May 22, 2013

Cherokee history class is life-changing

Chad 'Corntassel' Smith Talks About Embracing One's LegacyCoupled with the idea that our managers needed to know the past in order to make good decisions in the present, I asked Principal Chief Mankiller if I could develop and teach a Cherokee legal history course. Of course, she encouraged me to do so, and I began to assemble everything I could find as source documents: treaties, maps, articles, movies, slides, excerpts from books, random quotes and more. The course book was organized chronologically and covered Cherokee history from 1700 to the present. In 1991, the 40-hour course was first taught in our historic capitol by me and Pat Ragsdale, who was a director of tribal operations.

After completing the class, one new employee said, “The first day, I got mad; the second day, I wanted to cuss and spit; and the third, I wanted to get a gun and shoot someone. The fourth day, I was just proud to be a Cherokee.”

The class became a life-changing experience for many. Although I had not believed in the concept of historic grief, I did after teaching the class several times, because by the third day of class, I could sense this cloud of grief rise from the class and dissipate. Those most reluctant about attending a 40-hour history course—because “It’s been 30 years since I was in school” or “I have work to do” or “I never liked history anyway” or “I work in maintenance and don’t need history”—were the most enthused after completing the class. Some would come to the class with a chip on their shoulder against the white man and the U.S. government because of their understanding of our history. The treatment of the Cherokee Nation by the United States, as laid out with primary documents in the class, was much more brutal than they ever imagined.

However, instead of leaving the class more embittered, the opposite occurred. People left the class understanding that if our ancestors survived horrific episodes—eradication of our people by disease in the 1730s, genocidal warfare by Americans in the 1770s, forced removal in the 1830s, abandonment in the American Civil War, coerced assimilation and liquidation of the Cherokee Nation’s resources in 1906, the Grapes of Wrath exodus from Oklahoma during the Depression, relocation and termination in the 1950s and bureaucratic imperialism today—then each of them had a legacy that inspired them with determination to carry on and do better. The result of the class on individual perception and behavior was quite moving.

When I took office, we hired Julia Coates, an outstanding Cherokee college professor, to teach the class full-time. Post-class surveys revealed 90 percent of the students reported it changed their lives. Coates received hundreds of personal testimonies from students whose lives the course changed. People took the class over and over. It was the only class I have ever heard for which the daily attendance increased rather than declined. Later, employees were required to attend. To date, more than 10,000 people have completed the course including employees, Cherokee citizens in urban communities and the general public. It received a best practices award from Harvard University. It also helped describe Point A for the Cherokee Nation, but even more important, it gave a glimpse of what Point B, the future, could be.
Comment:  This is a powerful lesson on how education in general and Native history in particular can change people's outlook.

Imagine what a class on everything from Columbus and genocide to movies and mascots would do for the uneducated masses. A lot of people would start understanding the issues they don't understand now. Including Indians, such as the ones described above, who think history doesn't matter to their lives.

For more on Indians and education, see Pocahontas Poster Shows Movies' Influence and Indian Territory Exhibit at Reno Airport.

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