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On Being Traditional

On Being Traditional by Knowles Walkingbear, 1998

Acculturation is the biggest crime ever committed against Native Americans. Genocide is horrible, but its effect is quick death. Assimilation is cruel, creating prejudice and poverty in extreme proportions. The dead man knows no prejudice, no poverty. And the assimilated man may still hold onto his traditions, his culture, even if in the face of overwhelming adversity. But, the acculturated man is lost, having no tradition, no culture, and yet in many cases still experiences prejudice and poverty. He becomes totally lost.

Today Indian people are reclaiming their traditions, their culture. These Indian people are often referred to as "born again" Indians. The "born again" Indian faces many difficulties, including opposition from many traditional Indians, as well as from the acculturated Indians and the dominant White Society. Those are the outward obstacles. It is the inner problems -the confusion, the fear, the ignorance -that pose the largest threat to their pursuit becoming traditional once again. The road has many forks in it as well. One may become a radical urban Indian, protesting against every conceivable wrongdoing, real or imagined. Or, one may become a "plastic" Indian, a wannabe, following every new age guru and Indian "medicine man" that offers insight and teaching. The goal should be to relearn one's own tradition and culture. Even to relearn the way a person thinks and acts in some cases. And yet, one must remain real, true, without going to extremes. For many the Trail of Tears is not yet over -there is still the long road home!

We are always hearing and saying much about "tradition". We say traditional this and traditional that. But, what does it all mean? When we say traditional Indian what do we mean? Do we mean pre-Columbian, pre-contact, turn of the century, or current practice? Do we mean traditional Cherokee, traditional Sioux, or traditional plains, etc.? Often we use the word tradition without being sure of what it implies. First, let's define the word. According to Webster's New World Dictionary the word tradition means "1. The handing down orally of customs, beliefs, etc. from generation to generation 2. A story, belief, etc. handed down in this way." The same dictionary defines traditional as "of, handed down by, or conforming to tradition." I think this definition is simple enough and yet concise. Second, We must refute the myth that every Indian is traditional, AND that every traditional Indian is a medicine person. This is simply not true. While medicine and the practice thereof, are a part of traditional ways, it is not all there is to tradition. Third, There must be a clear understanding that there exists a diversity of traditional cultures among Indian people. Just because a traditional person in one tribe does something a particular way does not mean that every traditional Indian from every tribe does the same. 

Obviously, the very definition of the word tradition rules out about 99.9% of all the current new age and pan-Indian teachings that are sweeping the country. Tradition is what we learn from our parents, our elders, and our ancestors. It is not what we read in books. Tradition is a living, fundamental, element of life that changes with time and adapts itself to new environments. Although the main thrust of traditional teaching is through oral recounting and hands on experience, some aspects of it can be written down and recorded for posterity sake. However, all written information should be measured against the actual practices of the people who have had these traditions passed down to them orally. Books should only be considered as "references to" and not "instructions on" tradition. While books may be useful, they are no replacement for the traditional method of learning one's traditions.

So, who are the Cherokee? We are a People who share the same blood, the same ancestral customs, and the same ancestral language. Our Cherokee ancestors have passed down to us ancient customs, philosophies, and ceremonies. Just like other culture groups, time, cultural interaction, and increased knowledge have impacted upon our ancient ways. We have been provided with general guidelines for carrying on these customs and tradition. It is now up to us to adapt these ways to fit into our modern environment. Other cultures have done this (i.e. Christianity, Judaism, African people, Asian people, etc.) Otherwise our life force, the fire of our people may become extinguished forever.

Our ancestors have left for us a great heritage. Unlike Europeans, our ancestors had great individual freedom and liberty. Today, we have that same individual freedom and liberty. Many of us wish to carry on the traditions of our ancestors. Having experienced the rigid, rule oriented mind of European religion and politics we tend to look for some of the same rigid rules in our native ancestors' traditions. The more we experience, the more we realize there are no rigid rules, no strict universal procedures. There are only general guidelines. The big question is "how do I know I am following my ancestor's traditions?" There is no rulebook, no bible, no constitution, and no codebook. We can only look to the example of our ancestors and those still carrying on these traditions today.

Let's take a look at the most traditional Indian life possible today. First of all this person would have been born in an Indian community. Secondly this person would have learned to speak his or her native language as a first language. And, thirdly, this person would have been raised participating and being exposed to his or her tribe's culture, beliefs and religious ceremonies. All concepts, degrees or claims to being traditional must be judged and gauged by this example. Although most of us mixed-bloods do not fit the above description, we can in varying degrees attain a traditional way of life. That is a traditional way of life to the extent our upbringing, personal constitution, and present social and geographical environment allows.

Each stomp ground has its own unique traditions. Each medicine person has his or her own unique practices. And each individual has his or her own unique beliefs. Yet, all fall into a general framework or parameter of beliefs and practices that are readily identifiable as Cherokee. I have listed some of these, which I have observed and feel are essential to a traditional way of life. However, the most noticeable traditions are flexibility, tolerance, and individual freedom balanced with group conformity. This may best be referred to as "tribalism". Here are some others:

  1. Belief in a spirit world...

  2. The Sacred Fire...it is at the center of every activity.

  3. Ritual purification...done by burning cedar, going to water, and scratching.

  4. Concept of balance...balance between the sexes, the spirit world, the world around us, and within ourselves.

  5. Matrilinealism...this is the old clan system whereby a person belongs to the family of his or her mother.

  6. Speaking the language...for a Cherokee it is vitally important to speak as much of the language as possible.

  7. Keeping it on the grounds...this is the most important guideline for anyone seeking traditional people. All traditional activities and persons are connected to their people, on their "grounds", or, within their society or traditional community. This is the first thing to look at when someone tells you they are "traditional". BECAUSE...this is where tradition is traditionally passed down and practiced.

These are guidelines useful for keeping us on the path of our ancestors. Much more can be said bout these guidelines and other traditional practices. It is up to each of us to seek out the best teachers as we walk the path we are on. Listen and learn.

1998, Knowles Walkingbear

More Writings on Traditions:

Stomp Grounds - an introductory overview of the history and modern use of Stomp Grounds, the center of traditional Cherokee lifeways.

Thoughts on Traditional Healing - my personal views on physical healing practices from a traditional Cherokee perspective.

Keeping Traditions -more thoughts on Cherokee traditions and modern application.

Whose Tradition is it? -discussion of the use of the word tradition and what it implies.

Cherokee Beliefs Concerning Death - from interview with Will West Long, by John Witthoff, and published in the Journal of Cherokee Studies.

Nativist Movements Among the Cherokee in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries - A paper read at the 8th Annual Mid-America Conference on History, Fayetteville, Arkansas, September 10-13, 1986, Published in the Journal of Cherokee Studies, by Katja May

The Celtic Connection - just some of my thoughts on why the Irish and Scott intermarried so frequently with the Cherokee and other southeastern tribes.

 The "Harmony Ethic" of the Conservative Eastern Cherokees: A Religious Interpretation - An article by John D. Loftin. Published in the Journal of Cherokee Studies.



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