Preconceived ideas about at-large Cherokees needs examination
BY JULIA COATES
The Cherokee Phoenix’s recent article about the work of the tribe’s Community Organization Training and Technical Assistance or COTTA Program with the at-large Cherokee satellite communities highlights the strong effort the program has made in the 4-1/2 years it has been doing such work. The attendance of at-large Cherokees at the 2011 COTTA conference was a highlight for many of the 35 people who participated, and I still hear many positive remarks about their experiences in making connections with other Cherokee communities.
However, the article also exhibited many common, preconceived notions of who at-large citizens are. As a scholar who has worked with at-large Cherokees for the past 15 years, I have conducted extensive interviews with at-large citizens as part of my dissertation and post-doctoral research. I have been involved in forming and analyzing at-large groups since 1999, and I developed the model that COTTA used in helping to organize the majority of the satellite organizations.
I would offer a different perspective on the at-large people from the rather homogenous descriptions that were provided in the article and strongly suggest to the new administration and the workers at COTTA, that they not overlook the real qualities of this particular segment of the Cherokee population.
The article emphasized the “disconnect” and the lack of cultural knowledge on the part of the at-large people. It was even stated that when one is “here,” i.e., the 14 counties, one “feels” and “understands” what it means to be Cherokee, but that when one leaves the area – poof! – that understanding and feeling is gone. One organizer stated “You can tell. When I go, I feel it.”
Corresponding statements stressed the cultural programs that have been brought to provide accurate information, which will then “bleed” into the at-large people, which they will then incorporate into their daily lives. As someone who studies and teaches community organizing and development, I am skeptical of the rather top-down, unidirectional nature of these statements. I’m not convinced that the flow of information is only valuable in one direction.
These preconceived beliefs about the at-large people are widespread among those in northeastern Oklahoma. For instance, in community meetings in Wichita, Kansas City and Denver several weeks ago, the new principal chief and new director of Community Leadership voiced many of the same expressions that the COTTA personnel stated in the article.
With a better knowledge of my constituents, when I walk into a meeting of at-large Cherokees, I actually don’t “feel” the differences as much as I understand the similarities. I wondered if the administration realized that in the crowds were not only those who are somewhat disconnected (just as there are in northeastern Oklahoma), but also at-large people whose grandchildren attend the Cherokee Immersion School, who were themselves members of ceremonial grounds, who create and promote Cherokee art, who work in Indian education nationally, who serve on state Indian commissions and boards and who work regularly in Indian Child Welfare, repatriation, opposing fraudulent groups and other legal issues.
While the focus of the administration and COTTA has been what kinds of cultural information they can transmit to the at-large people, several people in the groups asked, “What can we do for the Cherokee Nation?” to which the chief had no response. I suggest that answers to this question should be developed, for as much as the at-large desire to receive from the Nation, they also have things to offer the Nation. The “bridge” we are building needs to be a two-lane road based on real understandings of these citizens, not unexamined, preconceived ideas.