I recently met 31-year-old Matthew Toomi in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. He had both knowledge of his own culture and a desire to share it with those who will listen. Matthew seemed like an old soul, in touch with the past and relating well with older generations. This, I thought, is something I can relate with. I went straight to the “official research website” and started looking for him. I needed to interview this guy. Within minutes I had located him on Facebook. I sent him a message and he responded with enthusiastic punctuation, another thing that I can appreciate!
We decided to meet in Cherokee, North Carolina at Qualla Java Café, a coffee shop that was surrounded by “indian souvenir stores” selling colorful dream catchers, plastic tomahawks, and other trinkets made in China. Within eyesight, there’s a Pizza Inn and a Harley Davidson dealership and within a mile or so lies Harrah’s Cherokee Casino which is under constant construction to expand its footprint. It’s clear that the reservation has been infiltrated and overrun by stereotypical tourist traps that numb the otherwise beautiful backdrop of the Great Smoky Mountains. Still, it leaves me with a feeling of nostalgia and my imagination wonders to a time long gone.
Although the signs say Welcome to the Cherokee Indian Reservation, this land is not actually a reservation by definition. Reservation (proper) refers to land given by the federal government and set aside for Native tribes. However, in the 1800’s, members of Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians got together and purchased the original 57,000 acres that is now referred to as the Reservation. They had to purchase through someone else since, at the time, Indians could not own land. It was placed in trust with the federal government and still exists this way today. The geographic area is rather small and you can drive through it in a matter of minutes. Off the main street and away from the casino, its a rather sleepy community nestled at the foot of a breathtaking backdrop.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians operate as a sovereign nation within the boundaries of the United States. They have their own tribal government, complete with a Tribal Chief. Just as you might expect, there’s a tribal council, tribal courts, schools, law enforcement, and a host of other departments and agencies within the government. The United States considers them a “domestic dependent nation,” which has been a contentious relationship for many years. Congress and individual states have challenged the rights of the Native people throughout history. It wasn’t until 1924 that all Native Americans were uniformly granted citizenship, in addition to being an official member of the sovereign tribe. Much later the Voting Rights Act of 1965 granted all Natives the right to vote. Mind. Blown. This is when I feel that there are periods in our nation’s history (that still exist today) where the politics of the day make me question the theory of representative democracy and wonder if we need our heads examined. Think of the long, unnecessary struggle for a peoples’ right to resettle on their own land. If this same story played out on me and my European ancestors, there would be rioting in the streets. But, I digress.
Matthew and I spent an hour chatting about my questions. A glimmer of hope for the preservation of the tribe started unfolding as I interviewed him.
Can you start by telling me a little about yourself?
Mathew: I grew up here all my life. I was born in the hospital in Sylva [North Carolina]. Culturally speaking, we are a matriarch society. You take your mother’s clan but your father’s last name. Coincidentally, I am closest with my mother’s side. I grew up in the church. My grandfather was a Baptist preacher and I still practice the faith today. I really didn’t get into any of our Cherokee culture until I was about 18 years old. Then I started learning about the dances and songs and the language. I do not speak the language fluently. I wish I did. I’m in a generational gap where my grandparents spoke the language, but my parents did not. I am currently enrolled in the Adult Language Learning Program (a 2 year program), taking classes to try and keep it alive. I try to speak, document, and preserve as much of the language as I can and offer a community outreach with programs for those interested in learning to speak Cherokee. Just the other night, I saw one of my classmates in Walmart, and we just started having a conversation in Cherokee. This is how we will preserve our language.
Is there any particular reason why the language was not taught to your parents?
Matthew: I asked my granny one time why she didn’t teach the language to my mom. She said it was because she, granny, was sent to boarding school as a child. If they were caught speaking in their native tongue, they were punished. My granny had her mouth washed out with soap and had her hands hit with rulers. The boarding schools were started in the 1880s and last up until the 1950s. Agents would visit houses and survey the families. If the parents didn’t speak proficient English, they simply noted that they were imbeciles or idiots or even retarded. Then they would take the kids off to school. My granny told me that she decided at that moment, if she ever had kids, that they would be English speakers. She would not put them through what she went through.
