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This scene is familiar to many of you, I’m sure. An expert speaker, a slideshow, a conference room. But the topics… now that is what made this weekend exceptional. Here, Scott McLeroy talks about humility’s role in leadership.

I have spent entirely enough time in conference rooms lately. A Cherokee Leadership conference (CCO=Community & Cultural Outreach) is exciting, yes, but also such a change from my regular life. Those clucking hussies, the hummingbirds, and my evening deer and coyotes seem so far away from me right now. And what I wouldn’t give to have my kitty curl up on me at night in this hotel bed.

Janelle Adair’s storytelling had me in tears. This is an ancient form of leadership teaching, and the effect, perfected over thousands of years, has an undeniable impact on the audience. I think all corporations should bring in storytellers.

The exchange is worth it, however. I am learning as much in this weekend of workshops about my Cherokee people than in the years I’ve been attending Cherokee meetings.  I was hoping this would happen when I had some immersion. For example, I walk the hallways between breakout sessions, and overhear groups of people talking in Cherokee. An unhesitating give-and-take the way people really speak a language (not the way they demonstrate, or practice a language, if that makes sense), with building or falling intensities and spontaneous laughter from everyone listening. (We’re Cherokee, and that means there are jokes being told.) It’s precious, you know, being able to hear your language spoken. I only realized that truth once I spent time in other countries, and then felt the relief of hearing recognizable sounds again, once I came back. Just imagine being a people whose language was dying out. It’s a scary thought. Luckily, the Cherokees are aggressively working to keep the language viable.

It’s hard to summarize what I’ve learned in a single blog post, because I’ve attended so many sessions on so many topics. What I have noticed, however, is that there are common lessons that come through over and over. That’s how I’m learning this culture. (My degrees are in anthropology, so that’s how I frame things in my mind.)

Dr. Tiffanie Harbarger talks about Cherokee relationships to land and water.

Every speaker is a Cherokee and/or Cherokee expert, and they keep saying things to reinforce our culture. Like I said above, “We’re Cherokee, and that means there are jokes being told.” I learned this to be true by spending time with Cherokees, and seeing it demonstrated, but also hearing people tell me the lesson over and over: Cherokees are always kidding around.

Earnie Frost told us about his journey to self-awareness, and how he turned his lessons into ideas for how to revitalize the Cherokee community.

In this way, I’m also learning what a matriarchal society is. Of course, I studied it in my anthropology classes, so I know what it is. But book learning doesn’t lay out in real-world examples what it actually means to be a matriarchal culture. Traditionally Cherokee men moved in with their wives’ families, and the children and possessions and home belonged to  the wife. At any point, for any reason, the wife could divorce the man by placing his belongings outside the home. Women had a lot of power, but a lot of responsibility, and the weight of keeping the family together rested on the shoulders of the women. One man told a story about trying to build a re-integration program for Arizona Indians, and met with failure until his female secretary berated him for not involving the women, and following their direction. Several people talked about going to Standing Rock, and talked about how women were/are instrumental in that movement. I hadn’t even thought of it before, unconsciously mentally erasing women from power and action, when it turns out they were the source of power.

cultures confusing each other

One speaker explained that when treaties were being discussed, the Europeans didn’t trust the Cherokees who included women in their business talks, and the Cherokees didn’t trust the Europeans who never brought their women. They didn’t bring their women, they wondered, what are they trying to hide from us? I heard about the pensions offered to wounded Indians who fought in battles for the US Government, and how the Indians were confused about the idea of widows and orphans being offered pensions for men who died in battle. They did not grasp the concept of women being victims when a man died. They did not understand the concept of orphan, because the children belong to the mother’s clan. Even if both parents were not living, the child belonged to the clan, and was not an orphan. Thus, when the pensions were offered anyway, and women went to collect for themselves and the children of their clan, their petitions were often denied. US officials sometimes knew very well that the woman herself did not birth a particular child, so how could she be so audacious as to try and claim a pension for the child’s fallen father, a member of the clan? Likewise, a man would go to do his duty to his wife’s clan, and seek to collect a pension for a fallen brother, related by clan, not by blood, and the federal officials were again confused.

My favourite speaker of them all was Anita Finger-Smith, who talked in great detail about the circumstances that resulted in the Eastern Band Cherokees remaining in their homeland when so many others were removed to Oklahoma.

I am learning this culture through the repetition of so many speakers saying things like, “As Cherokees, we understand community ownership, not individual ownership. When my mother used to make dinner, she would cook enough for an army. I’d ask, ‘Why are you making so much food?’ and she would say, ‘Maybe someone will show up.’ And sure enough, by suppertime, the house would be full.”

