Love Worn. Photograph by Timothy K. Hamilton.

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My Great-Grandmother Is a Cherokee

“Food’s ready. Get in line.” There are no more angst-inducing words in the southern lexicon. Until this announcement, we’ve all been just polite enough to hold out until the food is blessed; but now comes the moment when we have to decide who leads the charge to the buffet line. Who deserves sustenance first translates into who is valued most, and then that question is further simmered to a sticky reduction of what’s really important: who gets the inaugural scoop of corn pudding?

For two communities that have long-shared traditions, there is also no scene more exemplary than the cultural difference between Southern Appalachian and Cherokee social practices. If I am attending a small town family reunion in rural western North Carolina, my eight- and four-year-old sons jerk me from my seat, while blue-haired ladies shove precariously balanced Styrofoam plates into each of my hands so that the boys can make their picky selections of the spread—likely limited to beige carbohydrates. If I am in Cherokee, I settle in to wait, or, if need be, join the serving crew. This is because the first to be served in Cherokee (and generally among Native people) are the elders. Other gatherings prioritize parents providing food for their children, a practice not uncommon at restaurants when servers ask if we would like our children’s orders brought out before our food is ready. This difference not only highlights the order of human importance, but also underscores a differentiation between helping the vulnerable and honoring the venerable.

This periodically causes confusion for my children, who cannot understand why near strangers are pulling them to the front of a line and haphazardly eroding the sanctity of their would-be dessert vessel with the likes of runny casseroles and greasy chicken legs, all while their mother flails behind, helpless, shouting dietary recommendations and reminders to “use your manners.” It is disorienting for us all. In practical terms, it is also frustrating to have a toddler running around a fellowship hall, weaving in and out of wheelchairs and walkers, looking for a way to expend his sugar-fueled energy because he has already finished eating before the adults have even begun.

For the Cherokee, being at the head of the line is not simply an honor that acknowledges years spent on this earth. Whether they are serving as a headman or headwoman in a traditional dance, or linking arms in the front of the picket line, Cherokee elders are there to lead. They are the example we strive to follow—in celebrating or in fighting. They are to be seen, heard, and followed. Opportunities for gratitude and leadership are equally communicated in Cherokee culture. While McDonald’s offers seniors a discounted coffee out of respect for an aging population, the Cherokee Tribal Council offers elders seats on influential committees and boards out of reverence for their experiences.

Cherokee culture also has a process for recognizing those individuals who uphold its traditions and ideals through a life of integrity and care for others. To be named a Beloved Woman or Beloved Man signifies the highest honor the tribe can award. Such a title cannot be earned through singular acts or political favor. Though similar to a lifetime achievement award, it marks a beginning rather than an end. It signifies to the entire tribe that this person walks a path we should all strive to follow. While it can be awarded posthumously, living Beloved Women and Men lead cultural preservation and revitalization efforts well into their 80s and 90s. Most recently, Beloved Woman Myrtle Driver translated a chapter from Charles Frazier’s Thirteen Moons and Charlotte’s Web (to be used by immersion school students) into the Cherokee language, and Beloved Man Jerry Wolfe works full time at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian to share knowledge and stories with visitors. He’s practically a local celebrity, generously contributing to the education of both Cherokee and non-Cherokee.

Traditionally, it is not uncommon for extended families in Cherokee communities to share households, co-raise children, and divide work. The elder, often female, head of the family oversees this complex organization and intertwining of relationships. For this reason, politicians will speak to the elders of a large family, understanding that their children and grandchildren will likely follow the matriarch’s or patriarch’s lead in the polling booth. This is also one reason why claiming to have a great-grandmother who is a Cherokee Indian princess will likely be met with an eye roll. You might have a grandmother who is Cherokee, but she was far too busy strengthening tribal democracy to be a princess.

My own grandmother served on the Tribal Council for over twenty years without missing a single meeting. One of my favorite stories of her senior leadership is of the time a younger councilman saw her across the street in a nearby town. When my grandmother acknowledged his presence by nodding to him, he immediately raised his hand as if to vote in accordance with her suggestion. After all, that’s how the exchange would have happened if they had been in the Council Chambers passing legislation.

Esteem for Cherokee elders is hard earned. They are tasked with being conduits of traditional life-ways. As keepers of medicinal, spiritual, and cultural knowledge, elders are the storytellers who meticulously impart information through shared experience. These teachers commit to endless hours of mentoring that requires the student to be persistent and the teacher to be patient. The passing along of sacred knowledge can take years. Cherokee language translators are the most sought-after experts for miles around. Their hours are long and arduous, but our language’s entire future rests heavily on their shoulders. For this reason, these native speakers are constant fixtures at events, workshops, or in schools—days, nights, and weekends. They are often long past the average age of retirement, but they have only increased their service to their community over the years. Regardless of expertise, Cherokee elders are expected to serve in whatever capacity they are capable. In modern times, fewer elders possess traditional knowledge of medicinal plants and language, but that in no way diminishes their roles in our communities. There are new wisdoms to impart, additional familial complications, and the increasing urgency for protecting core Cherokee values, including spirituality, group harmony, strong individual character, strong connection to land stewardship, honoring the past, educating children, and possessing a sense of humor. It is a job, a responsibility, and an honor to be a Cherokee elder.

So at our next Cherokee gathering, as my stomach growls and my children beg to get just one warm yeast roll, it becomes my responsibility to show them that patience is the first lesson they will be learning from their elders that day. The next lesson is that they will only inherit what is left for them by the generation that precedes them.