Senator Elizabeth Warren got tired of being called “Pocahontas” for claiming to be Cherokee and took a DNA test. I’d like to give her a test. What does “ᏣᎳᎩ” mean?
Last summer my mother and aunt asked me if I felt like a Cherokee. It’s a valid question. I haven’t lived in the Cherokee Nation since I was a toddler. My father is of European descent, so my skin is white. I thought about it for a moment and said, “Yes, I do.”
In order to officially be a member of the tribe, you must have one of these cards:
But being Cherokee is more than just having the bloodline to me. It’s memories of spending summers at my grandmother’s house surrounded by baskets, pots, and turquoise. It’s having a mother who talks about the Little People and space travel as well as the Bible. It was that time I stayed on the bus during a school field trip to the Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s home, in a silent protest my classmates didn’t notice. It’s being surprised and unsure how to feel when the president of the United States thanks you for telling the truth about a senator he doesn’t like. It’s that homecoming feeling I get, not at ball games or dances with chrysanthemum corsages, but when I cross the border into the Cherokee Nation.
I asked my friend what makes me Cherokee. She said, “It’s your obsession with crows, duh.”
I began my journey into the Cherokee Nation Thursday by exploring a traveler’s pit stop. It had a casino, a smoke shop, and a gas station. But what held my interest were the crows. They were bathing in a pool of rain and squawking, happy. I took this as a good sign.
My next stop was Sallisaw, where I got directions from a Cherokee Nation citizen named Billie. I asked Billie what she thought of Elizabeth Warren.
“When you’re Cherokee, you’ve got that white card,” she said. “I think it was wrong of her to claim she was Cherokee to get ahead. And that DNA test? I don’t trust those things. She shouldn’t use it in her platform.”
I have to agree with Billie. I don’t think Warren should have used her nonexistent Cherokee card to get a plum job at Harvard. I believe she needs to apologize to the Cherokee Nation for her behavior. I also wouldn’t trust her on anything else if she’s dishonest about who she is. That’s a fundamental lie.
It’s about a 15-minute drive through hay fields to Sequoyah’s Cabin from I-40. That’s another thing — when you’re Cherokee, you hear the word Sequoyah and think a man first, instead of a tree or a park. Those were named after the man.
Sequoyah, or ᏍᏏᏉᏯ, or his European name, George Gist, invented the Cherokee written language based on syllables. Previously, North American indigenous tribes had used pictographs. Sequoyah, whose father was European, learned to read and write his name in English, and the written word fascinated him. So he figured out that Cherokee is a language that uses 86 syllables and created characters for each. Here is his restored writing desk in the home he built in 1829:
He invented the written language in 1821 and was immediately ridiculed by his people for his “talking leaves.” They put him on trial for witchcraft. After he proved his innocence in court, Cherokees learned the language. This helped them start their own newspaper, The Phoenix, preserve their heritage, and defend themselves in US courts. In 1825, he moved to Arkansas to teach the Western Band the language. His last home was his cabin in Oklahoma. His creation of a written language put him in league with the ancient Sumerians and Greeks. Sequoyah’s talking leaves inspired the creation of 65 more written languages all over the world.
While I was visiting Sequoyah’s Cabin, I wondered if Elizabeth Warren had ever been there. I didn’t have to pay the small fee to get in because I’m a tribal member.
I asked Zach, one of the museum’s curators, what he thought about Elizabeth Warren.
“Who’s that?” was his reply.
I gave him the rundown on the Warren situation.
“Oh, yeah. We get people like that in here all the time. You wouldn’t believe how many. They say they have Cherokee ancestors, and maybe they do. They always have excuses for why they don’t have the paperwork. The real reason they don’t have the documentation is because their ancestors were ashamed of who they were and wouldn’t openly declare themselves Cherokee. Now there are benefits to being Cherokee, and so some people want those.”
I took out my white card and showed it to him. “I don’t need to see that,” he said. “We never ask for that. If somebody lies about being a tribal member, then they’re sick. It all has to do with this.” He held up a US dollar bill.
“Some people will do anything for this, but it’s just a piece of paper. You can’t take it with you when you go. And it would be better left on the trees. The trees give oxygen to you and me.”
This got me thinking about Sequoyah’s talking leaves. I took some children’s Cherokee alphabet blocks and spelled out “ᏣᎳᎩ.” In English, it means “Cherokee.”