The Cherokee fight for their heritage, one syllable at a time, amid echoes of laughter

This ran in wonderful Paste magazine a few years ago.

Everyone has a Cherokee grandmother.

“We never hear about the grandfathers, just the grandmothers,” a laughing woman with high cheekbones says at the welcome center in Cherokee, North Carolina.

I just had conspiratorially relayed some of my own genealogy only to learn it sounded cliché. Too bad I forgot to bring the grainy snapshot of my foremothers, weaving baskets and looking shamanic in their long braids. However, others in the growing tide of visitors no doubt have thrust similar photos at my greeter. After centuries of near-genocidal repression and poverty, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee lately is channeling its casino money into a cultural renaissance that high-minded boosters predict will turn the dilapidated resort known as “Little Las Vegas” into the “Santa Fe of the East.”

Judging by the changing mood of the Qualla Boundary, as the tribe calls this misty, 56,000-acre homeland, such claims are not all talk, though the value of talk should not be underrated. “English Stops Here,” warns a red, octagonal sign at the Dora Reed Tribal Childcare Center. In this pre-kindergarten immersion program, even the toy blocks are etched with the tribe’s ornate lettering instead of the forbidden ABCs. For eight hours a day, about 30 students, newborn to four years olds, burble exclusively in their ancestors’ tongue – a cheerful rebuke to the institutionalized sadism of the old American Indian boarding schools.

“I grew up speaking only Cherokee,” Arneach Walkingstick, a 61-year-old teacher, whispers in English, briefly breaking the rules out of students’ earshot. “When I first went to school and tried to talk to my teacher, she just kept shaking my shoulders and yelling angrily into my face. I couldn’t understand a word she said, but I still remember her teeth, the back of her throat. I became pitifully shy and preferred being outside, where I wouldn’t have to talk to nobody.”

Now Walkingstick takes the floor like a born orator. In a few years, organizers hope, English will be spoken only in “foreign language class” through twelve grades at the Kituwah Academy, just as it is shrunken into subtitles beneath the bold Cherokee glyphs on several storefronts. Expect a growing library of fiction, too, from the Yonuguska Literature Initiative, which recently produced a monumental translation of Charles Frazier’s “Trail of Tears” epic Thirteen Moons, the first novel published in an American Indian language.

A blond tourist, bewildered by Sequoyah’s 85-character syllabary spooling so proudly through the valleys these days, might start rethinking America’s immigration debate — from the long view — and conclude that what is at work in Cherokee is a necessary Nativism in the truest sense of the word. Before these language initiatives began three years ago, a survey found that only seven percent of the 13,400 members of the Eastern Band were fluent speakers, with an average age of 53.

“We do not separate language from culture,” says Renissa Walker, director of the Kituwah preservation and education program. “I asked my mother, who is fluent, what happens if we lose our language? She answered, ‘We lose ourselves.’”

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When Frazier, who tripped over his share of arrowheads while growing up in nearby Andrews, was writing Cold Mountain, he came across an intriguing real-life character.

“I read about an old, old man in a mental institution who at times would speak only Cherokee,” Frazier says, referring to William Holland Thomas, the tribe’s white chief who helped many of his adopted people avoid the forced removal in 1838 and stay in the Southeastern mountains. “I thought fictionalizing his story might help me explore the culture of these people who had lived on the land not so long before mine occupied it.”

Frazier presented the resulting Thirteen Moons in a tribal meeting before publication.

“I told them it might bring some attention to them,” he says. “If they did not like the book and didn’t want to be implicated, I would try to deflect the attention as much as possible. But if they liked it, I wanted to see how it might benefit them.”

Before the powwow was over, Myrtle Driver, an outspoken elder, had volunteered to translate the text, and the Yonuguska Literature Initiative was established at the Museum of the Cherokee to produce more books in the language. (Yonuguska was a heroic chief who resisted the Removal and reorganized the Eastern Band.)

