Rambling Snapshots: Tahlequa
Next month: Chapter 12, Archer City
On the road from Sallisaw to Tahlequah, crossing the Illinois River, I entered the deep interior of the official Cherokee Nation. No visa was required.
I promptly got lost. Coming into Tahlequah, the first sight I saw was a big yellow sign announcing ‘Grand China Buffet.’
Where exactly is the Cherokee Heritage Center? I had expected a much smaller town. I also had expected directional road signs. I did not expect four lane highways filled with auto lots, motels, dozens of fast food joints, and a casino or two (Cherokee Casino – Always a Win-Win!). Okay, maybe my expectations once again were skewed. I really did not expect to see sweat lodges dotted among hundreds of teepee stretched across the plain, but I did expect to see . . . well, I’m not sure what I expected. I just hardly expected Tahlequah to seem so, well, so typical. I could just as well have been in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, Manassas, Virginia, or Palmdale, California.
I hear the word Cherokee, I think Native American. I think Native American, I visualize a noble Redman with a tear streaming down his eye at our crass Western-European despoiling of nature. I didn’t expect the Cherokee Nation to have zoning laws encouraging strip malls. I visualize men and women chastened by long-suffering into becoming wise and enlightened, embodying a serenity and a purity of soul that we Westerners, caught up in our grasping frenzy of materialism and power, lack. I didn’t expect to see Tattoo Parlors in downtown Tahlequah.
Yes, my friends, the NASDAQ is back
And the AMEX pays for my duplex
Of course the SSRB depends on the PIA (that ruthless fiscal Ayatollah)
So how’s my COLA?
Payola from the GNP
Not with my SSN
Supply side day for the EPA and DJIA
Laying woes for the NGO’s
But never the CEO’s, CFO’s, COO’s, CTO’s, CMO's, CIO's, or CCO’s,
Is there plenty of dough from the EIS to report to the IRS?
No, sadly: NSF…
The Molech of our age. The power of things lies not in themselves but in what we make of them, the power over us we give them.
Molech was (is) the god worshipped by child sacrifice, child immolation. Leviticus speaks of it with disgust in the Holiness Code. This Hebrew code of holiness declares that they who follow YWHW will be different from their neighbors. Their difference? The Hebrews will never sacrifice their children. Though, at times, history reports, they did. At times of fear, times of superstition, times of desire for power, they succumbed and burnt their children alive. The place where this sacrifice took place was called, Gehenna. It is the term spoken throughout the New Testament as the word for ‘hell.’ What could be more hellish? It was a real place.
Take the classic silent film “Metropolis,” filmed in Germany in 1927. I also own a fair selection of silent movies. Metropolis is divided into two classes: the workers and the aristocrats. Freder, the privileged son of the mega-city’s leader descends to tour the workers world. The giant machine that sustains his luxury is in a vision transformed into a monster named Moloch feasting upon the zombie-like workers who march benumbed and obedient into the monster’s devouring maw. Milton describes Molech as a terrible warrior of the fallen angels, smeared in blood and (in a haunting piece of true poetic expression) parent’s tears.
Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo.
Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows!
If we have learned anything these last years of curious economy, let it be that we are better than this.
Oh, if only the noble Native Americans could show us the true spiritual path!
Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans seems to come in two extremes: either they are Indians who grunt, collect scalps, trade wampum, and can’t hold their whisky, or they are a spiritually superior race, attuned to the mystical ways of nature and the Great Spirit – our North American versions of Zen Masters, exuding a Nirvana-like aura of personal spirituality.
Some time ago, while talking with a young person about religion, she told me this:
I understand that many people gain strength and renewed faith by participating in organized worship, but this does not feel like a good fit for me. I see this as a common practice for my parents' generation, but I do not see myself reflected in the congregation. And while I see the value in the sense of community that church provides, I find that my relationship with God is more personal - I feel a stronger connection to my faith in the solitude of a nature hike, for example.
Why is it always a walk in nature? Trees, butterflies, and sunsets? Isn’t a walk through Greenwich Village or Times Square also a walk in nature? Or Centralia, Pennsylvania, stinking and steeping from the underground mine fire?
