Cherokee culture expert Hastings Shade explains that the creator gave the pipe to humans as a vessel for holding another important gift, tobacco. Photo by Betty Ridge

For more years than anyone can remember, Cherokees have told the legends of their origin, of how various parts of the human and animal world developed.

Today these ancient tales may be overwhelmed by technology, by the vast amounts of information available almost anywhere, around the clock.

But it’s vital to preserve them, Hastings Shade told members of the Tahlequah Archaeological Society Thursday at the Tahlequah Public Library.

Shade, former Cherokee Nation deputy principal chief and expert on Cherokee culture, dedicates himself to passing on the knowledge he learned from his grandparents and from tribal elders.

He conducted his presentation speaking first in Cherokee, in many instances, then translating the phrases to English. It’s natural for him, as Cherokee was his first language.

He told listeners his presentation would be “a little bit about this and that — mostly that.”

For more than an hour, he talked of such traditions as clans, colors, directions. He also talked of daily life and practices that Cherokees, as well as the rest of society, have largely lost.

“How many remember when we used to sit out in the yard and visit? Why don’t we do that any more?” he asked.

He spoke of traditional Cherokee practices, asking for audience input.

“How many have ever gone to water when the frost was about that thick [indicating about an inch with his fingers] and you’d leave footprints? How many have washed your face in that water? They’d make us jump into the water. Grandpa had us go under four times. That was part of our healing, part of our medicine. I don’t remember ever getting a bad cold.”

Other forms of medicine may not have been pleasant, but they worked.

Shade asked if anyone had heard of using skunk oil as a cure for whooping cough, a malady also largely forgotten in today’s vaccinated society.

“One dose was enough,” he recalled, smiling.

Shade said Cherokees refer to the creator as “the one that made it possible.” He spoke of his ancestor Sequoyah, who invented the Cherokee syllabary, and the importance of preserving Cherokee language in its spoken and written forms.

Sequoyah’s invention made it easy for Cherokees to learn to read; however, it was more difficult to learn to write – and many people could read, but not write.

“They always say if you want to learn to read Cherokee, read a Cherokee Bible, “ Shade advised.

He took that step at age 13, beginning to read the language in which he spoke his first words.

“A lot of people who speak fluent Cherokee cannot read because they have never sat down and tried,” he said.

Shade has taught Cherokee language for about four decades.

“We’re losing that part of us that, when it goes, we’re gone. We as Cherokee people will no longer exist when we lose our language,” he said.

He said anybody can make or carry a card, but the traditions must be carried on in Cherokee.

“The fire at the stomp dance only understands the Cherokee language,” he said.

Shade told of the Cherokees’ journey from an island surrounded by undrinkable water, which he believes is the ocean. Fire came from a mountain on the island (a volcano) and the island disappeared.

The people journeyed across the water for four days, then went north, east and south before arriving in the Cherokee homeland in Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina. The Trail of Tears took them west.

“We have completed that four-direction journey. We’re here to stay until the end, whatever happens,” he said.


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