keep the lifestyle that they had so they began moving west of the Mississippi. They moved into areas of Missouri and Arkansas and were known as the Western Cherokee for a good twenty years before removal happened. They had to go out and fight Osage, Pawnee and Sac and Fox people who already lived there, but they carved out a pretty good homeland until removal when, more or less without being consulted, they were also dragged into the area that was to be demarcated as the Cherokee Nation in the west. In the main I think that the divisions that may still exist follow along those same historical lines, with the addition of those who readily and enthusiastically joined up with missionaries of different kinds, primarily the Baptists.
With hindsight it's easy to think of Stand Watie as a man who only had the worst in mind, but given the context of the times in which he lived I think that you have to give him some credit. I personally don't think a whole lot of his actions, but on the other hand I wasn't there or part of the political situation as it existed around and during the Civil War, and the South might have won. I think that possibility may have weighed heavily on his mind and should that have happened, the Cherokees who followed him may have been able to mark out their own territory and secede from the States. My understanding is that Stand Watie and the Cherokees who entered the Civil War as Confederates lived a lifestyle compatible to that which the Confederacy sought to preserve; some of the Cherokees to the south of where the Nation is now situated were slave-holders with plantations, and I think that a large proportion of the Cherokee Nation's mixed-blood population followed in that direction.
Up to a certain point I think that Watie did what he thought was right but why he continued until he was the last Confederate general to surrender, and why he employed tactics similar to Sherman's 'scorched earth' strategy, I don't know. The people who suffered most from that, when they went in and burnt down and destroyed everything with the idea that it could be rebuilt later, were those who wouldn't join-up with either the North or South and tried to remain neutral, and the majority of full-blood and traditional Cherokee people fell into that category. In the main everyone suffered for what Stand Watie and his people did because their active support for the Confederacy provided the Union forces and the Federal government with the rationale to forget that we also had people fighting for the Union, and they more or less punished the whole Cherokee Nation by taking away huge tracts of land. But when considering Stand Watie you always have to remember that the South could have pulled it off and had they been able to, who knows where the Cherokee Nation could have been. As it was, the Nation was devastated by the Civil War and the growth and prosperity that people had achieved in that short thirty-years since The Trail of Tears was shattered.
Cherokee was my first language. I always hesitate to say that my family were traditional; we were survivalists, I think. 'We attended all the things that other Cherokees attended and as a child I didn't even know that there were other people who looked that much different from us. I don't remember seeing an 'American' or 'Oklahoman' or whomever until I started going to school at about five years old, because our whole life was made up of Cherokees. Our family was part of the community, we did what everybody else did in the area which actually wasn't that much because our religious practices were banned at the time. I remember one of our sisters getting involved with the Church when she went off to school and her coming home and trying to tell the family about it and my grandpa's reaction was, 'I don't want that in my house'. Not that he offered that much either in terms of religion or any kind of belief system except that we would go to the Stomp Dance now and then, but we didn't really know what the deal was with that, other than it was a big gathering and a big feed and it was good to get out there and learn those songs. And it was always on the sneak because our dances and ceremonies were against the law; a lot of times I hear Cherokees say that we only do our dances at night and I think that's a holdover from those times when we had no choice but to only do them at night because they were totally outlawed.
I think preserving cultural traditions is just a matter of being able to practice them. If they are a viable part of a family's survival, be that subsistence or whatever, and therefore are a part of a community's economy the traditions allow families to define themselves spiritually and economically, and I think that's the basis upon which it works. One of the reasons why I think the Stomp Ground in the southern part of the Cherokee Nation has survived is because it plays a part in everyday life there. People interact with one and other there; they're able to trade goods, trade jobs, and do favors, and what brings them together is the Stomp Ground. The dances and traditional teachings that happen once a year keep them together, and all of these people also interact in economic terms; they're all in one area and all share the same beliefs. Those of us who don't live in that immediate area can also share in the beliefs that are taught there on a yearly basis, although we're not part of everyday economic life there or the day-to-day function of that traditional unit. A lot of people like the idea of being Cherokee because it gives them some sense of being part of something that's bigger than themselves. I used to be really disturbed by people who do that, who claim to be Cherokee and aren't, but after thinking about it somewhat they must have a really high opinion of who we are as a people if they want to say that's what they are! Hopefully that's what it is that drives them. What made me think that these people shouldn't be doing it is because they haven't lived the life that, as a Cherokee, I've lived, or had ancestors who went through what ours did because of the fact that they were Cherokee. If these people look at being Cherokee as joining some kind of social club I don't respect that at all because it belittles the efforts made by our ancestors to keep our people together as a unit, as a tribe, and as a Nation.
I've heard of people 'buying' memberships to groups who claim to be Cherokee, but there is a defined method of being able to get a card that says you are Cherokee which is based upon your Cherokee blood quantum, and therefore your ability to establish ties with someone who was at one time recognized, as a Cherokee. People who try to fake this are like those who con people by trying to sell ceremonies; they belittle the belief system or the tradition they are claiming to offer. They also take advantage of some people who are honestly looking for something to help them with their lives, they prey on what they perceive to be that weakness. Thankfully they're almost always found out because they can only live that lie for so long. They're hustlers and when selling ceremony doesn’t pay off anymore they'll go on to something else or get drunk and die. I think they find their just desserts as time goes by. I don't know that I give these people that much attention now because I don't intend to give them that power, if you will.
