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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


April 5, 2003 - Issue 84


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Tribe Endows Cherokee Studies Professorship


by Amy Miller Citizen Times


credits: photo Principal Chief Leon Jones and mother(?)


Principal Chief Leon Jones and mother(?)CHEROKEE - Principal Chief Leon Jones of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians can remember when his grandmother, mother and aunts gathered rivercane from fields and along riverbanks, then bent and shaped the green stalks into intricate baskets.

"The baskets were of great importance to us," Jones said of the craft. "They were woven with symbolic designs, like a peace pipe or the coffin of our great ancestors. There were friendship designs where everyone is holding hands."

But today, the ancient craft is dying, and along with it, an integral part of Cherokee history. Concrete covers many of the fields where rivercane once thrived, and few young Cherokee are taught the techniques once passed from generation to generation.

Now the tribe is doing what many other tribes across the country have done. The Eastern Band is using money from profits at Harrah's Cherokee Casino to invest in projects that preserve the tribe's heritage.

And one of its most important investments, Jones said, is the $1 million endowed Sequoyah Distinguished Professorship in Cherokee Studies at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee.

Paid for by the Eastern Band, with the help of grants from the state and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the position will provide more opportunities for research into Cherokee history and culture.

"We have to educate our young people," Jones said. "We want them to be proud of their heritage."

Tom Hatley, a Cherokee historian and environmental activist, already is working in the position, and one of his first projects will be mapping and restoring rivercane fields. He will get help from the tribe's Cultural Resources Office and the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.

Hatley's also working with WCU's Cherokee Center to create a stronger Cherokee language program in schools. And, using his own research in 18th-century Cherokee history, Hatley is helping the museum set up a traveling exhibit about the Cherokee experience during the Revolutionary War.

"Western has had a strong relationship with the Cherokee for years, but it's been invisible," Hatley said. "It's my job to take it to the next level and make it more visible. I see my role really as a facilitator."

The Cherokee's attempt to preserve their heritage isn't unusual. Tribes across the country are using casino money to make similar investments that will help preserve their cultural identity, said John Finger, a retired professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and a noted writer and historian on Cherokee culture.

But, Finger said, Hatley's job would not be easy.

"It costs a lot of money to sustain a position of this sort," he said. "If Hatley does all the things they'd like him to do in this position, that's not a great deal of money when you include travel expenses and administrative costs."

In spite of the difficulties, many hope Hatley's work will lead to more collaboration between the university and the Cherokee, said Roseanna Belt, director of WCU's Cherokee Center.

"It's a real shame there hasn't been more of a collaboration, given all the resources WCU has," Belt said. "But I do feel very positive that we're heading in the right direction. The atmosphere at Cullowhee is becoming more welcoming to the Cherokee."

Hatley said he knows there's a lot of work to do, but he feels lucky to have been selected for the position.

"We're dealing with an ancient native people who have lived here and ridden out all the storms, from climate change to invasion," Hatley said. "There's just a real wisdom gained from those experiences."

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