By BETTY RIDGE
The Northeastern State University campus will look its best when visitors arrive next weekend for the State of Sequoyah Conference and Cherokee National Holiday – that is, if members of American Indian organizations maintain the project they began this week to keep the south end of campus shipshape.
The Cherokee Promise Scholars teamed up with members of the Native American Student Association and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society to hold their first cleanup Thursday evening. They started in the area in front of Seminary Hall and Centennial Plaza, working their way south by the Science Building and President’s House, then policing the area along Town Branch Creek.
“We’ve adopted the Beta Field area. It’s kind of like the ‘Adopt a Highway’ program. The students have pledged that if they’re walking across campus and see trash, especially here, to pick it up and put it in a trash container,” said Dr. Les Hannah, associate professor of English, who served as faculty leader for the effort.
“We’ll have a lot of people on campus next week, and we’re going to try to have the place spiffed up,” he said.
Hannah thinks it’s an appropriate project for the Cherokee Promise Scholars during their initial year. The new program, involving 48 students of Cherokee descent, brings them together to live and learn in the same place, with an emphasis on their heritage.
Students receive a $2,000 educational scholarship and a $1,000 housing scholarship each semester. Funds come from the Cherokee Nation Foundation, Native American Housing and Self-Determination Act, and the College Resource Center.
The students live in Haskell Hall and take some of the same classes, including beginning Cherokee language. They also get involved in community service, one of the goals of Thursday’s cleanup project.
“As far as I know, there is no other program like this in the country,” said Dr. Evelyn Woods, assistant dean of student affairs. “I think we’ll see a lot of good things from this group.”
Hannah said the group plans to lead by example.
“We’re going to set the stage for the rest of the campus to follow,” Hannah said. “We’ve got such a beautiful campus, if we just help take care of it.”
Woods agreed, saying if everyone gets involved, a change for the better is imminent.
“If everybody involved with this campus gave an hour each week, we’d see a lot of change in this campus and the community,” Woods said.
The group convened around Sequoyah’s statue in Centennial Plaza, receiving large trash bags to collect any refuse they might find.
“How about four or five people to a bag? We’ll start up here and go in a line down to the creek,” Hannah said.
Since the grounds crew keeps the campus in pristine condition most of the time, the students found little refuse as they patrolled the area near Seminary Hall. The cleaners scooped up occasional dropped pieces of paper and other small scraps, depositing them in the bags.
They quickly worked their way to the creek, where more debris awaited – for those who dared venture into the water.
“Oh, another baby snake! Two of them!” one girl pointed out to a friend.
But there were no snake-related mishaps, perhaps because the students were protected by a traditional Cherokee blessing.
Ryan Mackey, a Cherokee traditionalist and language instructor in the tribe’s immersion program, conducted a “going to water” ceremony. He explained each part to the students.
“If you have a Cherokee name, somebody took you to water,” he said. “A lot of tribes do this.
“Cherokees used to live by rivers and creeks. We used to have about 81 million acres in the Smoky Mountains. We lost most of them,” he said. “Even though we covered all that land, we only lived along the rivers and streams. We used the water for irrigation. It was like the blood in our veins.”
When Cherokees arrived in Indian Territory, they found places that looked much like their homeland. Northeastern Oklahoma’s clear rivers and streams welcomed them.
“The elders told us that the spirit and body are connected,” Mackey said. “By keeping our bodies clean, we keep our spirits clean. There are some Cherokees I know, up around Kenwood, that go to water every day. There are elders who say they’ve never been to a doctor.
“When we go down and cleanse ourselves, we ask God to come down and complete us,” he said.
The water must be running water, Mackey said.
“You can’t go to a cow pond and do this kind of thing. It has to be living,” he said.
He told them Cherokees believe in always giving something back. When gathering plants, you always leave some to grow so they will continue to be available.
Water can wash away anger and unresolved conflicts, Mackey said.
Water and fire have been given to people to help themselves.
“You can go to water any time, anywhere, just like you can pray anytime, anywhere,” he said.
He explained that he was going to pray and ask for a blessing on the students’ work.
“When you leave the water, leave anything that’s troubling you behind. Let the water wash it away,” he said.
As the students worked their way through water, ranging from a few inches deep to hip deep, they found the expected flotsam and jetsam – plenty of chip bags and abandoned drink cups. There also were a few surprises.
Cherokee Promise Scholar Marisa Hambleton, a Sequoyah High School graduate, pulled a welcome mat out of the creek and put it into a trash bag.
Hambleton said she appreciated the Cherokee Promise program, and the cleanup effort.
She said the program gives her “the opportunity to go to college, and not have to worry about paying for it, and the culture behind it.”
AISES co-presidents Cody Evans and Michael Landrum joined the cleanup campaign.
“We wanted to offer to help. We have quite a few Cherokees in AISES,” Evans said. “We’re just getting more people interested.”
Landrum believes the effort forms a bond between the students and the community.
“It’s a good idea just to get the students involved,” Landrum said. “It’s a good way for students to learn heritage and get involved with the campus and community.”
Finished with their task, the students trudged uphill, planning to view a movie.
“To the showers, yahoo!” one exclaimed.
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