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When Did you Become a Cherokee? (Part II) By Julia Coates

I cried when I moved away from San Francisco, and the first year in Albuquerque had been terribly hard. After a year of graduate work in the Anthropology Department at UNM, I had a dismaying decision to make. I had returned to San Francisco in October 1992 to participate in the events that the Treaty Council and others had been involved in to counter the Quincentennial Celebrations. I had missed three weeks of classes as a result. One of my professors is quietly livid, and tells me that at some point I will have to choose between being an activist or being an anthropologist; choose between being an anthropologist or being an Indian. I have left her office in tears. Shortly thereafter, I apply to transfer my graduate program to the American Studies Department. I hope they will not force this kind of choice on me.

I realize now that it was horrendous advice from a personally frustrated professor, but as a new graduate student, I had no basis or understanding yet from which to resist such ultimatums. The American Studies Department accepted me and thereafter, I have been an Indian, an activist, and an academic, finding that the three can often feed, rather than contradict, each other. As I continued with my academic life in New Mexico, I also sought out an Indian organization with which I could volunteer and ended up at the Native Lands Institute, a small non-profit doing consultant research and policy analysis. Not long after, I was hired to a regular position concentrating specifically on work that supported the religious rights of traditional Native peoples.

The work immersed me in national and international struggles involving the protection of sacred sites and environmental protections of water, land, and air quality as they related to ceremonial activities. I was soon attending conferences, visiting and strategizing as a representative of the organization to reservation communities, working with legal groups, and lobbying. Through this I met (and later married) a Navajo man involved as an employee of the Navajo Nation in national advocacy work for the protection of religious rights for Native inmates. I began living with him in Window Rock, AZ, and commuting weekly from the Navajo reservation to work and attend school in Albuquerque.

I loved being on the rez. My experience among the Navajos was one of the best of my life. I found them generally to be a warm and friendly people, quiet at first, in the Indian way, not the garrulous welcoming style of white folks, but generous in taking in a stranger nevertheless. To my surprise, I found that many even accepted me as a Cherokee, particularly when I accepted myself as a Cherokee. I understood this most fully when I became acquainted with a group of leaders of the Native American Church of Navajoland who were involved, as both my husband and I were, in lobbying in Washington for the passage of the Native American Free Exercise of Religion Act. The Senate was holding field hearings on this legislation throughout 1993, and one was held in Albuquerque. At the conference accompanying that hearing, I had occasion to greet one of these Navajo elders from the Native American Church, someone I had not seen for a few months. I don’t recall how it came up in conversation, but at some point I said, “You know, I’m part Cherokee.” He smiled ever so slightly and inquired, “Oh, yes, which part?”

Now I certainly recognize that this is usually a response intended as a teasing challenge or even a put down when offered by another Indian. If it was hurled at me, I would usually deflect it humorously and self-deprecatingly, and I was about to do so in this instance as well: “Oh, my little toe,” or something like that.

But I knew this man. Something in the way he asked this question was gently provocative, and suddenly I understood something important. In a moment of clarity, I placed my fist on my heart and said, “This part.” For just an instant, he looked directly into my eyes (something more traditional Indians rarely do!) and then looked away quickly. The smile on his face broadened a bit and he nodded. That was the last time I was “part” Cherokee. I realized there is something about that phrasing that indicates to the listener that the speaker has not fully accepted himself as such, or is not fully embracing the fact of being Cherokee. There may be many reasons for this, but until one can proclaim fully and without concern for another’s reaction, “I am Cherokee,” then they may not yet be Cherokee. Not fully.

But I am. So it doesn’t matter how many times I prick my finger and lose drops of blood, or if whole arteries are sliced open and I lose all my blood. I am an unfractionated Cherokee and will be ever after. One hundred per cent.

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