Aspiring ‘man of medicine’ embraces Cherokee heritage
Cherokee Nation citizen Ben Schoonover is a physiology major at the University of Oregon. COURTESY/KAYLA LOCKWOOD
EUGENE, Ore. – For the past year, pre-med student Ben Schoonover has been discovering the Cherokee language with aspirations of one day “giving back to our community” through medicine.
“Tsalagi plays an important role in my life today,” Schoonover, a Cherokee Nation citizen and human physiology major at the University of Oregon in Eugene, said. “I practice the language every day. But other than that, I let culture be a part of my life however it may be present. In other words, I do not ‘try’ to be tsalagi – it’s something that’s in me and was a part of growing up.”
Schoonover, 21, grew up in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, but “spent a lot of time” in North Carolina and Oklahoma with family, he said.
“It was not really until I was older that I even started recognizing things that are ‘culture’ as being a part of my life,” Schoonover said. “For example, the food I may cook or simple things like being mindful and respectful of all living creatures, going through the woods and trying not to disturb anything, woodworking skills and so on. My dad taught me a lot of these things, including bow making. I remember thinking as a child that this was how all kids were raised, and did not start to see the differences until I got older.”
A junior at UO who also works as a lab chemist, Schoonover is navigating his way toward medical school.
“I am a man of medicine,” he said, “but ultimately my main focus is giving back to our community whether it be through medicine and healing or other means.”
Schoonover, who said he believes the Cherokee language “is crucial to preserving our culture,” is interested in applying to the Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program after graduation to improve his knowledge of written and spoken Cherokee.
“Learning and encouraging the use of the language I believe is important, especially in raising awareness of our Nation,” he said.
Two of Schoonover’s other passions are music and running.
“Both play an important role in my life even on a day to day basis,” he said. “I play a plethora of instruments, with guitar usually being my go-to. In a way, this is one of the strongest methods of healing I believe we have, and I believe that us as a people understand this.”
As a member of the university’s running team, Schoonover said he’s considered organizing an event similar the tribe’s “Remember the Removal” Bike Ride, which allows young Cherokees to retrace the northern route of the Trail of Tears. Instead of bicyclists, he envisions “a group of runners to accomplish the same goal.”
“This could maybe even be accomplished with the support of something put together by Nike working with the Cherokee Nation,” Schoonover said. “I have been blessed to gain many contacts with the sports giant over the years being a runner at the UO.”
At the university, Schoonover has found “great opportunity,” but says most fellow students and instructors are unfamiliar with Cherokee culture.
“People do ask about my heritage,” he said. “However only about one in 10 want to know about tsalagi culture and history. Especially here in Eugene, I find a lot of ignorance and most inquiries are either harsh words or jokes. I even had an instructor once look me in my face and tell me my heritage did not matter, and most kids my age think things I do such as even just being respectful are ‘weird.’ However, when I do find that one in 10, someone who is truly interested and cares, it makes all the difference in the world.”