As you drive up and down the main street here, there are lots of cheap plastic gift shops. Is there any effort to start moving in the direction of more authentic gifts from Cherokee? There’s the Qualla Arts and Crafts Center and another authentic gift shop heading out towards Maggie Valley. Is there any effort to pursue or further expand these types of retail?
Matthew: Well, there was a resolution submitted a number of years ago that said that the shops here were supposed to carry at least 80% authentic handmade native crafts. I don’t think anybody has ever followed up on that and that’s why there’s a lot of made in China or Taiwan or wherever you get that stuff. They are supposed to carry 80% but that’s not happening. Tourism is a large part of our economy and so there are many people and shop owners that play into the expectation people have received from watching old westerns like Gunsmoke and John Wayne films. Up until sometime in the late 90’s, you could drive up and down the road and see people “chiefing” or wearing full headdress so that tourists could have their pictures made with them. They were playing the role that people had come to expect. You can occasionally still see that going on but not very often. We are trying to change these things but it’s a slow process.
I want to talk about the casino for a minute. How has the arrival of the casino helped or hurt (if it has) the tribe in your opinion?
In a way, it’s a double-edged sword. The benefits that we have received are mainly in education. New school buildings have been constructed. Our new Language Academy is a product of the casino as well. The hospital, new emergency management building and our judiciary building are all products of the casino. The downside is that there’s a lot more enticements. Alcohol and drug use has been on the rise since the arrival of the casino. I guess that’s the nature of the beast, though.
Has the casino brought in additional tourism dollars or do you find that most people drive in, visit the casino, and then leave the reservation without spending any additional dollars?
Matthew: Most people just drive into the casino and then leave. It’s really hurt the family aspect of tourism. The Oconaluftee Indian Village and the outdoor drama Unto These Hills were the two main outdoor activities that people would visit in the summer. Over time, since the casino arrived, attendance has slowly decreased at these tourist stops. We are starting to advertise more activities such as mountain biking for outdoor enthusiasts. We are hoping that drawing people in for outdoor activities will lead them to try some of the other cultural experiences on the reservation. Of course, the concerts and casino profits do help with construction of facilities.
Do you feel that the Cherokee language and the culture in general is in danger of extinction? Does there seem to be any interest among young people to preserve this?
Matthew: We’re in a race against time. In the summer of last year, we had about 230 fluent speakers. Let’s put that into perspective. How many people are currently living on the reservation? Matthew: Around 16,000. They [fluent speakers] represent less than 2% of our population. But today, we have only 204 left. The speakers are dying off rapidly. Are they teaching the language in school? Matthew: Yes, I have always had Cherokee in school from kindergarten through high school. You only have 30 minutes of language a day. The problem is that you go on summer break and forget everything you’ve learned because it wasn’t used by anyone. Parents couldn’t practice with their kids because they didn’t know the language either. Fifteen years ago, the creation of the New Kituwah Academy intensified everything. It focuses on child immersion so that we have a bridge that is complete between adults and children. Additionally, there’s the Cherokee Adult Language Learning program, a newer program of which I am a participant.
Outside of the language itself, is there anything specific to the Cherokee culture that you would like to see preserved or that you feel is in danger of being forgotten completely.
Matthew: Aside from the language, my interest is keeping the songs and the dances alive. I love to do both. It’s a part of me and I enjoy it. We teach the little ones at the academy and this helps to preserve them for future generations.
As a child, I remember coming to Cherokee every year with my grandparents and everything being in English. Now, as I drive through the Reservation, I see the Cherokee language prominently displayed on government signs and buildings. So, there is some effort to start putting it in front of people?
Matthew: Yes, but not everybody knows how to read the Cherokee syllabary that was developed by Sequoyah in the 1820s. (Sequoyah was a Cherokee polymath who created the Cherokee alphabet. This made reading and writing possible for the first time and caused literacy rates among the tribe to surpass that of their nearby European neighbors.) Not every single sound has its own individual symbol. The signage is nice, but if you don’t know what the sounds are, it’s just writing on the wall. The language still must be interpreted to a degree and it makes it difficult to read unless you are highly skilled in it.
