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Chief Win'Em All is a Loser. Modern-day Exploitation of Cherokees in North Carolina

Let me tell you a little story about the Titanic. The Titanic is sinking and everybody is getting on those little life rafts. One of the life rafts is too full so the Captain stands up and says "we need three brave men to sacrifice their lives so we can all live." So, a British man stands up and says "Long live the queen" and then throws himself overboard. Then a French man stands up and says "Viva la France" and jumps over board. Then a Cherokee man stands up and says "Remember the Trail of Tears" and grabs a skinny white boy and throws him overboard.

The sign that caught Nick's eye while driving down the streets of Cherokee, NC.
I learned this joke from an Indian guy named Jonathan Feather. It was actually quite odd how we met. Stephanie and I were driving down the streets of Cherokee, North Carolina, looking at all the shops For example, the "Redskin Motel," the "Raindancer Artifact Shop," the "Tomahawk Inn," and several others. As we were driving, we saw a tee pee with a sign that said "Live Indian Dancers," and we just had to pull over. I knew that we would find some examples of exploitation, but live Indian dancers? That was pushing it for me. We had to check it out. We pulled over, grabbed our notepads, and got ready for the show. Inside, there were two people doing the presentation: Jonathan and Joe Feather. Jonathan started the presentation by telling the joke about the Titanic. It was a clever and amusing way to bring up the history of the Trail of Tears. The two of them sang, danced, and taught the crowd (which consisted of white tourists) about their culture and that "Indians don't scalp people anymore." The information was presented in a very respectful manner. Before and after, there was a basket that was passed around for people to put money into.


It was so cold that I woke up with icicles on my...

After they finished their presentation, I went up to talk to them. I wondered why Jonathan was doing this because, it seemed to me that he was just exploiting himself and his culture for financial gain. But he told me that the people at the presentation don't know anything about Indians, and he wants to educate them. Our conversation about this could've gone on forever. As we sat there and talked, I looked at our surroundings on a street with all kinds of shops selling Indian artwork and moccasins. Some of these shops were owned by Cherokees and some by white people. He invited me to sit at the drum and sing with him, so I did. When I sat down and started to sing with him, a lot was going through my head. I was confused; I felt weird; I kept asking myself "Is this right?" Part of me thought that somebody should be doing what Jonathan is doing, and that it is good for people to know about our culture. But another part of me thought "What positive things have ever come out of this?" and "At the broad range, what has educating the white man about Indian culture ever done for Indian people as a whole?"

One of the many signs of exploitation on the Cherokee Reservation.
Look at the current state of Indians. There aren't very many of us, and we're struggling to keep our culture alive. Many are alcoholics or are dying of diabetes. Then I think "At least Jonathan isn't drunk in front of some bar; he's making it, and that's good." So I could go on forever and ever about different views I have on this issue. The main point is that it's not just a black and white situation. With all of my confusion I had to investigate further.

Joe and Jonathan Feather on the road side Cherokee, NC.
What was Cherokee life like before the white man came? The Cherokee lived in little mud huts, hunted deer, and fished. When the white man came, they brought diseases like malaria, small pox, measles, and yellow fever. These diseases eventually killed off half of the Cherokee population. But the British also brought horses, which increased the Cherokees' hunting efficiency and made it easier for them to travel and transport goods. The Cherokee quickly began trading with the British. They traded many things, including corn, potatoes, deerskin, and baskets. In return they got guns, ammunition, tomahawks, rum, and cloth. This made the Cherokee dependent on the Europeans. There were set prices for different goods, and the Cherokee usually paid with deerskins or corn. The deerskin trade lasted for 100 years.

Nick singing with Jonathan Feather, thinking about Cherokee exploitation
Some of the Cherokee felt that if they adapted to the European way of life they would be respected more. Eventually, many of the tribes were conquered by the Europeans, converted to Christianity, and were brought to boarding schools. Some Europeans wanted to turn these Indians into a civilized race; others just saw it as an opportunity to gain Indian land. At first the Cherokee wanted to be civilized, and then they were forced.

To get another perspective on the situation in Cherokee, NC, I visited a class of fourth graders. The youth of the Cherokee reservation are learning their own language as part of their curriculum. They taught us about their culture and about different current events going on. For example, the mascot at the high school was called Chief Win'em All. The mascot was an Indian chief who had a big long nose, and was a very unattractive character. At football games, he danced around the field during half time and between plays. The 4th graders told me that they found this mascot to be very offensive, as did I just learning about it. But some people didn't mind the mascot. We found one guy who was a lector on Cherokee history whose favorite team was the Washington Redskins. We decided to further investigate Chief Win'em All, so we went to the high school and talked to the principal, who gave us some interesting news. He told us that the mascot had been kidnapped three weeks before and hadn't been seen since! There were rumours that a rival school might have taken it, or that maybe somebody who thought its appearance was offensive to Indian people was responsible. But the principal didn't seem to care that it was missing, and he said that a lot of his colleagues found the mascot very offensive and wanted to adopt a new one. For now, Cherokee High School is without a mascot. Whether that's for better or worse is for you to decide. In my opinion, I think that they'll get by just fine without it.

Another thing that the fourth graders brought up was an area right down the road. It is an area called Kituwa. Kituwa was an old Cherokee Indian Village and was the mother town of the Cherokee people at one time. It is also said to be an old burial site. The Cherokee moved down the river from Kituwa, and it was vacant for many years. For a while it was used as a dairy farm, until it was bought back by the Cherokee Tribe. Now the tribe is thinking about putting a golf course there. The kids that we talked to really felt bad that the tribe wanted to do this and are looking for a way to stop them from building the golf course. I was very impressed by this class and really look forward to see what happens next.

Nick taking a run though the Cherokee Corn maze at the old village site Kituwa.
All in all I had a very enjoyable time in Cherokee, NC. I ran into a lot of exploitation that I wasn't happy with, but I met some amazing people who were very nice and kind hearted. I was also very impressed by their school system.

The Cherokee have changed a lot since the times before the white man came and are constantly changing, just like everyone else. I feel very good to have met and talked to Jonathan Feather. Not everything in that town can be justified like Jonathan's situation though. It's hard to justify "The Redskin Motel" or "The Sundancer Inn." Those people are just using Indian names for financial gain.

So think about how much Cherokee life has changed and why. I'll leave you with a quote by Buck West Cherokee. "Nobody cared about us for 500 years, but we have survived and have taken all the white man has thrown at us and are still kicking and screaming. We are satisfied with who we are and what we are."


Please email me at: nick@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Stephanie - Three wars, thousands of troops and 100 utterly unconquerable Seminoles
Nick - A warrior, a prophet and a general unravel the Creek nation
Stephanie - Sequoyah's talking leaves, or how the Cherokees took back their voices
Nick - Still walkin' the Trail of Tears
Team - Beware: Surprise Indian attacks ahead!