If I only played Cherokee roles I wouldn’t have work. Well, maybe I would on Walker, Texas Ranger but unless you're 'Walker' I don’t think you'll make much of a living at it! This is a business that is entirely dependent upon image, and by that I mean the definition of image you find in the dictionary by which I'm an American Indian and that gives me a broader spectrum in which to play as an actor, rather than being identified solely as Cherokee. Acting is what I do, it’s my work when I'm in that mode of thought I accept myself as being whatever my images is in that context. That is also when I have to accept myself somewhat on other people’s terms by accepting that this business is what it is and I am capable of working in it by virtue of what I look like first and then by what I am capable of delivering as an actor. When I'm in the acting mode, then that's what I am, an actor. I’m fortunate that in my career I have been able to cross-over from those parts that are entirely ethnically specific, like the one in Deep Rising which didn’t call for anyone to be ethnically specific.
This business works on demographics and we as American Indians make up a very small part of the entire population of the United States and a minute part of the world's population, so if I was to show up in braids for a part that’s ethnically non-specific it wouldn't help me that much because I would be identifiably American Indian. If, however, I was willing to take those braids off and look less identifiably Native, then I think I'd probably stand a better chance of scoring that job. On the other hand films have to be ethnically-specific in certain cases, particularly when it comes to telling a story about Native Americans, as I think those who play those parts will bring a certain credibility by virtue of their appearance, mind-set and even accents. Similarly, if you were going to cast Boyz N the Hood, you're telling a story about a black neighborhood and so you're definitely going to have black people in it, right? But then when you get into stories that are ethnically non-specific, it comes down to image and the ability to get into the story as an actor. I've shaved my head a number of times for roles, once to look more like a Pawnee, once to look more like a Huron from a specific period, and also to play ethnically non-specific characters a couple of times. I personally believe that my appearance is definitely Native American and definitely Cherokee - that's who I am - so I feel that whatever I do with my appearance, I'm still who I am. If I was so attached to a certain aspect of my appearance, like if I was so attached to those braids that I couldn't take them off to do a part, then I would say that I was in the wrong business.
I can relate every part that I've ever played to something in my life. The Indian parts I've had have been easier in that respect because those roles have called for a look into the past, which has meant looking into what still angers me about the relationship we have with the government of the United States and other colonial powers. So from that perspective those are fairly easy to connect with in terms of people like Magua, Geronimo, or Red Cloud, but the difficulty is that men are much more complicated than history would have them. With the ethnically nonspecific parts I can also connect something from within my own life that has relevance to what's going on in that character's life at that time and so there's always something in there that looks like Wes Studi. I don't think I've played my favorite role yet but out of those that I've done I would lean towards Magua and Geronimo, although I also see myself as that guy in Heat too. I've turned down a part or two because the role wasn't very effective in the story that's being told and/or I personally felt that it was somewhat demeaning to us as American Indians. I don't hesitate to do that but it hasn't happened to me too many times. I think to some extent every 'Indian' stereotype you might be presented with in a role is still alive but I think that people are beginning to shy away from dealing with the world through stereotypes and I think that's a good first step.
A film that I would like to put together would be one that speaks to the concept of arrested development in terms of a large group of people. Something that explores what kind of personality develops from a mind-set that has perhaps dwelled too long on the idea of arrested development and has asked too many times, ''What would it have been like had we continued to develop as we were?' And I'm relating that to European contact. If everyone had stayed where they were supposed to stay, where in the world would we be now and what kind of people would we be? That's the kind of story I would like to work on.
With regard to the consequences of European contact, including our issues today, I don't know that a lot of media coverage would make any difference because the majority of the American public view our issues as things that should be taken care of by their government. They're not really affected by them until you reach a point like the Oneidas getting a bunch of land back which might dispossess some people; that's when it affects them and causes a ripple in the public's perception. Mostly I think that the American public's view of our issues is something they only deal with after a film like Dances With Wolves which was hugely popular, or something dramatic like Wounded Knee in 1973. Then public persuasions are pushed in one direction or the other, sometimes in our favor and sometimes not, and they begin to read about this and that and offer an opinion. But I don't think the American public's perception of us is that much of a force because they are fairly powerless, and most decisions that affect us have to do with either governmental or corporate decisions that are made at either state level, federal level or county level. The most damaging threat to us remains the move to terminate and abrogate the special relationship we have with the Federal government. If I could, I would introduce legislation that would put tribal governments on a par, by law, with state governments.
Being an Indian certainly doesn't hold you back and to our younger generations I would say be who you are and grow to be better. You're as good as anybody else, so now become the best 'you' that you can be in whatever it is you choose to pursue. If something is holding you back it's not that you’re an Indian, and if it's a hurdle then you might be dealing with the wrong people. I used to envy people who decided early in life what they wanted to do for the rest of their lives but it's not a decision that anybody needs to rush in to. I've seen people who started out wanting to be this or that as a profession early in life and with the passage of time have become disillusioned with it, feeling like they're stuck doing this one thing for the rest of their lives. I think that we should remain open; a person doesn't just have to be one thing throughout life. If you decide to do something I think you should do the best possible job that you can within that particular activity, you should take it all the way there and then if it no longer pleases you, look for something else. You have a fairly long life span and a person can do many things in life. I think that's one of the things that keeps a person interested in life; being able to do different things and undertake new endeavors and challenges; continuing to learn. For instance, it takes a while to master shooting a bow but once you achieve a certain finesse in that you also have to learn something else - I think that's pretty much what life is - discovery and finding different things to learn. By the time you die you should be practiced in many different things and you should have done all of the things that have ever entered your mind to do.
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