Implicit in this comment is the notion that nature is restorative. And by nature what is usually meant isn’t everything part of the natural world – which is everything from sunsets to machine guns – but the more selective pleasant part of nature: flora and fauna, the environment. What a great big wonderful world!
Ah, sweet, blessed nature. Now, where you live you may know of a church in your area that celebrates the Saint Day of St. Francis. They honor St. Francis with the blessing of animals. Cute and cuddly animals. Kittens and horsies and doggies… Is anybody bringing for a blessing their cobra or alligator, rat or lion?
Where does this assumption that nature is mystically benevolent come from? That somehow we’d all be better if we lived in harmony with nature?
Maybe. But I’m guessing they’re neglecting to talk about the nasty nether side of nature. Cancer is nature, typhoons are natural, my cat nibbling on little baby bunny innards also is nature’s way of doing it.
For every Eden, there be serpents.
For every dreamy-eyed philosopher Rousseau, there is the honest Lord of the Flies describing what happens with school-boys on an island.
For every garden, there be poison ivy.
And every utopia ever attempted ended up in a fist-fight.
Even among the Cherokees. Let’s applaud those eager folks who hold to an “idealistic anthropology;” that if we only would be wise enough, enlightened enough, if we only could be masters of our own wills, what splendid guys and gals we would be. Their tenacious ability to cling to this delusion must be admired. Oh sure, wait a minute please. Give me a few minutes to will myself into being a finer human being. Right, that’s going to work.
Go ask about John Ross (venerated as the Cherokee Moses, who is named in Cherokee, Guwisguwi, which means a mythical white bird of rare occurrence) and the assassination of the Ridge Party. A minor case of political murder. The truth is that the Cherokees have suffered and they have caused suffering. They have been victims and they have victimized others. They are identical to rest of us. They are us. Nobody’s clean. Although, it might be nice to feel clean and innocent.
After driving up and down the main street of Tahlequah twice, hitting thirty or more damn red traffic lights, somehow even driving onto the campus of Northeastern State University and forced to wait for deliberately slow walking students to cross the bloody road, I finally pulled over and pulled out a magnifying glass (which I wisely decided before I left on this trip to keep handy in the glove compartment) and examined my Rand McNally. There I saw the little red square. Entering Tahlequah from the east on a back road, I had missed the main road. The museum was not within the town precinct but miles south of town. Oh. If I hurried I would have time to tour and arrive at Oklahoma City in time for Frank’s plane. Frank would join me for the next leg.
The sign at the Cherokee Heritage Center, tucked back far from the highway and strip malls, greets you. “Osiyo (oh-SEE-yo).” It is the familiar Cherokee greeting. Hello. Good to see you. Yes, yes it is.
Inside the museum, you can step up to the first landing and tour an exhibit of Cherokee modern art. Most compelling, however, is the presentation of the Trail of Tears beyond the art work. Back in Chattanooga, I had visited Ross’s Landing where the Cherokee were originally forced onto barges and then forced marched into eastern Oklahoma. Over 4,000 Cherokees were estimated to have died from the cold, privation, and ordeal. Add to that number the fatalities that occurred in forced relocations among the Seminole, Choctaw, Muscogee-Creek, Chickasaw. It was not one of our country’s finer moments.
I now stand at the epicenter of the trail’s dark destination. I use the word ‘destination’ deliberately rather than referring to the end of the trail. We misspeak when we claim the ‘Trail of Tears’ ended, either for the Cherokee or the Europeans. Before one elderly Cherokee man died on the trail he prayed, “When my nation again meets in the sky, then I make joyful.”
Off to the right of the museum building, hidden behind 8’ stockade fencing is the Tsa La Gi Village, a model of an authentic Cherokee village. Here is what I imagined all of Tahlequah was supposed to look like: council building, corn fields, dug-out canoe, the stickball court, the distinctive baskets being woven outside the wattle and daub huts. The clans would gather. The clans would confer. Chiefs (who could be female) would convene the clan meetings. Was the pole white for peace? Or red or black for war? If war, the warriors would replace their hunting arrow-heads, flint-knapped into four flat blades so that they would detach when being yanked from the body and inflict more damage to your enemy. Hunting arrowheads were chipped into the shape of your basic triangle for they were meant to be reused. Bodark Tree wood – supple and tensile -- was preferred for making the bows. Blowguns mostly were used for hunting small game.
