Tahlequah Daily Press


September 6, 2011

Cherokees cultivate at-large citizens

Dr. Julia Coates spoke at the State of Sequoyah Conference at NSU.

TAHLEQUAH — Sometimes Cherokees who live outside the Cherokee Nation’s 14 counties in Oklahoma wonder why they should be interested in their tribe.

After all, they can’t get Cherokee car tags, or obtain certain other benefits available only to those living within Cherokee Nation boundaries. But these Cherokees are still vitally important to the Cherokee Nation, Dr. Julia Coates said Thursday.

Coates, who along with Jack Baker represents at-large constituents on the Tribal Council, spoke during the annual State of Sequoyah Conference. The event, sponsored by the State of Sequoyah Commission, is held at Northeastern State University.

As she began to speak, Coates recognized tribal citizens attending from the Tulsa area, Kansas and Oregon, among others.

“There are Cherokee citizens living in every state of this country and in many nations around the world,” she said. “Representing this population is pretty much of a challenge.”

Coates said while much has been written about Cherokees moving elsewhere during the Depression and in the 1950s, the dispersal of Cherokees began at statehood.

“I trace it all to one event. That event is Oklahoma statehood,” she said. “We had a population that was here; we had a nation that was thriving.”

With statehood and even before, the number of non-Cherokees moving into the area outnumbered the Cherokee population.

Today, about 170,000 of the Cherokee Nation’s approximately 300,000 citizens live outside Cherokee Nation’s Oklahoma boundaries.

“The Cherokee population has essentially been replaced by a different population,” Coates said.

Many Cherokees live in other areas of Oklahoma, and high concentrations of Cherokees live in California and Texas.

During the past 12 years, the Cherokee Nation has increased its efforts to communicate with its citizens in other states, Coates said. Most of the tribal efforts have been launched in the past five years.

“We now have 24 at-large Cherokee communities all over the country,” Coates said.

Among these are the Tulsa area, Sacramento, Houston and Albuquerque.

Organizing these groups is not the same as organizing local Cherokee communities and putting projects together, she said. But maintaining communication with these satellite communities is paying off.

“We are seeing more and more returns on the investment the nation makes in these communities,” Coates said.

Cherokee Nation ambassadors present cultural and civic programs in the satellite communities. And more people from the communities are returning to the Cherokee homelands to learn more about their identities. This develops greater involvement and participation in the Cherokee Nation and its activities.

“We are bringing at-large people back to interact in different ways with Cherokee communities,” Coates said.

She cited veterans’ projects as one area where this is happening.

“This goes back to the original relationship Cherokees maintained with their families when they began to emigrate in the 1930s and 1940s,” Coates said.

People who found jobs in California and other places sent money back to help impoverished relatives who remained in northeastern Oklahoma. Frequently they helped family members get jobs, or did the same for other Cherokees who joined them in their emigrant communities.

Now, people are coming back to give of their time and talents, while sharing the knowledge of those who remain in Oklahoma.

“I have referred to this in my writings as ga-du-gi at large,” she said, citing the term for cooperation, to benefit all, the motto of the Cherokee administration in recent years. “This kind of effort is something I think we can revitalize in the satellite communities.”

A partnership between the Cherokee Nation and Northeastern State University offers a “summer abroad” program — where students come to the Cherokee Nation, rather than traveling to a foreign country.

“It was launched in 2009 with the idea of bringing students for a ‘summer abroad’ in the Cherokee Nation,” Coates said. “You are entering a different nation.”

This provides outreach to students from at-large Cherokee communities. They live in dorms along with local participants, forming relationships and friendships.

Next summer, the program will involve a collaboration between the Cherokee Nation and the University of North Carolina. Coates hopes these programs will give  participants a deep commitment to the Cherokee Nation for years to come.

“We have the bridges that are being built between the at-large and local communities,” she said. “They realize they’re citizens of the Cherokee Nation.”

She believes the Cherokee Nation can envelop a number of diverse people, with differing opinions and backgrounds, within and without its geographical boundaries.

Meredith Frailey, acting deputy chief and Tribal Council speaker, also referred to the time of statehood and the 1905 State of Sequoyah Convention as she welcomed conference participants.

Had the State of Sequoyah Convention attained its goals, Indian Territory would have become a separate state named Sequoyah. Instead, it merged with Oklahoma Territory to become Oklahoma.

“To me, this State of Sequoyah Conference commemorates the intelligence and foresight of our ancestors,” Frailey said.

The Cherokee Nation faces many similar challenges today.

“We are strong and we are here to stay,” she said.

Coming Tuesday: A look at Cherokee and other American Indian warriors, war and veterans.

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