“We had hoped that the white men would not be willing to travel beyond the mountains. Now that hope is gone. They have passed the mountains and have settled upon Tsalagi (Cherokee) land. They wish to have that usurpation sanctioned by treaty. When that is gained, the same encroaching spirit will lead them upon other land of the Tsalagi (Cherokees). New cessions will be asked. Finally the whole country, which the Tsalagi (Cherokees) and their fathers have so long occupied, will be demanded, and the remnant of the Ani Yvwiya, “The Principal People,” once so great and formidable, will be compelled to seek refuge in some distant wilderness.”
Chickamauga Original Principal Chief Dragging Canoe, 1775
“He wasn’t wrong.” (me.)
With Liberty and Justice for ?
Independence Day is an odd thing for many in this country. We are taught that the United States promises “liberty and justice for all,” but we never seem to get there. This is uniquely true for my Chickamauga Cherokee family, but not only in the way you might assume.
Saying, “I am Chickamauga,” is owning all of the ethnicities and ancestors who have made us who we are. We are a celebratory, wildly multiethnic swirl of peoples. We are, (nearly every one of us in varying measure,) Indigenous Americans (from multiple peoples,) but also Mediterranean, European, African, Romani, Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jewish. Our DNA paints show that we are the world. We carry our full ethnicity with pride.
This also means that we are the descendants of a whole lot of different people groups who have been treated abominably by the government whose founding is celebrated on the 4th of July each year. It’s a complicated history.
The Chickamauga were birthed specifically in opposition to US independence, (see “the why” in Chief Dragging Canoe’s quote above.) The battles with our fellow Cherokee over this issue pushed us down into Appalachia along the Chickamauga River, (giving us our name as a separate people.) Nearly simultaneously, another branch of our ancestors who were being prosecuted as felons for being the multiethnic peoples we have been since at least the 1400’s, literally headed for the hills for safety. They moved west into the Lower Hill Cherokee lands, newly occupied by the Chickamauga. United against a common threat, our families interlaced.
The Chickamauga legacy is one of patriots and resistors, the enslavers and the enslaved, the privileged and the marginalized, all braided up into one sidanlev (family.)
Our Patriotism, Demonstrated
While accurate statistics cannot be had both enrolled and disenfranchised Native American peoples have served in great numbers in the United States Armed Forces for as long as those forces have existed.
Why would we put our lives on the line for a country that has literally tried to obliterate us? A country that was built, literally on top of the bones of our ancestors? How are so many of us so committed to supporting a country that has never treated us or our ancestors as fully human, supposedly endowed with those “inalienable rights” to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?
It would be arrogant and countercultural for me to presume there was one answer to those questions. However, I will share two reasons for such sacrificial patriotism and love for this country that I’ve heard voiced in our community:
Patriotic songs have long expressed a special affinity for this “land that I love.” If those who came to these shores tens of thousands of years after the first peoples of the Americas love the land, how much more deeply tied are much earlier inhabitants? We have upwards of 15,000 year’s worth of ancestors buried here. We have upwards of 15,000 years of heritage and history with our feet on this particular soil.
Furthermore, in Indigenous understanding, the Earth itself is a vital, living, breathing thing, not merely dirt to be “owned.” The Earth is our Mother – the origin of all, the Mother that birthed all living things here, making us all one. While the natural world holds no regard for our ideas of property lines or “ownership,” (good luck asking your neighbor’s tree not to drop leaves in your yard,) this land mass upon which we currently live is a part of us. It is precious, and to be defended against destruction.
At the time of the American Revolution, only those with royal titles could own land in Britain. Further, they were thought to hold these positions of wealth by Divine right. Some have posited that the orchestrators of the American Revolution went to war against Britain essentially to prove that the un-titled wealthy in the colonies were just as divinely ordained to rule the colonies. This was nearly blasphemy in British thought of the day.
Phrases like “liberty and justice for all,” and “all men are created equal” were never intended to extend to the vast majority of humans – the un-wealthy, non-British, not male people – living here at the time.
At the same time, those words themselves nod to values that are common in Native American understanding: That each person is part of a greater whole that is better served when all are respected and cared for properly. If we were to hold this country to the promise of the actual words, we would be living in a manner congruent with the long-held values of the Indigenous.
At first blush, it seems pretty stupid to trust a promise made by a government that has broken, quite sincerely, every promise it’s ever made to Native people, especially considering that the promise stated was never the promise intended. The promise that Native Americans hold to does not originate with the US government.
There is a story that comes from my Lakota cousins called The White Buffalo Calf Woman. You can read it, and read about it, here, or watch/listen here. There are iterations of this same story among many different Native American peoples.
In short, it is a prophecy that says that one day, when the White Buffalo have returned to this land, (which started happening in at least the 1990’s,) the greedy, exploitive way of being will fall apart. If we then return to the Native way of being where we respect all things, care for all things and live in a state of generosity, harmony and mutuality, we will heal the Earth, everything in her and on her.
A New/Old Way
If that prophecy is fulfilled, the exploitive world view (what I call “ColonizerThink” regardless of who is espousing it,) will have imploded. The promise of the United States government is not the domain of the United States government. Living in mutuality and respect with all things and all people is a Native value that far predates July 4, 1776. The stated promise of the US might well be part of the path that gets us there.
Uncle Sam? We’re gonna hold you to those words.
I’m proud to sign this blog with my full identity,
Tiffany Sankofa, MS LCPC,
Proud descendant of both Wahunsenecawh/Powhatan and Dragging Canoe,
Standing Bright Heart, (grateful) Head Elder of the Chickamauga Nation