I missed the regularly schedule tour. But since an Elementary School tour group had just arrived they said I could rush over and see if I could sneak a quick tour. Donay, took time out of her lunch hour to take care of me. She greeted me with a kind and forbearing smile and toured me about personally, a fast paced tour keeping ahead of the mass of children. The school group was busy watching two young men play the Cherokee version of rough and tumble lacrosse. Small sticks with webbing attached to the end were used, the object being to pass the ball and hit the cut-out of a rabbit mounted on a high pole.
Donay was especially fond of recounting Cherokee stories. She had in me a captive audience.
One Cherokee story tells about the ball game between the birds and the animals. The birds are afraid for the animals are much stronger: bear could push all opponents out of the way, terrapin had a shell so hard he could withstand any beating, deer was swifter than any bird in the sky. But the birds accepted the challenge, led by brave Eagle, who soared high enough to carry messages to the great Creator, and by hawk, quick and fleet. After the ball game dance, as the birds were pruning their feathers for the great contest, two small creatures approached the birds and asked if they could play too. Because they were four footed, the birds laughed at these two for they were small and useless. But Eagle spoke and commanded that they too should have a chance, but first they must have wings. So they removed the skin of a drum and affixed it to the first small creature, stretching the drum skin into leathery wings. For the other small creature, they discovered that his fur would stretch, and so the birds pulled and pulled till his furry skin stretched from leg to arm.
The game began. The ball was thrown. The animals below waited to catch the ball and pass it to score. But the furry little creature, the flying squirrel, leapt from the tree, fur skin billowing. He caught the ball and quickly gave it to the birds who kept the ball in the air for a very long time. But the ball finally dropped. The other creature, darting through the air, flew and spun and caught the ball, and no creature, neither bird nor animal, could keep up with his wild, erratic movements. And so bat, finally throwing the ball to the pole, won the day for the birds.
Another story told the tale about how a tree on an island was hit by lightning and started burning. The animals wanted the fire but were baffled as to how to bring the fire from the island to them. A bird tries, but falls down the trunk and gets all scorched – which is why crows are all black to this day. A snake tries but fails. He too turns black from the burns. Finally the tiny water spider says he will try. All the animals scoff at him. But the water spider swims across with a clay pot on his back, puts the fire in the pot, seals the pot, and swims back.
I’ve heard this one before. I remarked how this story is very similar to the Anansi stories of Eastern Africa. Donay was unfamiliar about the Anansi stories.
What are our fables and stories but common threads? These stories recount how vital is community to the Cherokee. We each are different, but only together do we become stronger. Without each other, the Cherokee suffer. There is no alone. I told her about the Mayans, how they carved in stone over the entrance to their community buildings the design of a basket weave to signify how they all are woven together, how much they mutually depend on each other. The Cherokee claim the same. If you look carefully, if you listen carefully, you will discover all places are sacred, all creatures deserve respect, for the divine burns within them all. All or none.
Several years ago there was some wonderfully nutty stuff going on in Seattle with the atheist placard in the capitol building placed next to the nativity display, declaring “There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell…Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.” I love cobweb thinking. But try criticizing them and they get all defensive, blaming their critics for being intolerant. Gooses and ganders come to mind. Nevertheless, I’ll still take an atheist over an agnostic any day. At least they’re committed to something. 9 times out of 10.
Shush, please. Come closer, please. Let me whisper a secret. Do you know what really is sacred? A sense of humor. A cancer patient taught a valuable lesson about life when he said, “Each time when they insert the urinary catheter, just count on someone different.”
Well, this grim defensiveness is true for a lot of us regardless our religious stripes. We find it safer to pick a fight, so thin skinned that we expect to be injured. 99.9% of the time, it’s not about you though. It is terribly freeing to accept that you’re really not that important. Take a risible breath and realize your pride is entirely fungible.
