When did you begin to really think about what it means to be a Cherokee?
She had been trying to get back to the Indian southwest for a while now. After graduation from San Francisco State University, she had planned a solitary, six-week trip that had taken her to the reservations of several of the friends she’d made at the International Indian Treaty Council where she had been an intern and a volunteer for the past two years. At first, she’d stayed with family in Taos, NM and from there had visited many of the northern Pueblo villages and cultural sites. She’d hiked at Bandolier and viewed the cliff dwellings and petroglyphs, and had done the same in western New Mexico at the sites ancestral to the Laguna, Acoma, and Zuni peoples. After, she’d headed over to northern Arizona where she’d made a camp at Canyon de Chelly on the Navajo reservation. For the next week, she ventured out each day to explore the canyon and many other sites both on and off the reservation, including the mesas of the Hopi reservation, the oldest continuously inhabited villages in North America.
In the last couple of weeks of her sojourn, her travels had taken her through central Arizona and the beautiful forests of the White Mountain Apaches. Heading further south, she had stayed several days in the Sonora region of the O’odham people, where it had been searingly hot and forbidding – an impossible time of year to camp, a difficult landscape to connect with and an intense dynamic as her explorations on their reservation had been interrupted by the questioning of the US Border Patrol. From there, she had headed east to the lands of the San Carlos Apache, lands marked by massive copper mines that scarred another harsh, yet beautiful terrain. And finally, she headed north again, back up to the New Lands of the Navajos, areas where the misery of relocation from the Big Mountain area was almost palpable.
For six weeks she had done all of this alone, not wanting the presence of companions to influence her own thoughts, feelings, and reactions. The experience was singularly hers to interpret as she needed to, to feed what she needed to have fed within her. This had not been a conscious decision,
but intuitively, she had known. It was her dream time.
She is me. Only in hindsight do I understand why I needed to do the journey this way. Although I was still insecure in my own identity as a Cherokee who had been raised in California, the time had come when I was beginning to explore my own people and my own history. I was approaching it from an academic perspective because that’s where a college student begins. But I already knew that intellectual pursuit wasn’t enough. There were places that had to be experienced, discomforts with the unfamiliar that had to be explored, historic grief that had to be confronted, fears that had to be overcome. I had to get out on that land where it had all happened, was still happening.
During those six weeks in the southwest, I cried so much. I saw things, and met people, and “felt” those Indian places. Their beauty, their power, their despair, their starkness, their drama in some way became mine as well. I knew that if these places, which did not really belong to me, could move me as they did with their stories, their histories, what could Oklahoma be like? I hadn’t been there since I was a young teenager. I hadn’t been “seeing” it at that age. It might be time to check it out again.
I returned to San Francisco. Eight months later I received notice that I had been accepted to graduate school in the Anthropology Department at the University of New Mexico. I was headed to Albuquerque, in the heart of the Indian southwest and within only a long day’s drive of northeasternOklahoma and the Cherokee Nation. In some ways, in the lands of others, this was when my life as a Cherokee really began.
(To be continued...) Julia Coates
Julia Coates is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. Born in Pryor, Oklahoma and raised in northern California, she holds BAs in Anthropology and English from San Francisco State University, and a PhD in American Studies from the University of New Mexico.
She has worked for Native American non-profits, tribal governments, and non-governmental organizations. Dr. Coates was a delegate to the Cherokee Nation Constitutional convention, was the Project Director for the award-winning Cherokee Nation History Course, and served two terms on the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council.