A Hunger In The Land

Part Two, Oklahoma and The Cherokee Nation

October 28, 2013 in JOURNEYS,SOUTHERN JOURNAL | Comments (5)

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At a restaurant called EAT in neon letters three feet high I ordered chicken fried steak and gravy, which is the essence of the official Oklahoma State Meal, created by the legislature in 1988 to promote beef and other agricultural derivatives including corn bread and pecan pie. EAT was crowded, and many of the noon customers were voluminous. There is no famine in this land (Gen 26: 1).

Not at least the sort of famine that drove Abraham and then Jacob and his sons into Egypt, where God saved them. The biblical stories of manna from heaven and the miracle of the loaves and fishes require you to suspend disbelief. But what if the famine and the salvation were allegories? Abandoning their God and going down to Egypt, worshiping “the idols of Egypt,” the people were at last brought back, spiritually. Estrangement, being a stranger in a strange land, is the greatest suffering. That is why the prophets and some of the Psalms lament Babylon. Dwelling in exile, as Jeremiah and Ezekiel admonished, brings estrangement from God. Which is to say: Religion is cultural. Suppress it and a way of life declines and dies. It’s in the Book!

How then could Christians ignore these profound themes of the Pentateuch? How could they not know the evil of exiling a people? In Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in a set of dioramas at the Cherokee Heritage Center, we saw the tragedy of exile. In the 1830‘s the Cherokee people in the American southeast were dispossessed. Their remarkable acculturation — a high rate of literacy, adoption of constitutional government — did not save them from depredation by frontier Americans under protection of southern politicians. They, men-women-children, were rounded up by the hundreds and marched a thousand miles by U.S. soldiers. The tragedy is now called “The Trail of Tears.” Those who survived were settled here, in “Indian Country.” What remained of their traditions was suppressed. Their children were educated in places like the girl’s school that once stood on these grounds.

The Cherokee Heritage Center is not necessarily for tourists, although we were welcomed and the displays including the gallery of portraits of the famous and the ordinary are impressive. The treasure here is the repository of genealogical records for research by Cherokees — and the many Americans who think (or wish) they might be part Cherokee — in search of family.

There is another bright side to the story of Cherokee heritage that affects all Americans today. It is reflected by a monument on the center’s grounds to a Congregational missionary from Vermont named Samuel Worcester. In the 1820’s he lived and worked at New Echota, Georgia, the capital of the Cherokee Nation. He was the apparent leader among a dozen missionaries who protested the growing movement for removal of the Cherokees. Georgia legislators passed a law requiring that any non-native living on native land must be examined and licensed. Worcester refused and was jailed.

His case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, resulting in an opinion by Justice John Marshall that is still the basis of Indian sovereignty. It established that American Indian groups are “nations within a nation,” subject only to federal authority. The stream of court law that now provides for Indian casinos in states that otherwise prohibit gambling begins with Worcester vs. Georgia, as do many other authorizations of Native American self-governance free of state interference.

In 1859, a Cherokee leader named Redbird Smith began, in secret, a revival of traditional religion. It seems the sacred fires still burn. . . .

Early in this road trip I saw religion expressed socially and individually. I mean, to be analytical, there are two expressions of religion, which can be seen as complementaries. One is summarized in the review of the scientific thinking of the early sociologists and pshychologists by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz: “The notion that religion tunes human actions to an envisaged cosmic order and projects images of cosmic order into the plane of human experience is hardly novel.” The other is the sentence of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who was prone to one-liners: “Religion is what man does with his loneliness.”

A primary social expression in evangelical country is this: “Jesus Is Lord.” It is displayed patriotically. I interpret the admonition, which is not Scripture, as an attempt to “tune” human actions. It is a statement of authority. Jesus rules. You obey a lord. In Hot Springs, Arkansas, on a walk of fame is a square for Mike Huckabee, the Southern Baptist pastor who went on to become governor of Arkansas and a national celebrity as a contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 and later as a commentator on Fox News (against among other things, Obamacare). Huckabee is of the lord school. He calls himself a “red letter Christian,” with reference to bibles that print the words of Jesus in red. This narrows the reading. Jesus is lord, and his words are law. Simple, unless you get analytical about “The kingdom of heaven is within you” or “Let the dead bury their dead” or the lord’s lack of family values.

We went on. The national park, a mountain streaming with pure hot water, was closed due to the Great Shutdown, but the town surrounding it could not be taken political hostage. In an empty restaurant we ordered salads and asked the waitress, an intensely cute woman in her forties, if she knew where to find a liquor store that sold wine. She said, “I don’t know. I came here for drug and alcohol rehab.” Later I congratulated her for her courage and openness. She poured out her soul, nearly in tears, saying that she had gotten her daughter back and that even if they had to sleep on an air mattress on a floor they were together now. “God,” she said, “has done so much.”

Who ever would want to disturb her faith?