Sure you can find intolerance on the right, but what I’ve experienced (from both my pastoring and protesting days) is how none is more intolerant than someone on the far left pressing what they are convinced is good for you. They’re the first to censor books. Does any one else find it ironic how atheists are becoming such enthusiastic proselytes these days? They’re more religious about their atheism than most Christians I know. Some match the Taliban in their devotion.
Even funnier was that ad campaign on Washington DC buses, a campaign sponsored by some humanist organization. The billboard announced, “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness sake.” First, a quick correction: I don’t believe in a god either. I believe in God. There is a difference (especially since my God is a verb rather than a noun). Instead of getting all lathered up, I remember my advice to myself: be genial. Besides, good is good. The more good in the world, the better it might be for all of us. The more good you do the happier you might feel. The happier you feel, the more you might ponder where happiness comes from. It sure doesn’t come from nature.
This campaign could also be great evangelism for all religion because the more atheists do good to others the more they’ll discover that the people they want to do good to are a royal pain in the neck. It gets real tough to love unlovely people. Last, it will even be funnier when they discover that what humanist Bill might mean by good might differ from what philosopher Sheila thinks is good and soon enough they’ll be calling each other nasty names over whose good is really good. One advantage of my church’s classical humanistic faith comes from recognizing that some of the worst evils in the world come as the result of people insisting on their good.
Which is why my religion listens to an Absolute-Sacred beyond nature: supra-natural. Nature, I hazard to suggest, lacks the capacity to reveal God. But nature can make us alert to God. Disease, for example, does that pretty well. Thoughts on cancer drive you to look for the justice of God. Thoughts on the capricious unfairness of the natural world makes us appreciate the consistency of God’s Goodness.
But then, more than this fussing over nature, the more telling word in this very typical and quaintly conformist modern question from this young person is the preference and reference to ‘solitude.’ Why do so many, especially younger folks, assume there is a stronger connection to faith when solo. Solitude. Interior. Unsullied. Private. Personal.
And that’s lovely. But it also means it is easy. And safe. It means you’re listening to your own voice. It buys into a false duality -- as if faith is either personal or corporate. Any relationship with the divine truth will be personal, of course. Must be. But where does the faith come from that allows you to reflect on faith and your relationship with God during that private hike in the woods? How do you even know how to define the nature of your relationship? From yourself? I don’t think so.
Fortunately, the God I worship smiles genially and gently all those times we try to define God by the self. The virtue of others is that through others the Great Spirit speaks to me and me to them. It’s more than me. Thank goodness. It’s more than a support group come to approve you. More than a supportive network. It is Thou and Thee. A community of memory. How else is God known and appreciated except through others? I know of no other way.
Names of white Christian missionaries are respected today by the Cherokee, honored among us. The Center exhibits some of their words and writings. These men and women volunteered to accompany their brothers and sisters from Ross’s Landing to Tahlequah, in part to protest the injustice of the forced evictions, in part to comfort and aid those who would fall, in part to witness that when you suffer I suffer too, in part to walk the trail of tears in hope.
When you take your religion into the corporate, that’s when it gets real.
Personal religion? Fine and lovely. But only when faith is a messy us – prone to illusions and fist-fights -- that’s when it gets real.
Personal religion? Fine and lovely. But that’s easy, for you don’t have to do any thing about it, for in a personal religion nothing is required of you.
Of the various Cherokee stories told me by Donay, my favorite explained why Cherokee cornstalk dolls have no faces painted on them.
The Creator fashioned this doll and gave her for the children to play with, for the Creator loved to see children happy. The doll was indeed beautiful and everyone who saw her said so. She didn’t appreciate how beautiful she was until she looked at her reflection in the stream. “Why, I am so very beautiful,” she said, and day after day she would look at her reflection and admire herself. The great Creator sighed and spoke to her: “Listen, I made you to make children happy but here you sit admiring yourself day after day. Stop being so vain.” She promised to be good, but day after day, warning after warning, her vanity was more important than the children’s happiness. So the Creator took her face away.
And that is why, to this day, Cherokee cornstalk dolls have no faces painted on them.