The deciding factor in her decision, she says, was a response not usually associated with the “Trail of Tears”: laughter.

“We find humor in every situation,” says Driver, who customarily addresses every friend as “goober.” “If you walk into a Cherokee home, and they don’t start picking on you, you best pack up and leave because they don’t like you. Cutting up and laughing at each other – that’s how we show affection. How we heal. Humor popped up at the right moments in the book.”

Driver frequently joins Frazier for lively, bilingual readings of Thirteen Moons. One crowd-pleasing passage involves the noises a chief makes during lovemaking. To dramatic effect, Driver imitates the animals his groans evoke: “boar hogs rooting in the ground, groundhog whistles, buck snorts, crow calls.”

“She always gets more laughs than I do,” Frazier says.

This drollery tempers the overall cultural reclamation as the town strives for greater authenticity in its attractions – a pottery guild, a downtown facelift with traditional stonework, high-end art instead of plastic tomahawks made in China. Several institutions have joined forces in a marketing effort that employs the Anikituhwa Warriors, who glower beneath their war-paint from billboards and ads with menacing captions such as: “We’re looking for you.” It makes for imagery that, as Driver might say, messes with folks.

“We dug into our history books to get the details right,” says Jeff Goss, whose advertising agency designed the campaign. “The Cherokee, in addition to this rich, fascinating history, consistently engage with humor, which is always a good selling point.”

“They had a word for a hog bite,” muses the narrator of Thirteen Moons. “Not two words, one word. Satawa. My opinion was that if hogs are biting you so often that you have to stop and make up a specific word for it, maybe lack of vocabulary is not your most pressing problem.”

Or maybe it is.

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You have not seen this production of “Unto These Hills”

When “Unto These Hills,” debuted in 1950, the outdoor docudrama presented the history of the Cherokee as a soap opera told largely from a white, European perspective and starring a largely non-native cast.

Written by Kermit Hunter, a grad student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, it also featured ballet, modern dance, and unrealistic dialogue.

“The male actors all spoke in the third person, which was just ridiculous — an outdated Hollywood version of Indians,” says John Tissue, executive director of the Cherokee Historical Association.”

In 2005, the tribe commissioned Hanay Geiogamah, a Kiowa playwright, to overhaul the play, but his extensive changes met with mixed reviews.

“It was tremendous, but some people felt it was a little too native in the sense that it drifted away from a lot of the storytelling that people like,” Tissue says.

Now two Hollywood writers, Ben Hurst and Pat Allee, are doctoring the play for “narrative expression that maintains authenticity.”

“Some of the tribe want more scenes of everyday life so that the biggest chunk is not the Trail of Tears,” Tissue says. “They want to communicate that, while it was awful — absolutely awful — their lives are not all woe-is-us.”

How do you solve a problem like Maria? Ask Fatima

This ran in the Brenau Window, alumni publication of Brenau University   

Maria Ebrahimji had gone to bed early the first Sunday night in May to rest up for a special occasion. She was taking some time off from her hectic job as an executive editorial producer for CNN in Atlanta to launch her first book, I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim. The release party for this anthology, scheduled the following day in Washington, D.C., was sure to attract an engaged and vocal crowd at the Buxton Initiative, an interfaith think tank that promotes dialogue among Muslims, Christians, and Jews.

“I woke up excited about getting the book out, and then I was stunned to see something like 450 messages on my BlackBerry,” she recalls. “I knew something newsworthy had happened overnight.”

Terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden had just been shot dead, and, if Ebrahimji, WC’98,  had clocked in as usual at CNN, she would have been urgently reaching out to heads of state, military leaders, reporters, and other newsmakers and commentators to coordinate interviews and intense, live coverage.