Many speakers talk about water. “As Cherokees, we consider our water to be sacred. It’s not just what we use to clean ourselves, but we drink it, we grow crops with it, we cook with it. Water is in every part of our life and makes up who we are.” Now, these things are true for every human. But when it’s said to you like that: “As Cherokees, we value water…” then you can’t help but assign a greater significance to the things you’ve been doing with water since you were born.

Joseph Erb, my new favourite Indian artist.

Rob Daugherty introduces Chris Welch.

Our keynote presenter was Tracy Spears, author, co-founder of a leadership organization, and softball player.

I don’t think I’ve made my point as clearly as I wanted to, but I hope with these examples you get the idea. I am learning so much good stuff about this important part of who I am. I am sad that I wasn’t raised with this teaching, but I am so grateful to belong to a Nation that works so hard to provide me the opportunity to learn, now that I have decided to educate myself.

Today we are leaving Tulsa and heading off for some touring! We’ll visit museums, cultural centers, and points of significance for Cherokees. We’re finally heading to Tahlequah, and the center of Cherokee government. I finally get to see some of Oklahoma besides this city block in Tulsa. I promise to take photos and post when I can.

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On the way into Denver, my view looked like this.

On my way into Tulsa, my view looked like this.

I’m in Oklahoma. Before today I had never been here on purpose, though I did drive through a few times on the Interstate.

Monday, a co-worker asked me the purpose for the visit. “Dream vacation!” I quipped. He replied, “Your idea of a dream vacation is different than mine.”

My little joke sat in my head that day.  Oklahoma seems to be perpetually the butt of jokes. Another co-worker recommended I watch a stand-up comedy routine disparaging Oklahoma. My dental hygienist remarked that her father was from Oklahoma, and someone asked once if he ever missed it, after he moved to Oregon. The man laughed.

And isn’t that exactly the point? In fact, it’s uncomfortable for me to think about it. The terminus of the Trail of Tears continues to this day a place that many people don’t value. It is the reason why east-coast Indians are here. I am hoping to improve my perception of Oklahoma before I go.

I have mentioned before that I belong to an Oregon group called the Mt. Hood Cherokees. We are one of 22 official satellite groups recognized by the Cherokee Nation. We call ourselves “At Large” Cherokees.

Years ago, our modern Cherokee Nation became concerned at the large number of individuals and groups with very little real training or experience who were claiming to be able to pass on genuine Cherokee knowledge and traditions. At the same time, many Cherokees, or people believing themselves to be Cherokees, sought out these groups and the information they held, sometimes even paying for the erroneous information, hoping to make a better connection to their ancestry. Unfortunately, wrong information was widely spread as genuine Cherokee knowledge.

The losers in this scenario were not just the duped hopefuls, but also the Cherokee Nation, already a fringe society in the United States, but now actively undermined as people began studying information that was not authentic to the Cherokee way of life. The Cherokee Nation, based in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, created Community & Cultural Outreach (CCO) and Community Organizing Training and Technical Assistance (COTTA). From the Nation’s website: “The CCO-COTTA program’s mission is to assist community organizations ability to increase their effectiveness; enhance essential services to those most in need, and build upon the organizational capacity of each community, diversify resources, and create collaborations to serve those in Cherokee Communities.”

When an At Large group meets the Nation’s requirements, it is officially recognized. Once recognized, the Nation then proactively supports the group by periodically sending employees who are experts in different fields of the arts, histories, language, government, and traditions.

Another step the Nation took was to create an Annual Conference of Community Leaders that is designed to teach visiting At Large Cherokees more about life close to the heart of the Cherokee Nation. The conference also provides workshops with tools the satellite groups can use, like how to manage (or get!) donations or how to manage our social media presence. The At Large groups each have a council, and the council votes on a representative. Once the selection is approved, the Nation provides resources to assist the traveler.

In 2017, the council selected ME! I am so excited.

Canada Geese mildly annoyed by my interest.

Yellow-crowned night herons equally tolerant as I approached, pointing my phone at them.

I started this post talking about how Oklahoma gets picked on. Through the Cherokee Nation visitors I’ve met over the years, I’ve come to see there is a great love of the land of Oklahoma among Cherokee people. I’m hoping to learn more about that love.

I did not expect to find a trail within easy walking distance of my hotel.

Stuck for hours in a slow part of Tulsa with no car, I went for a walk and stumbled quite unexpectedly upon a path beside Mingo Creek that begins about two blocks from my hotel. I followed the path, sharing it with a fisherman, some joggers, some dog walkers, some kids, and eventually came to a park. I explored the park, then wandered back, admiring the homes that some people are lucky enough to have right on the edge of this green space. The entire walk was through green grassy fields with huge trees all around me. I found birds and a turtle!

I have only been in Oklahoma a few hours, but I think I’m already on the right track.

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