Are there any initiatives that the Tribal Government is taking to preserve the heritage and culture of the Cherokee?
Matthew: The biggest ongoing effort is their supporting role in our schools; support for programming around language learning and cultural activities. The Tribe is also trying to buy back some of our historical sites to expand the footprint of the Reservation. Do you have to be Cherokee to live on the Reservation? Matthew: No, but you must be a member of the tribe to own any land on the Reservation. All these gift shops that you see and mentioned earlier are owned by Cherokees but are leased out to non-Cherokee tenants. It seems to me that landowners within the tribe could start a conversation about trying to reduce the number of outside vendors and start pulling in more authentic restaurants and shops.
Is there anything that you want me and everyone else to know about the Cherokee? Is there anything you want to set the record straight on?
Matthew: I’m not a politically correct person. I know that people get upset about things like using the term Redskins for a football team but that has been that way for a long time and that doesn’t bother me. What’s important is keeping our culture alive. I think about the best use of my time. If I were to be out there picketing about the name of a football team, that is time that I could have spent learning my language or preserving my culture. One piece of advice to those reading this would be to get your information from a credible source. There are many Native American posers out there. It’s important to know that there are only three federally recognized tribes: The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, The Cherokee Nation, and the United Keetoowah Band. Both of the latter are out in Oklahoma, but we are all one people. Also, there are only 7 clans, dating back before European contact. You could not marry within your clan. It was not only our social order but also a political order. So, the clan is strictly hereditary? You cannot denounce your clan in favor of another? Matthew: No, you are born into it and it remains with you for life. Today, clanship is not followed as closely as it used to be due largely to inter racial marriages. Can you name the clans for me? Matthew: Sure! Wild Potato, Blue, Paint, Long Hair, Bird, Deer, and Wolf. (He also repeats it in the Cherokee language). There are common surnames throughout as well. You have to be careful of people who practice cultural appropriation because they are looking for something to identify with. Be careful with the names. When you hear names like Moon Wolf (chuckles), they ain’t real. The disconnect happened when Europeans colonized what is now the United States. They came to a foreign land and left their roots and are still searching for an identity to relate to. If there’s one thing I want people to know, it’s that we are still here. Some people think that true Cherokees have sort of phased out over time, but we haven’t.
What is the biggest challenge(s) facing the Tribe today?
Matthew: The erosion of culture is our biggest challenge. You now have people thinking that receiving a check every 6 months (some casino profits are distributed to members of the Cherokee tribe who are listed on the official roll) is what makes them Cherokee. Before that, it was having an Indian card (official identity card for members of the tribe) that made them Cherokee. Before that, all they had were their language, dances, and songs. In that day, there was a deeper sense of community and helping each other out. It didn’t have to be a catastrophic event. It could be someone needing help building their corn crib or making improvements to their cabin. Now, we’re in more of an entitlement age where it’s all about self benefit. Getting a check every 6 months is nice. It helps. But that’s not what we need as our identity. The casino can go away at any time and our enrollment cards could go away, too. Our native ways and our songs and dances have made it for 14,000 years. There must be a reason. Everyone acknowledges the need to save the language and culture, but they won’t commit to making it happen.
After completing the interview, Matthew gave me hope that there are those like him who sincerely want to make a difference and preserve the past. The native history is a rich one and the stories of abuse, persecution, exclusion, and forced abandonment need to be told. We need to learn from the mistakes of our past and work to continue to mold our modern society into one of acceptance. The Cherokee have endured much hardship yet remain a jovial group that loves to share their culture.
I would encourage you to plan a short staycation and visit Cherokee for a long weekend. Take a few moments to take in the Qualla Arts and Crafts Gallery, the Oconaluftee Indian Village, the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, and the outdoor drama Unto These Hills. Cherokee has several hotels and campgrounds. There are some great places to hike, mountain bike, and picnic along the river. If you have the opportunity, be sure to check out the 4th of July Pow Wow. It’s a great display of color and culture and while you’re there, make a point to find Natives and talk to them.