“The timing was strange and ironic,” says Ebrahimji, who majored in mass communications and political science at Brenau. “On the one hand, it was the biggest story in 10 years, and, for once, I was not at work. I felt remorseful because it’s your natural instinct as a journalist to be right there in the mix when those history-making stories break. At the same time, I knew my news team could handle it, and this book was the culmination of years of hard work; it was important to me, a moment I needed to seize. As it turned out, the death of Osama bin Laden ended up giving an unexpected news peg to the book and prompting a lot of questions and lively discussion at our promotional events around the capital that week.”

In fact, I Speak for Myself, published by White Cloud Press,  is expected to serve as an eye-opening resource during these changing times as we progress — inshallah, or “God willing” — toward a more just, peaceful, and understanding community. After a decade of fallout from 9/11, including the “War on Terror,” protests of mosques, school bans on head-coverings, hate crimes, and other controversies, misunderstandings, and hurt feelings surrounding the practice of Islam, here is a collection of affecting and affirming perspectives from vibrant, homegrown Muslim women — just in time for the geopolitical shifts of Arab Spring.

Maria Ebrahimji

Ebrahimji and her co-editor, Zahra Suratwala, a Chicago-based writer, compiled these essays from 40 women under the age of 40. Varying widely in their approaches to faith, family, work, and lifestyle, they share only this singular feature in common: a Muslim upbringing in the United States.

“What we want to convey is that we are your neighbors and always have been, and we proudly claim this country as ours, too,” Ebrahimji says, “These pieces are not lengthy life stories, just glimpses that reveal us as women you probably would enjoy having over for coffee and conversation.”

The eclecticism and self-discovery of their experiences, the writers hope, will help demystify their religion and counter the persistent stereotypes of women-as-chattel, stifled miserably and mutely beneath a cloak of monolithic orthodoxy. Contributors include the first Muslim woman elected to the Michigan legislature; a Georgia Tech student who researched terrorist recruitment and training in Dubai; a feminist engineer who home-schools her children and wears the hijab and niqab; a fashion designer who finds beauty and flair within traditional Islamic ideals of modesty (“My life revolves around a hemline,” she writes);  a zumba instructor who competed in the Miss Arab USA Pageant 2011; and firebrand poets, bloggers, hipsters, attorneys, teachers, social activists, homemakers, and other lettered and devout professionals, including the volume’s editors.

“Although the purpose of this book was to showcase the incredible diversity among Muslim American women, I myself didn’t realize how much I had to learn about this community until I started receiving and editing essays,” says Suratwala. “This project has deepened my already great respect for not only Muslim American women but women of all faiths, as I begin to understand not only how diverse we are, but also how unified we are in our humanity and our womanhood.”

American-born Queen Noor of Jordan pronounced these writers “a new generation of peace-builders”: “Through their honesty and courage they are making a lasting contribution to the search for cross-cultural understanding. Maria Ebrahimji and Zahra Suratwala’s book joins the mission for global tolerance; it is truly a step in the right direction.”

In the fall, these editors plan to organize a web-based, intra- and interfaith “40 to 40″ outreach project in which their contributors initiate a one-on-one relationship with Muslim women in other countries, eventually encouraging women from other backgrounds to ask questions and weigh in. “We want to create a dialogue worldwide because even within the Muslim world there is stereotyping of Americans and other groups,” Ebrahimji says.

In her essay, titled “In Search of Fatima and Taqwa,” the CNN producer relates an unsettling exchange in Yemen with a sheikh who counseled her to decelerate her fast-track career to land “a good Muslim husband.”

“My women’s college-educated mind urged me to stare him down and set him straight,” Ebrahimji writes, explaining that his comments “made me feel small, less respected, and in some ways, less worthy of being the fearless and self-supporting woman I thought I had become. Personal sacrifices of time, emotion, or money I have always lived with, but never once had I been told to pare back myself to get what I wanted in life. All at once, this aroused in me both a resoluteness and curiosity. … Was I Muslim enough?”

