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Cherokee chief opens Highland Games in Scotland

The orange flag with yellow stars symbolizing the seven Cherokee clans swayed brightly among swinging kilts and skirling bagpipes at the Highland Games in Nethy Bridge, Scotland.

On Aug. 14, Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chadwick “Corntassel” Smith served as honorary chieftain of the Abernethy Highland Games during Clan Grant’s annual gathering in the Spey Valley. Heading a delegation of 30 Cherokee from Oklahoma, Smith paraded in the colorful opening procession alongside their host, Lord Strathspey, the 33rd Hereditary Chief of Clan Grant. Behind them came a dozen standard bearers, representing the clan from distant corners of the world, including a tribesman carrying the Cherokee Nation’s flag. More than 150 pipers and drummers dressed in kilts accompanied them as they marched through this small Scottish town where these games have been held since the 1800s. Reaching the game grounds, they circled within the vast grassy arena, surrounded by thousands of spectators.

Lord Strathspey had invited these Cherokee after receiving a traditional ceremonial staff from a senior tribal representative at a clan gathering in Stone Mountain, Ga., two years ago. But what had moved this Scottish nobleman to ask them to attend his clan’s international gathering in Scotland and participate in these Highland Games ceremonies? It turns out, they represent just a fraction of the Cherokees who have Scottish ancestry.

A Scottish connection is by no means unique among North American Indians. Today, there are huge numbers of Natives in Canada and the U.S. descending from Scotsmen who married into dozens of tribal nations. Historically, multitudes of these Scots were driven from their homelands in forced evacuations known as the Highland Clearances. Thousands were exiled war captives. Others joined the British army and were sent to garrisons on the colonial frontier. Whatever the historic causes of their migrations, the result is that many tens of thousands of North American Indians now trace some of their bloodlines to Scotland.

Half a dozen of the principal chiefs of the Cherokee Nation since the late 1700s descend from Scotsmen such as John Adair, Anthony Foreman, Ludovic Grant, Daniel Ross and John Stuart (called “Bushyhead” by his Cherokee in-laws).

Chief Smith traces his ancestry to Ludovic, the son of William Grant, a Scottish laird. Born in 1688, Ludovic was a Scottish nationalist who fought the English army in the first Jacobite Rising of 1715, a failed attempt to restore the royal House of Stuart to the British throne. One of nearly 1,000 captured Scots deported as forced laborers to the British colonies, he was banished to South Carolina. This exiled Grant clansman later became a successful trader among the Upper Cherokee and married Eughioote. Their two daughters became the Scot-Cherokee foremothers of thousands.

Today, Ludovic Grant’s descendants in the Cherokee Nation number more than 3,000, including his sixth-generation grandson Chadwick Smith. Trained as a lawyer and first elected as principal chief in 1999, Smith also descends from Cherokee nationalists who championed indigenous rights and fought to preserve their cultural traditions.

Renewing their ancestral links at the ceremonial opening of the Highland Games, the Cherokee chief and his Scottish host gave brief speeches acknowledging their shared history as repressed indigenous nations and their common challenges in regaining self-determination and preserving ancestral cultures and languages. After exchanging ceremonial gifts – a sporran flask (“so that you will never go thirsty”) and a Celtic belt with engraved silver buckle given by the Scots, and an embroidered sash and a basket of an ear of corn representing prosperity and hope from the Cherokee – Chief Smith declared the games officially open.

Scottish athletes wearing the tartan kilts of their clans competed in traditional “heavy events,” including the shot put, caber toss, hammer throw, and “weight over the bar.” To the crowd’s delight, 18-year-old Kyle Randalls broke the national junior class weight-over-bar record by 8 inches, tossing a 44-pound anvil straight up and over a bar 16 feet 6 inches high. There were also traditional Scottish dance competitions including the Highland Fling, Sailor’s Hornpipe and Half Reel.

Midway through the day, Chief Smith introduced a Native American sport never before seen at this Scottish event – the Cherokee ball game, anetsa, “little brother of war.” In the hills of Oklahoma, this traditional stick-ball game is still played during ceremonial gatherings. Inviting youngsters from the crowd to join him at the tall pole set up centerfield, the chief, along with his 23-year-old son Chris, explained the game and demonstrated how to throw and catch a small leather ball with three-foot long rackets or “sticks.” Spontaneously, Chris invited Kyle for a bit of Cherokee stick-ball, but the young Scotsman’s success in the weight-over-the-bar competition did not give him an edge in stick-ball. Looking at Kyle’s large frame, the Cherokee athlete encouragingly suggested that he’d be great playing American football.

Clan Grant members took great pleasure in having their Cherokee “cousins” at the games. “All of our hearts go out to the Cherokee,” said David Grant, who came from Edinburgh for the annual gathering. “We know what it is like to fight to keep your culture and language alive. And because of the Highland Clearances, we can relate to them. We know what it means to have your homes destroyed and your land taken from you. It doesn’t matter if your home is stone or wood or buffalo hide, if someone burns it down, you’re homeless.”

Harald E.L. Prins is a Dutch ethnohistorian and visual anthropologist now teaching at Kansas State University and Bunny McBride, a writer/cultural anthropologist, is a Clan Grant descendant.