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Discovering Native America

When I was thinking of a subject for a possible blog post on my Fulbright experience, I had no shortage of options. I could have easily talked about teaching American history to American students at Elon University, which has been a richly rewarding experience giving me a wonderful insight into how young people in the US view and value diverse aspects of their history. I also took advantage of the Outreach Lecturing Fund to spend a very enjoyable day at Tennessee State University, a Historically Black University (HBCU) in Nashville, where I spoke to students about researching the blues and transatlantic history, and gave a talk on my new book, Blues, How Do You Do?. There have also been encounters with fascinating people, theatrical performances, live music, sports, and visits to numerous interesting locations from Washington D.C., Charlottesville in Virginia (home to Thomas Jefferson’s residence, Monticello), Asheville and the Outer Banks in North Carolina. In addition to all these wonderful experiences, I have learned a great deal about contemporary Native American life and culture.

A highlight of my time at Elon was the guest lecture given by Dennis and Ralph Zotigh from the Kiowa Nation of Oklahoma, which my wife and I attended. Dennis Zotigh (Kiowa, Santee Dakota and Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo) is a Cultural Specialist with the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. and a widely respected lecturer and performer.


Dennis Zotigh

His father, Ralph Zotigh (Kiowa) is an esteemed elder in the Kiowa community, lead singer for the award-winning Zotigh Singers powwow drum, and a former faculty member at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. They visited and took the class of Elon’s Native American specialist Professor Clyde Ellis, and discussed the role of song and music in the preservation of various Native cultures across North America. This included the performance of many traditional songs that spoke of ceremonies, stories and origins myths of different Native tribes across North America.


Ralph Zotigh

Hearing these songs in persons was incredible to say the least, and highlighted how song is still used as a means of passing on tribal heritage. Dennis Zotigh also gave insights into his role at the Smithsonian and discussed the challenges of often being asked to speak on behalf of all Native peoples in the U.S., which means frequently challenging many of the simplistic assumptions held by visitors to the museum about Native Americans. One of the projects he has been working on is ‘Meet Native America,’ an interview series with tribal leaders and other significant Native peoples exploring contemporary Native life and culture. These interviews really offer an insight into the diversity of Native cultures, as well as the current efforts to preserve traditions and promote education in Native American history.

reservation view

A view of the Eastern Band Reservation from the Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina.

Being in North Carolina, I was also able to visit the town of Cherokee, home to the Eastern Band Cherokees, located east of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The settlement was founded by around 800 Cherokees who refused to bow to the Federal Government’s enforcement of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. This event, more commonly known as the ‘Trail of Tears,’ saw around 15,000 Cherokees forcibly relocated to the Oklahoma territories, a perilous journey through a harsh winter in which 4,000 lost their lives. Oklahoma has since been the home of the two other Cherokee Reservations, the United Keetowah Band of Cherokee Indians and the Cherokee Nation. Cherokee in North Caroline is located along the Qualla Boundary, a territory originally occupied by the Cherokees before removal, and purchased by tribal members from the Federal government. While there, I visited the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, which provided a sensitive and informative account of the Native and Cherokee past from pre-history to the 20th century. It did an excellent job of combining the tribe’s material culture and oral traditions within the rapidly changing context of colonial and early American history. It also charts how the tribe actively resisted American encroachment and attempted to hold the Federal government to its numerous treaty obligations throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Also included was ‘Emissaries of Peace: 1762 Cherokee & British Delegations,’ a rich and illustrative exhibition based on Henry Timberlake’s Memoirs (1765). This display charts Timberlake’s experiences with the Cherokees, as well as their journeys to London to meet King George III. The materials from this exhibit are a testament to the long periods of co-existence between Europeans and Native peoples, before the traumatic events that followed the American Revolution in the 19th century. The Cherokees traded with the British for over 50 years in the 18th century, but the Museum is sensitive to the nuances of these relationships, highlighting how trade and new items (such as weapons and everyday items such as scissors) had a dramatic impact on traditional life and practices of the Cherokees. Unfortunately, due to the timing of my visit, I was unable to experience the Oconaluftee Indian Village, a reproduction of a typical 18th century Cherokee settlement.

me Cherokee museum

Me alongside the statue of Sequoyah, who invented the Cherokee alphabet, outside the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.

While at the Reservation, I also was able to see how tourism has become essential to the local economy, especially in the case of the Harrah casino. Much of the profits from this are invested into local infrastructure, education, housing, and policing. However, the contrasts between the Qualla Arts Centre (which includes authentic hand-made artefacts from tribal members) and the tourist gift shops on opposite side of the road, are evidence of the tension between accommodating and meeting the demands of tourism – a necessary source of income for the Reservation – and the preservation of traditional Cherokee culture. Nonetheless, given the standard of the Museum, as well as the illuminating talk by Dennis and Ralph Zotigh, I have become much more aware about how Native Americans are actively preserving their diverse cultures and histories, in many cases beyond tunnel vision of (sometimes naïve) tourists. It also acted as a reminder of how fundamental these histories are to understanding American history.

This experience really captured my imagination, and got me thinking about my own teaching of Native American history, which is predominantly focused on the South-eastern tribes and their struggles against removal in the 1830s. As an American historian in the UK, I believe that Native American history does not get the attention as it deserves, and all too often the narrative is dominated by stories of loss, encroachment and reservations. However, there are also stories of resistance, survival and joy. The Native American past is as fundamental to understanding the history of America as the actions of the Founding Fathers, the history of slavery, or the Civil Rights Movement. Importantly, during my time in North Carolina, I have also been reminded that there is much to learn about how Native peoples in the 21st century, and their experiences today can tell us a lot about the contemporary state of American democracy, freedom, and the American dream.


Neil Wynn says:

Sounds a great experience – and an understanding you can only really get by being there!

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