So, quite naturally, there were tears and anxious jitters when tribal council members from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the United Keetoowah Band convened at Kituwah for an historic joint council meeting June 23.
“I feel like I’m at home,” one visiting UKB council member said.
“An Indian without land is like a person without a soul, and we will not give up our soul,” said Liz Littledave, secretary of the UKB, who fought back tears as she took in the significance of the day.
The Kituwah Cherokees left their homes for Arkansas more than two decades before the forced removal and infamous Trail of Tears that led many Cherokees to Oklahoma. So last week’s meeting was a homecoming of sorts — several generations in the making.
As a welcoming gesture, EBCI Tribal Council Chairman Dan McCoy presented UKB Chief George Wickliffe with a wooden, beaded gavel he can use at upcoming meetings.
Earlier that morning, relay runners lit torches from the eternal flame at Mountainside Theatre in Cherokee and took turns running with them several miles to Kituwah, where it was placed on a wooden stand. This came on the 55th anniversary of the eternal flame being lit at the Mountainside Theatre using live coals carried from Oklahoma’s eternal flame.
With cameras clicking and TV cameras rolling, council members, Cherokees and community members attended the first meeting at Kituwah since 1819, when Cherokees lost the land to white settlers. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians were able to purchase the Kituwah property in 1996, allowing the tribe to protect the lands and preserve the site as place of pride and honor for current and future generations of Cherokees.
“This place reminds us that we are all Cherokee,” said Michell Hicks, Principal Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
In opening remarks from EBCI and UKB tribal members, both councils welcomed each other and pledged to work together out of respect for common Cherokee goals.
“If you are Cherokee, you work together,” said UKB Assistant Chief Charles Locust. “We’re honored to be here. We’re proud of who we are.”
The historic meeting included the singing of the Cherokee National Anthem, storytelling and history lessons about the Kituwah property. The councils unanimously passed several resolutions aimed at working together to combat diabetes and substance abuse while encouraging traditional Cherokee language programs and appealing to the federal government for fair distribution of public housing dollars.
While the Cherokee people have been split by distance and sometimes political views — the Cherokee Nation and the United Keetoowah Band formed in Oklahoma while the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians formed in North Carolina — last week’s meeting was a symbolic attempt to reconcile differences with mutual recognition of respect and trust. The Cherokee Nation and the UKB — both based in Tahlequah, Okla. — have been involved in heated debates over land, casino rights and enrollment practices over the years (even though many Cherokees in Oklahoma are members of both the Cherokee Nation and the UKB).
However, at last week’s joint council meeting at Kituwah, the EBCI and UKB agreed through a resolution to recognize their common link to Kituwah and “forever be keepers of the Keetoowah tradition.”
The EBCI tribal council and its Oklahoma counterparts meet every two years in joint meetings rotating back and forth between Oklahoma and North Carolina. This year’s joint council meeting will be in August in Oklahoma.