Recently, I took a trip to experience the New Echota State Park in Calhoun, GA for myself. The experience, much like my pilgrimage to Scraper Mountain, was incredibly moving. There were, however, some important elements that struck me as odd.
First, the park itself is owned by the State of Georgia and maintained by Georgia State Parks. Given the historic nature of the site and its importance to Cherokee people, past and present, I found myself curious as to the story that would be told by those who operated the park. Station after station offered a re-creation of buildings that would (or could) have been built in our former Capitol in the mid-nineteenth century. The recreations were interesting, but the most profoundly moving part of the experience for me was found in standing on the land that our ancestors once stood on…upon which so many issues affecting the future course of our people were decided.
Which brings me to the second element. Just off of the property owned by the State of Georgia…on private property…is the site of one of the stockades in which many of our people, your ancestors and mine, were held prior to our removal to the West. Standing on the edge of that property and gazing upon the land was heartbreaking. It made me wonder whether any of the land that once held those stockades is maintained by Cherokee people for the purpose of telling our story…a story which needs to be told.
Which brings me to the third element. I began to wonder what kind of story was being told by representatives of the State of Georgia. Interestingly, at every station around the historic site, I found the story of our removal to the West told as if it was a good thing for us…almost something that our people wanted to happen. For certain, our ancestors disagreed with one another about what to do back then…we often still do…but the story as told at New Echota was incomplete.
While walking the site, I met Cherokee Citizens who lived in nearby Atlanta. They were at New Echota to pass on the history of our people to their next generation. As I said, it is a story that needs to be told…but that story should be told by us.
Repatriating Historic Sites
What if we re-engage dialogue and debate with states and municipalities who currently control our historic sites for the purpose of partnering with those governments in a way that would allow us to repatriate these important places. Together with our current administration, I believe that we can make progress toward this important goal in a way that benefits ALL of our citizens, and those who would seek to learn from our story.
Cultural Mentors for At-Large Communities
I would love to begin a mentoring program with two major components. The first would pair cultural mentors with At-Large communities for the purpose of helping our people to learn what we don’t know. Learning about our culture can be as daunting as it is important. I believe that by working together and valuing those who hold the knowledge of our sacred practices and beliefs, we can help an entire generation to reconnect with our heritage. As I said, our story is important to tell…we should also be telling that story to our own Citizens.
I would likewise hope to add a component to our mentoring program that pairs Cherokee elders with younger people who are interested in learning more about our language and culture. I believe that we could do so technologically with relative simplicity, creating community across great geographic distances. My time working as an Indian Education Advocate for Lincoln Public Schools in Lincoln, NE afforded me the chance to build a large mentoring program that paired Native Elders with students in our district. If you’ve never encountered the statistics related to the success of mentoring in closing the achievement gap, I would invite you to do a little bit of extra reading, which you can do here. The statistics are profound and something that I’ve seen first-hand in Lincoln, NE, and in Stroud, OK where the mentoring programs that I began are healthy and thriving today. I believe that such a program can have the same type of impact culturally that it has educationally. In pairing our young people with Cherokee Elders for the purpose of passing on our language and culture, we prepare the next generation to continue to forge a strong link in a chain that was forged long before we arrived and will continue long after we’re gone.