I Am Tsalagi

My name is Stefanie. My mother was Barbara. My grandmother was Patrica. My great grandmother was Lulu Dale Duckworth. My great-great grandmother was Lavinia Arlene Gunter. My great-great-great grandmother was Nannie Ward. My great-great-great-great grandfather was James Ward. My 5 x great grandmother was Catherine McDaniel. My 6 x great grandmother was Granny Hopper. My 7 x great grandfather was Old Hop, who died around 1760. My 8 x great grandfather was, I think, Amatoya Moytoy, although the genealogy gets a little fuzzy that far back. The native people didn’t keep a lot of written records.

I follow the Lakota Red Road ways. When you introduce yourself, you state your name and what people you come from. When I say I am Cherokee, people laugh and ask if my grandmother was a Cherokee Princess or say, “Everybody’s part Cherokee.” I get ridiculed quite a bit for being Cherokee where I live, because the Indigenous people here don’t have as long a history with Europeans as the eastern tribes do therefore, people tend to be full-blood or mixed blood. So, I tend not to tell people I’m Cherokee anymore. I’m not ashamed. I just don’t want to have to explain who I come from.

When I was a little girl, my mom told me we were part Cherokee, but she qualified it with a “but not much”. Not much? I never understood the “not much” part. All I knew was that I was Cherokee and proud of it. I was the only one to identify with

“Not much” is about what my family thought about being Cherokee. It was a nice anecdote, that’s all. None of us were raised in the Cherokee culture, not even my grandmother. By the time my grandmother was born, not much meant that we didn’t have to mention it and soon it was all but forgotten, except by me.

My grandmother was born two years after Oklahoma became a state. Before that, it had been Indian Territory, until the Dawes Act was enacted to break up the tribal holding of land into individual allotments, therefore weakening the power of the tribes as a whole. My great grandmother, Lulu, was born to a Cherokee mother and a white father. According to the Dawes roll, she was only 1/32 by blood, which was probably true due to intermarriage with white traders in the back east. Lulu was light skinned, so she could pass as white, but my grandmother was born dark. I think Lulu decided to pass as white, because she was afraid for her daughter. Discrimination against Native people was even worse at that time than it is now and if they could pass as white, then her daughter would have a much better chance at life. Of course, this is only my best guess as to why we lost our connection to the Cherokee people. My grandmother never spoke about it or if she did, it was downplayed and definitely not something to be proud of.

But why was I so connected to the idea of being Cherokee? Carl Jung came up with the theory of racial memories, which is based on the theory of genetic memory. Racial memories are memories, feelings, and ideas we inherit from our ancestors, a sort of racial collective consciousness. I’m a big believer in this theory. I can’t explain why I feel such a deep connection with my indigenous ancestors, other than “it’s in my blood.”

I think it was in Lulu’s blood, too. In researching our genealogy, I came upon a story about  an ancestor of mine, a Cherokee chief named Amatoya Moytoy. It is said that his father taught him how to “witch for water,” which is using a Y shaped stick balanced on the hands to locate water. He was therefore called “Water Conjurer” within the tribe. I don’t know if this story is true, but the funny thing is that I seem to recall that Lulu could witch for water, too. Was it handed down to her or did she come to it through racial memory? I’ll never know.

My connection with the Earth and its inhabitants; the path I’ve followed to where I am now; my feeling of not belonging in the dominant society; my deep, abiding love of indigenous people all over the world; all of these things lead me to believe that there is something else, something older and deeper  that I’m tapping into.

The reason I’m telling you this is because I’ve been extremely moved by the NoDAPL movement the last few months and particularly now as tensions are rising. As frustrating and scary as the situation is, I’m so happy that the indigenous people of this country are being empowered to stand up against the colonizers once again. All the tribes are coming together and they feel strong. Sometimes, it takes bad circumstance to bring out the best in people.

I watched a live feed of a press conference in which the people of the Sacred Stone Camp said that they’ve had enough. They have been brutalized, mistreated, stolen from, and run over roughshod by the dominant society for four hundred years and they’re not going to take it any more.  The Indigenous people in this country believe that they were put here to protect the Earth and they are going to do just that. My heart aches with pride when I see the People stand up strong and feel proud of who they are.

I, too, am feeling empowered. I’m proud of my “not much” Cherokee blood. I’m ready to defend the earth that I love so much. I’m tired of being one of those shoulder shruggers that laments that they are only one person and there’s nothing they can do. That’s how we’ve ended up in the sorry state. Maybe one person can’t make a huge difference, but a lot of one persons together can.

Cherokee is the English pronunciation of the word Tsalagi. I’m ready to take back my power and say proudly, “I am Tsalagi” and not feel less than amongst tribal people. I’m taking back the culture that my family chose to leave behind and I will honor my ancestors by being proud to be Tsalagi. Hopefully, one day soon, I’ll get to learn about and experience the culture and ways of the Tsalagi people.



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