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Ebrahimji is fit, driven, warmly gregarious and fond of the word “empowerment.” Her Indian parents met in Africa, where her mother attended art school, and then decamped for the United States with a nest egg of only $120 as refugees from dictator Idi Amin’s atrocities in the 1970s. Her early childhood was spent in Maryland before her family moved to the small town of Toccoa, Georgia, where she was the only Muslim girl in her high school.

“It was a little scary when we first moved there because there were KKK posters on the telephone poles, but I honestly never experienced any discrimination in north Georgia,” Ebrahimji says. “I was a country girl in the mountains, hiking and water-skiing on the lake and going to Passion Plays and prom with a non-Muslim boy. But I was also fasting for Ramadan and striving to adhere to the tenets of Islam. I didn’t wear my Muslim-ness on my sleeve, but I didn’t hide it, either. My taqwa, or ‘God consciousness,’ made me Muslim at the core.”

To help their daughter fit in, her parents usually introduced her with the more familiar Latin version of her name, even though it is properly pronounced “MAH-ria.” “People assumed I was Mexican,” she says, “and my teacher described me as ‘white with a really nice tan.’ I still speak with this little Southern twang, so even now people often don’t know quite what to make of me!”

A conscientious student, Ebrahimji was awarded several scholarships at Brenau, where she became the first woman of color to pledge a mainstream sorority, Alpha Chi Omega. “Brenau is fairly representative of the South and was not really that diverse when I was a student,” she says. “But five years after I graduated, I was sitting at an Internet cafe in Bombay (now Mumbai), and someone emailed me a photo of that year’s pledge class. I was so astonished at the progress in diversity — at all of those very different faces smiling back at me — that I burst into tears. Brenau, like the rest of the South, keeps evolving and developing a more international culture and spirit.”

Journalism professor Clara Martin helped her secure a coveted internship at CNN, and the network hired her shortly after graduation for an entry-level position, rolling teleprompter for anchor (and fellow Muslim), Riz Khan. While working full time, Ebrahimji earned a master’s degree in international relations at Georgia State University, studied Arabic, read 20 or more newspapers each morning, and began ascending the ranks of the 24-hour news outlet.

In South Africa, Ebrahimji conducted the first broadcast from the historic church where demonstrators had sought refuge during the Apartheid-era Soweto Uprising, and about six years ago in Davos, Switzerland, she produced a panel discussion of “young, rising leaders of the Middle East, including Gaddafi’s son and the crown prince of Bahrain — mostly people who no longer seem that relevant in light of recent events,” she observes. “Strange to think that no long ago we took it for granted that they would be in charge now. It’s great for me to see the images coming out of current protests in the Arab Spring — this organic movement with women standing side by side for the first time with men and claiming their identity, demanding the right to choose their government.”

After the planes struck the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, Ebrahimji did not sleep for 36 hours, she recalls, and since then has vigilantly monitored the network’s depictions of her faith. She is the vice chair of the diversity council at CNN. “I look at both our content and our workforce to make sure they’re inclusive and accurate in what they reflect,” she says. “One thing I like to do is get more Muslims in front of the cameras who have other topics of interest outside the context of just the religion or terrorism — Muslims who are talking about a health issue, a passion for jogging or environmental cleanup, education costs, or other concerns that everyone out there faces and can relate to. It’s important for the public to see ‘regular Americans’ who just happen to be Muslim.”

She is one of them, after all.

In the soul-searching that followed the sheikh’s advice, Ebrahimji looked to the example of Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Mohammed.

“While my outward appearance may suggest my faithfulness to the world, my real faith, my inner taqwa, is only known to God and me — as it should be,” Ebrahimji writes. “I think Fatima would say to both the sheikh and me that all is possible. She maintained her inner taqwa, and she bore the qualities I see important in all women. I can be who I want to be and still be like Fatima. … And while I can choose to pare myself down by choice or grow myself stronger through circumstance, I am no more or less Muslim than I was in the beginning. What tormented me in the Yemen desert has only reaffirmed the writing of God on my solidly Muslim American Indian — independent — soul.”