Life after Removal: Continuing Together

Joseph will presents on his work. He has spent more than twenty years creating animation and films in
the Cherokee language. He became a language activist and spent decades working with the Cherokee
written language which lead to close relationships with the top technology companies.

Hello. Well, this is where I’ll start to talk while we get that working. One of the things that I always disliked about doing this work is, when I got out of grad school, I was still fairly young. My grandfather had passed, but I remember him telling me about this idea of a hawk eating their chickens back behind Grandma’s house. He told me that what you would do is take a certain type of little rooster and tie it up to a stake. When that rooster came to get that little rooster—I forget the name of it—the hawk would try to carry it off. It was that string tied to a stake that would make it possible for it to kill that hawk. But if it wasn’t staked down, that chicken would be toast; it would just be eaten because that hawk would carry it up where it was powerful.

He’d always tell me these kinds of crazy stories for a purpose. You’d be listening for 30 minutes, and then he’d tell you why he told it. It’s knowing who you are and where you come from that ties you down, because the hawk is going to come for you. It’s our culture, our community, knowing where our family is that keeps us staked so when the hawk does come for us, we’ll be staked down, giving us a fighting chance as a community and as people.

Before removal, one of the things that I do like to show people is us before removal. Somehow it keeps skipping this slide every time, anyway. I had the five tribes on there; I’ll just jump down here, hopefully it won’t go past it.

So, our five tribes, since the Trail of Tears is not a Cherokee story, it is a lot of nations’ stories. Our removal is a long history of us fighting for our rights. Cherokees, our last homeland section was here. Talking to this crowd is a little daunting because a lot of you have spent a lot of time on this. But as removal happened, you know, Cherokees were very amazing people, and so were the other tribes as well.

One of the things Cherokees did is we had Sequoia, which we know. This document in Tulsa at the Gilcrease Museum shows Sequoia coming up with our writing system, making us literate so quickly in our own language, and then developing it into the newspaper. We have someone from the newspaper today… it keeps switching… let me just do this.

It’s flying through there. Will Chavez, I have to say, should be a living treasure in Cherokee history. He talks about a historic person who has done historic trade for Cherokees in the newspaper. When we got removed, one of the first things they did was destroy our printing press. This was a way to destroy our media. When we got back into the Cherokee Nation, we rebuilt our press, but we also did school systems. Education was important to Cherokees.

Here’s where my mom’s family… my mom’s here tonight, so hi Mom. My dad’s here; he’s white, but I still love you, Pop. School systems were important, and so were teachers. I come from teachers. I guess technically I’m a teacher; I’m a professor at the University of California now in Santa Cruz in the film department. I worked on films for the National Park Service. When the chief at the time tried to get me to do that job, I turned it down six times. He called me in, and I didn’t want to do that. It was bothering me, like, “Oh, Trail of Tears,” such a big story with so much in it. But if you ever listen to these experts in our community about it, it is an amazing story. It is an amazing story about amazing people who kept us going till today. It was more about my ability to understand the complexity of it, not understanding it through a white version of this downtrodden, sad story. It is about strong people and advanced people who rebuilt education systems, tribal nations, and communities in the four directions.

Dr. Dan Littlefield is here tonight too, who goes out there and makes sure we know our own history, talking to us and giving presentations. The speakers taught me how to read and write in Cherokee. Community built my achievements. This was a piece I did for an animation I did for the hospitals about Sequoia during the Civil War period, which was even more devastating by numbers of lives as removal. I was animating this and learning about this process. But in the process, this is a map that’s so common; we always learn. They put the 50 states, and the Trail of Tears is always shown by the 50 states. But as you guys know, the 50 states did not exist during the removal. I think it’s problematic to show the 50 states as existing, like they always exist and should have always existed, covering up the layer of our removal. These were not states. They were not founded, many of them, yet going toward the west. This stuff was founded on things like an animation I made about Standing Rock. When I had the chairman up there narrate this, learning about how the United States government helped formulate this removal process and slaughtering buffalo to get rid of Indians because they couldn’t win these wars, they killed buffalo. The government gave land over to corporations like railroads. What happens when government gives corporations stuff is problematic and should be something we think about and discuss today. All of that is troubling.

I did this animation at the Sequoia Research Center where Dr. Littlefield is at. It was about the first telephone west of the Mississippi. Growing up in normal school systems, as Dr. Redcorn would talk about, you don’t have to put us in boarding schools anymore; you just put Cherokees into regular systems, and they don’t learn their history. All of our history is problematic because we’re not teaching our own community this. This organization is crucial to the existence of our knowledge and our history, understanding the greatness of our nations. This is an important organization to continue and to learn from. As we had our education systems going, soon after, in this picture, it became a boarding school. They started taking over what’s being taught in boarding schools from their perspective, leaving out the important brilliance of our own people.

This leads me to the statehood issue. We ended up getting into this removal of all these tribal nations into Indian Territory. One fun fact I always like to point out, which I learned from some of the people here, is why Navajos aren’t here. You guys know why Navajos aren’t in Oklahoma? I know Jack does, besides Jack… no cheating, Jack. Julia probably knows this too. Cherokees had an agreement to not have hostile tribes, and we didn’t get along with them. I still have to ask Jack about this; I still don’t know why we didn’t get along with Navajos way back then. We petitioned to keep that group

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